I’ve been working on this mini-essay type thing, thinking that I’d find a venue for it other than my blog. But I couldn’t figure out how to finish it, so I kept putting it off. And then I read Rebecca Schuman’s (of “Thesis Hatement” fame) latest blog post “Please Stop Saying ‘Not Everyone Is Suited For Academia’” and now I know that the blog is the place for this piece.
To begin, I want to say that I think of Schuman as a little bit of a hero. “Thesis Hatement” came across the interwebs at a time when I was just starting to wrap my brain around the possibility that I could choose to leave grad school and not consider myself a failure. The essay validated a lot of feelings that I have about my experience in grad school as well as my reasons for not going on the academic job market (even if jobs were plentiful, I don’t think the academic job search process is reasonable; I think it would absolutely destroy my psyche in a way that the non-academic job market can’t possibly replicate). That said, I’m not totally on board with Schuman’s latest. She writes:
I am fully, painfully aware of the ways in which academia doesn’t suit me—but that doesn’t mean that I like it when FULLPROFS and others say this, because it smacks of that heartbreaking dismissal so many disillusioned PhDs get when they fail to become adequate replicants of their mentors: “Well, not everyone is suited for academia.”
Now, I’m coming at this from a different place than Schuman. She’s finished her dissertation and gone on the job market. I’m ABD. We’ve got very different perspectives in that regard. However…I think people should say “Not Everyone is Suited for Academia.” And I think they should say it early and often.
Let me be clear: I think saying one’s not suited for academia is far different from saying one’s not smart enough for academia.
Anyway, here’s the piece I’ve been working on:
Six years ago, I decided I wanted a PhD. I was nearly finished with my MFA in poetry and, though I thought of myself as an accomplished writer, I didn’t think I was ready to go on the job market. I wanted to be a professor. I knew that getting a tenure track job was not too different from winning the lottery, but I thought the time spent reading, writing, and teaching would be worth the trouble regardless of what I ended up doing after I completed my doctorate. And, let’s be honest, I kind of believed I’d be one of the lucky ones, landing a dream job with little trouble.
There was just one problem. I didn’t know, and no one thought to tell me, that getting a PhD (even in creative writing) is nothing like getting an MFA.
On the first day of class, I sat quietly while my cohort discussed Kant’s Critique of Judgment. I waited for someone to explain—I’d read the text and only gleaned the most basic information from it; I had no idea what the argument was or why it mattered—but no one did. They could have been speaking a foreign language for all I took away from the conversation that night. In my MFA program, I wasn’t always the smartest in the room, but I never felt voiceless. My ideas, even if they’d been unformed or off target, were considered valuable: a starting point, a place from which to ask questions and collect information. In my PhD program, my ideas had no merit unless I could place them within the frame of aesthetic, feminist, or Marxist theory. And I wasn’t prepared to do that.
At first, I believed I just needed to catch up. I thought I’d get better at reading theory. I thought my vocabulary would grow large enough to understand the conversation happening around me. All of these things are true. But what I didn’t realize until much too late, and what I wouldn’t give myself permission to admit until even later, was that I didn’t want to get better at reading theory and I didn’t want to be a part of the conversation. It didn’t excite me. It didn’t enhance the way I approach poetry—not as a writer or as a reader—and it didn’t improve my teaching. Those two things, poetry and teaching, were the reason I wanted a PhD in the first place.
In my third year, my adviser told me I had to postpone my exams. (Field exams—also known as prelim(inary)s or comp(rehensive)s—are meant to prove your expertise and prepare you for the dissertation. They’re a bit of a gauntlet, designed to test your intellect, your will, and your sanity.) Many of my friends were in the same predicament for various reasons, so my embarrassment at this announcement was tempered. My frustration, on the other hand, was boundless. I didn’t believe another semester was going to make me smarter, better at scholarly writing, more prepared. I believed it was simply going to give me more time to procrastinate.
In the months that led up to my exams, I studied some but mostly found distractions (most notably roller derby and online dating) and spent a lot of time doubting my intellect, my will, and my sanity. My professors knew I was struggling and tried to help. They gave me writing assignments, met with me regularly, provided detailed feedback on even the roughest of drafts, and suggested books and articles to supplement my already staggering reading list. I took to calling grad school a series of flaming hoops I had to jump through. Sometimes my professors would comment on the nature of academia, assuring me that the flaming hoops would continue throughout my career. Not to worry, they said, you’ll get used to it. No one ever suggested that it might be okay if I didn’t want to jump through these particular hoops.
Now, I have to admit that it was difficult for me – and therefore probably more difficult for those around me – to know how much of my unhappiness was due to my PhD program. The first year, I was horribly homesick, a small town girl struggling to get used to the big city. Back home, my dad had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Half-way through my first year, I broke up with my long distance boyfriend. At the end of my second year, my dad passed away unexpectedly. I don’t recommend trying to manage grief and comps at the same time. Nope, don’t recommend it at all. I cried in every professor’s office. I had a panic attack at the Shedd Aquarium while my mom and sisters looked at sharks. In my doctor’s office, I had two medical students try to put me on suicide watch until the attending assured them that I was just a typical over-achiever with generalized anxiety disorder and something called pathological bereavement.
Eventually, I passed my exams. I moved on to the dissertation prospectus. And if you read this blog before I scrubbed the history, you know the prospectus was just as bad, if not worse, than the exams. But I spent the last five years telling myself that all the flaming hoops would land me at the thing I wanted: writing a creative dissertation. I’m at the threshold of the dissertation and the truth is, I just don’t care anymore. I can write poems, collections of poems, without departmental approval. I have. I will continue to do so. What do I gain from writing and defending a dissertation? More academic grief, less creative freedom.
Ultimately, I’ve proven over the last five years that I am smart enough. As one young professor pointed out to me, it’s somewhat remarkable that my dad’s death only put me one semester behind on my exam progress. I’ve done everything I’ve been asked to do, and I’ve managed to have a life while doing it. My first book is coming out in a few months, so I’ve cleared the publish-or-perish hoop (well, the first pulish-or-perish hoop, anyway). I can do academia…but here’s the clincher: I DON’T WANT TO. And I wish that someone (even/especially one of Schuman’s FULLPROFs) would have said to me: “Listen, Sara. You’re smart enough, and I know you can do this if you want to. But it’s time to ask yourself if you want to. Because it’s never going to change and it’s never going to get better. This is the life. Do you want it?” I wish someone would have said: “You’re just not suited for academia.” I wish someone would have said: “It’s okay if you quit.”