Townhouse Notes: Feeling Good as Hell with a PhD
It’s May, which means about a thousand history PhD candidates nationwide will have the opportunity to get hooded. Lots of people skip commencement, but as a ritual it matters—beyond the trimmed gowns of faux silk. It marks the terminus of a winding path through thickets of emotion that have taken root and grown over years of study.
The investment of feeling happens quickly. Grad school immediately opens your mind in ways you never imagined. You encounter people from different backgrounds and intellectual assumptions. You read things you always wanted to read and things you never knew existed. You take notes. You daydream. You get up to make coffee.
You worry. Everyone has a dissertation topic except you. Everyone has full funding except you. Everyone else is polished, exceptional, driven. You feel alone, like you can’t say anything.
You have a breakthrough one night and finish your first truly brilliant seminar paper as the sun comes up. You rework it into a presentation at a regional conference, which goes so well you email your adviser to ask whether it would make a good dissertation topic. You finally hear back with an offer to talk over coffee. You’re given the blessing along with a number of relevant readings and weird tangential ideas that you wonder if you’re obligated to pursue.
Your time in the archives flies by, and soon enough you’re writing. You polish off a chapter, then another, to good reviews from your adviser. Your dissertation fills your conscious hours with the presence of the divine, alternating between sanctification and damnation. Not knowing which aspect of the dissertation deity will show up when you sit down to write, you find “research” to do, cruising JSTOR before taking a social media break. You post about your lack of productivity.
Your friends are moving on. People in cohorts who came in ahead of you are defending and getting jobs. You’re impressed by some of the name-brand appointments but soon learn that they’re VAPs, and your silent concern about academic employment prospects grows.
A journal accepts your article for publication. You present a paper at a national conference. You’re on fire, and your adviser says you’re ready to start applying for academic jobs. You try distilling your research to a paragraph for a job letter and find it surprisingly difficult. Deadlines creep to your door. You set a defense date, then push it back. You get two videoconference interviews for academic jobs, but they’re somehow not as impressive as the in-person AHA interviews everyone you know seems to be getting. And you still need to defend by the summer. You revise and file.
Maybe you have academic employment secured—maybe it’s a plum job, maybe it’s a postdoc or a VAP, maybe it’s an adjunct appointment. Or maybe you’re ready to slough off the carapace of academia and figure out the difference between a CV and a résumé. Maybe you’ve got nothing.
But you do have a PhD. You’ve produced original scholarship, and you’ve put something in the world that wasn’t there before—a big something.
It’s possible that the emotional life of graduate school has caused you suffering, perhaps a great deal of it. But graduation isn’t only about you; it’s also about the community you’ve been immersed in for several years. Your devotion to your work, your mentoring of newer students, your friendships and rivalries—all have contributed to making your PhD meaningful. You’re in the company of giants now.
Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives. She tweets @Cliopticon.
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