A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading Dr. Kelly J. Baker’s book, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces. I read it very quickly, over the course of maybe two or three days. I would stay up late reading it and walk around the house in a bit of a daze, squinting at my phone (I read it via Kindle Unlimited and have no Kindle, so).
I read the book hoping it might illuminate post-ac options for me, particularly the path of a freelance writer. I found that it struck me on a much more visceral level than that.
It’s interesting that it touched me so deeply, because Dr. Baker and I are very different. Dr. Baker came into academia with a dream of being a tenure track professor. She worked as a contingent instructor and a full-time lecturer, spending six years on the academic job market before determining she needed to take her “grace period.” I came into the PhD program focused on getting good at both conducting and understanding research, without my heart set on a specific professional outcome. I assumed there would be no tenure track job for me, and as I watched my tenure track, highly respected advisor deal with all that this professional life entails, I determined that it wasn’t something I was interested in.
In spite of that, so much of this book resonated with me.
Baker talks a lot about love, the way we are supposed to love our work, discipline, scholarship. She says,
I both adored and loathed my training. I see-sawed from romantic highs (seminar discussions, research, theory) to tortured lows (self-doubt, impostor syndrome, research). I almost quit multiple times. Yet I trudged through, because love is about compromise, or so they say. (p. 28, Kindle edition)
This resonated with me so strongly. I had my first PhD meltdown, as I call them, in the first week of my program. I remember it well. I was working on my back deck, enjoying some unseasonably tolerable weather on our hammock, and I realized that in the first week I had already fallen dreadfully behind. “I can’t do this,” I thought. I even told W. that maybe I should quit.
“Maybe I should quit” and “I’m going to get kicked out” were constant refrains from me that first year.
And yet. When people ask me if they should do a PhD, I say “YES TOTALLY!” followed by “No, definitely not.” Because you totally should; when else are you going to have time to prioritize deep learning? But you totally shouldn’t; it’s almost impossible financially without a supporting partner. (Two of my fellow SILS PhDs that I can think of and I myself have lawyer husbands, and I don’t imagine any of those three could do this otherwise.)
The love we feel for this deep learning, as Baker points out, allows us to be exploited. The minimum graduate stipend in my program is about $7000 below the minimum cost-of-living for one person in the town where the university is located. That exploitation, Baker says, “doesn’t make us love our work less. Instead, it often pushes us to love that work more—to consider it something deeper, a vocation instead of just a job.” (p. 30) I’ve fought against this sense, pretty successfully, but I suspect that’s because I’ve already experienced that vibe as a K-12 educator and I’m so burned out from it that I won’t let it happen again.
Baker writes about how most years, her birthday was a day to mark all the ways in which she failed in the past year, but after she began her grace period, “My birthday became a day that showed I made it through another year. For once, that was enough. It always should have been.” (p. 78)
My birthday is two weeks from now. I do use it to reflect on the past year often, but mostly, I celebrate it with great fanfare, because it is worth celebrating that I made it through another year. Both Dr. Baker and myself live with mental illness; sometimes I feel that I’m connected to life by a very fragile thread. For that thread to hold up for a whole year is always a cause for celebration.
I’m working from my Kindle notes and highlights here, so things are getting a bit fragmented and disjointed.
As I mentioned earlier, the chapter “Writing Advice” as a whole felt worth noting to me. In particular, how no one had suggested to her that writing could be a career. Me either, no one who I trusted on career matters, anyway. Baker writes,
At 18, 19, or 20, I wished someone took the time to tell me that my perspective was unique. That the only person who could write like me was me. That I shouldn’t try to be someone I wasn’t. That background, the place where I landed, made me who I was. That this place that birthed me might not be New York City or San Francisco or Boston and that was okay. That this place, that no one had ever heard of, created me and pushed me to be a writer. That I shouldn’t try to be someone I wasn’t. That I could emulate other people’s writing styles on the way to finding my own. That there was something about my voice that needed to be heard. That writing would give me the chance to speak and be heard. That my voice mattered. That my writing mattered to me and that was enough.
Finally, Baker says some things that remind me of my favorite Kitty Pryde quote from Astonishing X-Men. Baker notes:
Maybe I’m seeking something big when I should focus on something smaller, like a chubby toddler hand in mine.
I used to hate waiting, but now, I wonder if waiting is where living resides.
Life is about how we weather our transitions.
Reading all those bits inspired me to reply to her in this Twitter thread:
Also, also, I'm getting a little weary of the "Kelly's gotta figure out her life & work again" thing I've been doing for the last 7 years.— 💀Dr. Defund the Police💀 (@kelly_j_baker) June 17, 2020
I'm extra. And maybe tedious.
Maybe... maybe figuring it out is all life is. Maybe that's "the fuck" Cheryl Strayed is talking about.— Kimberly Hirsh, Future Library Doctor (@kimberlyhirsh) June 17, 2020
So. This is a book that shifted a lot for me. I highly recommend it to anyone at all connected to academia or just trying to figure out what’s next.