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Thursday, November 24, 2005
Are You Sure? Are You Positive?
When we were dating, T used to do this annoying thing where whenever I'd say something very confidently, he'd ask (in a nasally voice), "Are you SURE? Are you POSITIVE?" Back then, I saw everything in either black or white; there was rarely a sense of uncertainty in my voice because I was always quite sure that I was right, that the decisions I made were sound, and that I was doing the best possible thing I could be doing at that moment.

A lot has changed since then.

Now I find that I'm fully aboard the dissertation rollercoaster, where one minute I'm very sure of myself and happy about life in general and the next I just want to throw in the towel and give up. I thought this feeling would go away once I was firmly entrenched in the dissertation project, as I am now, and certainly once I started getting interviews from schools, which I have. But if anything, the feeling has gotten worse. Being in academia has made me a lot less confident. I'm rarely sure that I'm right (probably because in academia there's someone around every corner waiting to tell you that you're wrong), I'm rarely sure that my project is interesting (despite a lot of external validation), and quite honestly, I'm rarely sure that I want to do this for the rest of my life.

Sometimes I think the sacrifices just aren't worth it. Although the experiences I'm having here are extraordinary, some days I'm just not sure if it's worth leaving my preschooler for a month, putting the full burden of childcare and household duties on my willing husband. And although I think eventually being a professor will be fulfilling, I'm not sure if it's worth putting off other things for, like having another child. In my "grand plan" for my life, I always thought I'd have another child before or shortly after ST turned three. That is not going to happen, considering his birthday is in April. And although I enjoy the work that I do about 75% of the time (that's an honest figure), sometimes I just think it's dull and pointless (and I'm not talking about the dissertation, but rather about the whole sum of coursework through the years). Sometimes I think I should have been a stay-at-home-mother. I'm sure I would have felt unfulfilled in that, too, however, after awhile.

Does anyone know for sure that they're doing the right thing? Is anyone completely satisfied with their career, or does everyone hover around a 75% satisfaction rate? Is this academic life worth the sacrifice? Honestly?

Some days I wish I had taken a different path. Sometimes I wish I had chosen a major in collegew with a very clear career path: engineering, accounting, business management. Sometimes I think I should have been a high school teacher. Some days I wish I had taken the path I almost did take: law school (although the type of law I wanted to practice would have probably led me even further away from family, a stable life, and a satisfying job for T). Some days I wish I could have been fulfilled working, as I did throughout my undergraduate years, in a bookstore. Almost every day I wish I could keep my work separate from the rest of my life. I wish I could take true "holidays," and I wish weekends and extended breaks weren't merely chances to "catch up." I wish academic life was 9 to 5, no weekends.

I said that about 75% of the time, I'm happy with what I do. I like the topic I'm working on. I've liked my coursework. But I've never been one of those people who just goes nuts over a particular topic, who can't wait to talk about it again, who can't wait to read every work ever published on a certain topic. I have a friend who received his Ph.D. this past June and is now working at a major research university. He gets himself so worked up and excited about the things he's reading about and writing about that he literally sounds a little crazy sometimes. He could speak with such passion about the topic, a passion I could never muster for my topic or for anything else I've read. Sure, I like the work I do just fine. It's a job, it's interesting. But do I LOVE it? No. Would I do this for fun? No. Is this normal?

I know I'm feeling this way because I am very isolated here. Despite being in a huge city and despite having friends here, I am lonely and terrifically homesick. I think of my husband and son, tucked peacefully in bed at my MIL's house 13 hours away from our home, and I just want to be there, want to be with them where I feel needed and loved. I don't want to do any more research, I don't want to do any sightseeing, and I certainly don't want to think about interviews or job prospects. I just want to be around the people who know me best and who can assure me that yes, YES, I am doing the right thing. And that yes -- YES -- it will all be worth it in the end.
Posted with care by Prof. Me @ 11/24/2005 03:24:00 AM  
4 Words of Wisdom:
  • At 10:55 PM, Blogger phd me said…

    Yes, you ARE doing the right thing. Yes, it IS worth it in the end.

    But if it's any consolation, I could have written this post. Thank you for having the courage to speak with such honesty.

