I saw this tweet today:
Want to succeed #withaphd?— Chris Cornthwaite, PhD (@cjcornthwaite) June 16, 2020
Don't disappear into an academic bubble while you study:
-work #altac jobs
Do this during the #phd and it won't be as hard to reinvent a career after. Don't get locked in the ivory tower
This is excellent advice.
It might not be for every PhD student.
For the past year or so, I’ve been reading and re-reading Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In. Most of the book is about what you need to do if you want to be competitive in the academic job search (in a pre-COVID world, mind you). I have done very few of these things, and that’s okay.
I came into this hoping to get really good at research - especially qualitative research. I have started doing this and will be lucky enough to get to do it for another year, working on both my own project and someone else’s.
In my interview for the doctoral program, the admissions committee asked me, “What do you want to do after you graduate?”
I said to them - honestly, but calculatedly - “I would love to be in a situation where I could research and teach, but of course I’m realistic about the job market.”
One of the committee members said, “You might have to move to get a job.”
My once-and-future advisor said, “You might have to go wherever W.’s job is.”
W’s job is here, where we already are.
I won’t say we definitely will never move. But I will say that it’s very unlikely any job offer I might receive would draw us away.
I came into this program already attached to this particular geographic area - which is saturated with both higher education institutions and scholars. And I came in viewing it much more as continuing education than as job training, which I think has only benefitted my mental health.
I say all this to let you know that I really don’t need to do all the things Karen Kelsky says to do for the academic job market. And yet I would look at her lists and think, “OH NO! I HAVE DONE NONE OF THESE THINGS!” Like… It doesn’t matter. Those aren’t the things that will get me a job I want. But I still worried about not having done them.
I came in from an alt-ac job, and had every intention of returning to a (different, because my department was dismantled) alt-ac job after graduation. Now, alt-ac is probably not going to be much of a thing, so I am turning my attention to post-ac possibilities. The advice in the tweet above applies equally, I think, to both alt-ac and post-ac. But it’s another list of things I haven’t done, with the exception of having taken on one metadata analysis contract gig.
I didn’t disappear into the academic bubble, though. For the first year of my PhD I disappeared into improv, but after that I disappeared into my family.
I got pregnant in my second semester of the PhD program, and while it was not expected (because I was dealing with PCOS-driven infertility and had only pursued minimal interventions thus far) it was very much desired. My son was born in October of my second year.
I started to make a list of all of the things that have happened with my family in the time between when I started my PhD program and now, but giving specifics felt too much like violating privacy, so I will alternate between specifics and being vague, depending on the level of disclosure I feel okay about.
Here are things that happened in my household or family of origin during my time in the PhD program:
- My adult autistic brother tried living on his own for much of the summer that I was pregnant, with only myself and my sister as support. A mile from my house, and more than a few miles from my sister’s house. In the end, my mom moved in with him, and now he and both of my parents live in the house we bought right before he was born.
- I had a baby who grew into a toddler who grew into a preschooler, for whom I have been the primary caregiver in terms of weekday care and invisible labor (though I will say I’ve had amazing support from my partner, who often gives me long stretches to myself on weekends, and our extended family; we’ve also had part-time childcare either from family or at a Montessori since he was about 12 weeks old).
- Two family members were rushed to the ER with chest pain on the same day, several states away from each other. (They’re both alive still, thank goodness.)
- One of those family members has had five surgeries, four of which happened while living in close proximity to me. More than one of these made that family member unable to drive, and I became the driver of choice for this family member.
- A different family member was diagnosed with cancer and had surgery to remove the cancerous organ. That seems to have gone well, but you know, recovery from that is not nothing, and required a little support from me.
- One of the aforementioned family members was hospitalized on suicide watch for a few days, and has since taken on a lot more medical appointments in response to that.
- Another family member has dealt with mysterious digestive issues and only in the past year has figured out the reason; this family member hasn’t needed much from me in material or physical care but there’s still a toll that providing emotional support takes.
- I myself have had mysterious fatigue and pain that persisted even when my diagnosed conditions were well-controlled.
- I spent about 8 months figuring out how to get my kid settled at his Montessori school, because his body would not conform to their schedule. (In the end, we switched from afternoons to mornings, and it made everything easier immediately.)
And also, until the past year or so, my husband traveled for work A LOT, which was only a problem in that I was so focused on child caregiving during those times that I couldn’t get much PhD work done.
I essentially became a member of a sandwich generation 5 - 10 years before I expected to have to do so. This period of my life is inextricable from caregiving for other members of my family.
So I look at those things and consider that my childcare was devoted at first exclusively to attending class (that’s right, I worked the writing around the baby), then to attending class and writing, then to writing. I consider that often by the time my childcare hours came around, I didn’t have the spoons left to do good work for my PhD, much less the time for extra jobs, volunteer opportunities, or networking. And I ask myself, when? When on earth would I do those things?
And the answer is, I don’t know. If I wanted to devote more energy to finding fault with myself, I could answer that question. But for today, anyway, I’m over it. I’m over blaming myself for life being what it is. I take control where I can, and do well with what I’m given; I have an internal locus of control and rarely feel powerless about micro-level life stuff. But I’m done being harsh to myself about it.
Addendum: the author of the above quoted tweet followed it up with this tweet:
I should have added this! I was really just thinking about some ideas, not a laundry list.. I'm just adding pressure— Chris Cornthwaite, PhD (@cjcornthwaite) June 16, 2020
So like I said - good advice that you can use if it works for you, but don’t need to feel pressure to take on.
I should also add that it’s easy for me to say I’m done, because I have had some of the uncertainty around settling the next year resolved for me. Details on that to come later.