Life After Grad School

As I mentioned late last week, Emily successfully defended her dissertation on Friday. Commencement isn't until December, of course, but for all practical intents and purposes (or as practical as academic matters get, anyway), we are both doctors now. I look forward to causing great confusion someday. "My God, this man's having a heart attack! Is anyone here a doctor?" "Yes, I am." "Can you do something?" "Oh... no. Sorry. I'm a doctor of English."

Being in Columbia last week for the defense conjured up a lot of nostalgic feelings-- in the bar and coffee shop where we used to unwind after a particularly grueling workshop, seminar, or meeting with an advisor, Emily and I noted that the people in these places remain the same; we just don't know them anymore. But sure enough, there's the guy with the shaved head typing away at what's surely his first novel; there's the thin vegan girl with the nose ring; there's the young hippie couple holding hands on the couch in the back. So it was kind of sad, to realize that our Mizzou years are behind us-- we'll never be 26 years old again, and we'll never get to experience quite that same type of community.

Of course, there's a danger in nostalgia. I constantly had to remind myself that, in fact, I didn't particularly care for my years as a PhD student. I had some close friends, but I also met some of the most pretentious people I think I'll ever meet. The longer I worked on preparing for comprehensive exams, the shorter my temper became. I had problems with a couple of faculty members, which-- at the time-- I was convinced could seriously harm my career. I frequently felt unappreciated by my peers-- though the form has been named for about three decades now (and has existed since Seneca, at least), there are still some people who insist that creative nonfiction is somehow less literary that poetry or fiction, or that the genre simply doesn't exist at all. That's an odd conversation I've had more than once-- "I don't believe creative nonfiction really exists." "Oh. Well, it does." Not much more to say to that, you know?

Anyway... here's the thing-- I think my feelings about grad school are sort of like my feelings about high school. I get nostalgic for high school occasionally, too. Driving around with my best friend Murph, listening to Lou Reed's Mistrial album, thinking we were bad-asses cruising in my mom's minivan. Hanging out at my friend Matt's parents' cabin on Lake Algonquin. Having deep conversations about life and God and the future and all that shit with my friend Amanda. But then I remind myself, "Dude, you were a fat virgin with bad skin who thought that literature didn't get more profound than The Dark Knight Returns. Don't be nostalgic for that."

I thought I was a total loser in high school, and maybe I was. But I think most people feel like total losers in high school, and you only find out later, if you find out at all, that even the most popular kids in the eleventh grade felt like they were entirely alone. The guy all the girls loved was suffering, trapped in the closet. The girl who seemed to have it all was slowly killing herself with an eating disorder. Some of the jocks who seemed so tough and awesome had no idea what life after senior year had in store for them.

And similarly, I think grad school was kind of like that too, in the sense that I think most intelligent people have to wonder, at some point, "Do I really belong here? Am I really smart or talented enough to do this?" When I look at my friends who finished the degree and went on to get really good jobs, I'm struck by the fact that they're the ones who impressed me with their friendliness and humility as well as their occasional flashes of brilliance. Michael Piafsky, Jean Braithwaite, Scott Kaukonen, Katie Pierce, Erin Clair, David Eshelman, Mike Kardos... all great writers and/or scholars, but all genuinely nice people who-- at various times-- were upfront about their concerns about the future and their fears that they might not be quite good enough. These aren't the people who intimidated me in grad school (despite the fact that they all consistently won awards, found themselves published in really good magazines, or were otherwise recognized for their abilities)-- the intimidating ones smirked and smoked cigarettes and boasted about their own publications. They complained about what empty-headed bullshit any required course outside their own field was, and how it was a crime against academia (and, maybe, humanity) that they should have to waste their time and brilliance on something as worthless as literary theory or learning a foreign language. Somehow, those are the people who have had the most trouble on the job market, which leads me to think that their bravado and enviable confidence might have masked the same insecurities and misgivings I had when I was there.

Anyway. Nostalgia's for people who are afraid of the future. And the present is going quite well. I'm teaching a class of graduate students myself now, and-- I realized last night as I was leading discussion-- I'm so far impressed with all of them. There's not a weak link in the class (although I must wonder if, deep down, every single one of them is wondering, as I was when I was a student, "Do I really belong here, surrounded by these people who say such brilliant, insightful things?"). Emily's got her PhD-- which means she might never say "I don't think I can do this" ever again. We should all be so lucky.

Newer Post Older Post Home