  • At 3:25 AM, Blogger Bewildered Academic said…

    Thank you for this beautiful and thoughtful post. One thing that I learned over the past couple of years is that just because I'm working on a Ph.D. doesn't mean that I've got to be super-excited about my research area 24/7. Passion doesn't necessarily mean hyperactive enthusiasm along the lines of your friend. It can also be the quiet persistence to grind through to the end.

    I remember writing my undergraduate thesis and being so excited about the topic when I started. By the time I was done, I had grown to tolerate it...barely. And when one chapter was accepted for publication more than a year later (with extensive revisions on virtually every page), I called it "the thesis chapter that just wouldn't die". So when I finally sent off the final copy to the journal, I wrapped it up and promptly forgot about it.

    I can't think of many people who would willingly choose researching over a nice long vacation with a stack of novels and movies. But then again, research interests change. I'm now studying something completely different from my undergrad thesis topic (thank God!) and it fascinates me, but I never would have arrived here without slogging through more boring topics. Maybe this topic you are researching will lead you to something that you will really get excited about. Maybe a chance encounter on one of your research trips will lead you in a whole new and exciting direction. Who knows?

    One thing that I've noticed about myself and many of my grad student friends--even the ones we consider superstar achievers--is that we all second-guess ourselves sometimes. The only people who don't second-guess themselves every now and then tend to be the jerks in my department. But part of that urge to doubt oneself, I think, is just our critical instincts coming to the surface. All of our collegiate and graduate training teaches us to challenge assumptions and to criticize everything, especially our own thinking. It's only natural to turn those instincts on ourselves every now and then. My friends and I often end up reassuring each other that no, we were made for this because of reasons X, Y and Z. Sometimes, it's easier to see this passion in others than in ourselves, which is why we need our support networks.

    Your post just reminded me of the poem "Ithaca" by Constantine Cavafy.

    When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
    pray that the road is long,
    full of adventure, full of knowledge.
    The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
    the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
    You will never find such as these on your path,
    if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
    emotion touches your spirit and your body.
    The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
    the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
    if you do not carry them within your soul,
    if your soul does not set them up before you.

    Pray that the road is long.
    That the summer mornings are many, when,
    with such pleasure, with such joy
    you will enter ports seen for the first time;
    stop at Phoenician markets,
    and purchase fine merchandise,
    mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
    and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
    as many sensual perfumes as you can;
    visit many Egyptian cities,
    to learn and learn from scholars.

    Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
    To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
    But do not hurry the voyage at all.
    It is better to let it last for many years;
    and to anchor at the island when you are old,
    rich with all you have gained on the way,
    not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

    Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
    Without her you would have never set out on the road.
    She has nothing more to give you.

    And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
    Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
    you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

    Anyway, I guess your post struck a chord in me. In the end, I think that it will be worth it, not just because we will have reached the goal of getting the Ph.D., but because we will have gained so much in getting there. Hope you have a happy Thanksgiving and an even happier homecoming in a few days!

  • At 8:58 AM, Blogger BrightStar said…

    wow, prof me... I could have written this post -- particularly when I was dissertation. Your words resonated so strongly with my experience. I have also had the experience such that I became less confident at the end of grad school than I had ever been in my life, and that shocked me. The confidence does start to pick back up as your career progresses, I think, but I still have been surprised at how growth over time professional left me feeling more fragile rather than increasingly strong.

    Yes, it will all be worth it.

  • At 8:00 PM, Anonymous Mary said…

    Well, as someone who as been to law school and is now pursuing a doctorate I can speak to the other side of your choice.

    I HATED law school. HATE is probably too weak a word to really cover it, but is the general idea. I cried every week and felt terrible about myself the whole time. (Plus, everyone thinks it is "so great!" that you are in law school, you feel even worse about it.) After a while practicing law, I tossed it all and changed careers.

    I am now getting my PhD and sliding into the academic world. I agree it is sometimes frustrating and annoying and academics tend to have more time than they need (senior faculty especially) to sit around and whine and make life difficult for themselves and others. But, every job is like that. Every job has really annoying parts. Liking what you do 75% of the time is pretty good. For that other 25% - well, that is why you have a wonderful family to go home to at night! :)

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