If I had any inkling of the wild ride in store for me when I accepted my offer to my Comparative Literature Ph.D. program and began planning my move, I might not have had the courage to go through with it. I know that it was the right choice for me to make, but I certainly idealized what it would actually be like to be a grad student.
I’d like to preface this by admitting that I’ve been dealing with a unique set of challenges unrelated to my academic life and they have very much exacerbated the new pressures that graduate school has introduced. Within 10 days of my move, my car had been crashed twice, my cell phone fell in the toilet and sizzled away, and the ceiling of my new apartment fell in because my upstairs neighbors had been slowly flooding the space under their kitchen.
In the 2 months that followed, I discovered the reason I was waking up with “mosquito bites” from head to toe every other night was because I had bedbugs, and worse, I was responsible for the $700 cost of the resulting heat treatment under the terms of my lease. Then, when I finally received my first stipend payment on October 1st, it turned out to be several hundred dollars less per month than I initially calculated. I spent 2 full days thinking I wouldn’t be able to feed myself, for the first time. I took out my first-ever student loans. And then, the grand finale: mold damage in my closet resulting in over $500 of property loss that would neither be covered by my renter’s insurance nor reimbursed by my apartment management.
All of that happened while I read 4-500 pages a week of literature, theory, and other academic texts. I’ve read about a dozen complete books. I attended lecture, took hundreds of pages of notes, and prepared 5 presentations. I wrote the first abstract of my academic career and I submitted a paper to present at a conference. I made new friends with whom I continue to form trauma bonds (because “there’s no brakes on the struggle bus”). I also TA every Friday for 2 hours, in addition to the other 18 hours a week I spend holding office hours, grading, and preparing. Graduate school is both transcendent and horrifying, an experience that is tangible and intangible, frustrating and satisfying.
What people always fail to tell you it is that real life still happens while you’re doing it; it isn’t like undergrad where you exist as a student in a vacuum with a limited amount of adult responsibilities and bills to pay. The work load is designed so that you can’t actually read it all; you have to prioritize readings and it simply isn’t humanly possible to actually do everything. You have discussions that restore your faith in (at least a percentage of) humanity. You care about the way your society/university/life is run and want to have conversations about it. Grades don’t matter in the same way.
You feel like a complete douchebag sometimes when you have to repeat for the 1000th time what your area(s) of study and specialization are. You secretly love saying it. There have been so many days where I simply haven’t been sure how to power through, rise above, continue swimming against the current, or what have you. This is without question the most difficult time of my life. But then I remember the only 2 things that actually matter: 1) I’m not alone (and, indeed, am very lucky to have friends who are so supportive and present) and 2) This is what I’m meant to be doing. The way it feels when you have a revelation about a project, reading, or class you’re working on is addictive. It’s exciting and stimulating to consider new ideas every single day.
Teaching gives me joy that I can’t completely put into words. The feeling of pride and excitement you get when you can see a student’s writing improving, when you get an extremely positive evaluation, when the students laugh and smile while interacting in your classroom…. it is absolutely unlike anything else I’ve ever felt. Adulting is quite scary most of the time, and life can be aggressively indifferent to your pain, but having moments where I just know on a visceral level that I’m taking my life in the right direction give me the energy I need to continue.
Is that an idealistic outlook? Absolutely. But the final, and most important, thing I’ve learned so far is that’s part of who I am and part of what drives me to succeed. There’s a lot of negativity and hopelessness in academia and the only way to survive it is to remind yourself every day why you’re here and keep fighting the good fight.
“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.” ― Mary Anne Radmacher