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In Which I am No Longer a Graduate Student

June 23, 2016

It’s been about a month since I turned in my final paperwork to graduate from my doctoral program. Officially, I won’t have the diploma in hand until the end of summer semester (August).

I’m not really sure how I’m feeling right now. Not having a dissertation, or any academic work, hanging over my head has been a lovely experience. It’s been a long time. It’s been nice getting my head back together, spending time with my kids, and reading a lot of books that have nothing to do with drugs, alcohol, or nineteenth-century cultural, medical, or literary history.

I’m in the realm of what some call “post-academic,” as I am not planning to pursue a tenure track job. For the first time ever, I really have no idea what I am going to do next. Simultaneously this feels freeing, yet completely batshit crazy. In academia, you are always “supposed to have a plan.”

It’s an interesting space, largely as I feel like I’m wrestling with expectations, my own and that of others. On the one hand, wasn’t I supposed to be a teacher? Aren’t I supposed to be sending out book proposals to turn my dissertation into a monograph? Aren’t I supposed to be giving conference papers? What’s wrong with me that I never wanted any of this? (And, having seen blog posts out there from individuals who have left the academy—there is so much censure regarding other people’s choices and decisions. So many terrible words about how it’s all your own damned fault for choosing the “wrong” program or “wrong” career path. How dare you be honest about your pain, in other words, and imply that maybe it’s the academy that’s a wee bit fucked up?)

In looking back, I think all I wanted to do was to keep studying history. And a doctoral program seemed to be the only socially-sanctioned way to do that, at the time.

The major takeaway is that I am far too concerned with what others think of me and what their expectations are. My heart knows that expectations don’t matter, and that there is nothing wrong with me. I will find my way. My head, though—oh, my academically-trained head! That woman needs to be deprogrammed, stat.

I have been reading Pema Chödrön lately and am trying to be more open. I am so tired of trying to present a certain appearance to the world, or of judging others for who I think they are. This, from Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, has been on my mind a lot:

“Then this experience of opening to the world begins to benefit ourselves and others simultaneously. The more we relate with others, the more quickly we discover where we are blocked, where we are unkind, afraid, shut down. Seeing this is helpful, but it is also painful. Often the only way we know how to react is to use it as ammunition against ourselves. We aren’t kind. We aren’t honest. We aren’t brave, and we might as well give up now. But when we apply the instruction to be soft and nonjudgmental to whatever we see right at that very moment, then this embarrassing reflection in the mirror becomes our friend. Seeing that reflection becomes motivation to soften further and lighten up more, because we know it’s the only way we can continue to work with others and be of any benefit to the world.” [Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2000), 76-77.]

“Soft and nonjudgmental.” That is the space I’m trying to inhabit right now—as I seem to be dwelling in the “in between” stages of my life. I think this will be an intensely healing space, if I allow myself to feel everything that I’m feeling and to become friends with ambiguity. It is truly okay that I do not know right now. It is truly okay that “they” do not know either.


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