I finished my PhD and all I got was this piece of paper and regular bouts of anxiety.
Unfortunately, this statement is more true than it is flippant. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I did it, and there is significant satisfaction in having completed the degree and received my PhD. There were also some really good things that came out of it, both academically and personally. Really good. But for how much went into it (physically, emotionally), I often wonder how and why I and the thousands of other grad students put ourselves through it. How and why does one electively put themselves in a position to make little money, potentially incur even more debt, place themselves under undue stress, place themselves close to the bottom of the academia hierarchy and at the beckon call of persons above them, and place themselves in a position where they are made to believe that their entire self-worth is tied to their work, which is outwardly claimed to be judged objectively but is more often judged subjectively by the academic gatekeeping few given the absolute power over whether they can proceed and “succeed.”
I started to type, “I hate to sound jaded but…” then deleted it. However, I have to be honest and call it like it is. The funny thing is that I remember, early in grad school, sitting with a group of women of color who had just finished grad school and/or had just recently entered the professoriate, and listening to them talk about grad school to some prospective grad students. Their words were filled with trauma and anger. I remember being a little surprised that this is what they were telling these students who were so eager to start grad school. I even shared a story or two of the unfortunate side of grad school that I’d experienced, but made it seem like not much because I didn’t necessarily want to scare these people away from grad school. I suppose I wanted to believe that it was really case specific. And to some degree it is. But the reality is that it’s hard, it’s tough, and, as I came to learn, it can be traumatic.
I finished grad school about three months ago and the thought of grad school after that literally made me cringe. When people asked about it and my experience I wanted nothing more than to change the subject as I was trying so hard to push the experience back into some recess in my mind, make it hidden, a thing of the distant past. The thought of it was too raw, too full of emotion. I literally could not handle it. I was surprised by my response and couldn’t believe it. I was responding like someone who’d experienced trauma. At that moment, I understood where those women I’d conversed with years before were coming from. I understand.
Now, I’m sure not everyone feels this way when they finish. I still think it’s case specific, but case specific in how bad it can get. While I didn’t have it terribly bad, I had it bad enough (although one has to wonder here why most people talk about it in terms of how bad it was, and not how good it was). I think, to this day, I know one person who had a truly good experience. One… and by truly good experience I mean truly good advisor. I’ve come to learn that this is a rarity. Somewhat ironic in an institution premised on the idea of mentorship and apprenticeship in research and scholarship.
Grad school is difficult enough in general, but as a queer woman of color…wow. Especially in the sciences. Even more so in the particular branch of science I was in, where, for instance, going to meetings meant knowing I was going to hear/see racist, sexist, homophobic and classist things, to name a few. Or where there are close few mentors or role models. The challenges of being a queer woman of color in science/grad school, I did not fully realize until my last few years of school, and I attribute this realization, in part, to finally interacting with other women of color/qpoc during that time. On the one hand, being one of two in a department of 100+ is motivational and provides that extra impetus to complete the degree. But on the other hand, it is equally disheartening, especially when you get tired of trying to turn that situation into something motivational in a hostile environment. And yes, I would describe certain periods of time and certain spaces to be hostile. Sink or swim, or as a woman of color, sink or swim but make sure you have a smile on your face the whole time and don’t cause a scene.
Sometimes I wonder what the point of it all is. Going through, what at times can feel like an academic hazing, to acquire the advanced degree. I understand the need for rigor and some sort of accountability, but it is often in excess and power is often abused, to say the least… So, great, I have this degree, now what the heck to I do? Five years ago I knew exactly what I was going to do. I was going to become a professor. But now, I’m not so sure. Academia is a funny, fickle thing, I have learned, and I’m not sure how I feel about participating in such a mucky system, or how fruitful it would be. I’m completely realistic, though, and know that I need a job and, given what I’m interested in, I’ll probably end up in academia (I’m currently a postdoc for goodness sake). But I find it hard to be apart of something that can be so great and so terrible at the same time.
I don’t just speak from my experience, because if it was such an isolated case I couldn’t and wouldn’t generalize. But I’ve heard and witnessed so many stories toward the negative that I think a generalization is fair.
During my last year I developed an interesting health issue. I was stressed, working everyday of the week, spending long hours in the lab or at the library. Friends began to somewhat joke, but them more seriously say that graduate school was making me sick and that I’d probably feel better when I was done. I would laugh, but was slowly being forced to realize the truth of it. It was amazing to me what I was asking/making my body (to) do, and for so long. It suppose it’s no wonder that I’m still dealing with residual health issues (cue the aforementioned anxiety and today’s trip to the doctor). Amazing. All for three letters and a piece of paper.
While I would be silly to not recognize the extra advantage it may afford me and not completely reduce it to a literal piece of paper, I do have to reflect on what I really gained and what I lost or what got harmed during the process. I don’t know if it would seem counterintuitive at this point to say that, in the end, I’m glad I did it. I am. But I feel it is important to reflect on and remember all aspects of the process and acknowledge the totality of the experience – the good, the bad, and the ugly.