Here is the fourth column in a continuing series, Don’t Look Back in Anger, on the graduate-school experience and all the ways in which it is, and is not, an oasis.
Life was simpler back in 2005. I was 28, living in New York, still traumatized from the re-election of George W. Bush, who I sincerely believed to be — bless my naïve little heart — the worst possible U.S. president ever. When I wasn’t unleashing political temper tantrums for all three readers of the blog I’d just started (everyone cool had a blog back then), I was working nights at a place that gathered valuable consumer data for companies and political parties (before Facebook assumed that role).
I got paid to write demographic phishes disguised as television trivia: “In a commercial during tonight’s episode of One Tree Hill, what beverage did three young women enjoy together on a sleigh?” And I spent the rest of my time trying not to get sick, since I had neither health insurance nor hope of getting any.
Then I got accepted by the Ph.D. program in German at the University of California at Irvine, and all of my problems were solved, forever! Besides health insurance, this meant I would now be paid to live in a hermetic bubble of like-minded intellectuals for (at least) the rest of the “uniquely terrible” Bush years? Sign. Me. Up.
It also meant I might find something else I didn’t have in New York: a peer mentor — someone at work whose career trajectory I wanted to emulate (since crafting odd questions about corporate branding was not a career trajectory, per se).
And that’s how I found myself in Irvine, barreling toward my 30s with academia as my last, best chance for a meaningful career and no idea which of my brand-new colleagues I could follow as a viable blueprint. Sure, the faculty all had jobs I wanted to have someday — but that didn’t help me figure out how to act in graduate school right that second. It was time to find some peers worth emulating. Candidates abounded (all of whose names I have changed here for plausible legal deniability) but no clear front-runner for my mentor. Who did I want to be like?
Should I be a grad-school Jim Morrison, like “Andy” — the handsome, charismatic, prodigious but wounded English scholar who could charm his way into the good graces (and sometimes pants) of anyone he wanted?
- Pros: Andy was universally beloved by everyone, despite chronically flaking out on plans — not to mention never doing any reading, writing, or work that I could discern. Andy’s gifts allowed him to flow forth great scholarship instinctively; as Schiller put it. He didn’t have to imitate scholarly brilliance, because he just was it.
- Cons: Andy spent most of his stipend on drugs. Also, whatever passed for my own “brilliance” was the result of protracted labor, and I had no way to circumvent that reality.
Maybe it was more in my wheelhouse, then, to be a big ol’ teacher’s pet, like “Martina” — the confident, slightly older Hungarian and unabashed favorite of my own department. She delivered seminar commentary so trenchant that one day a professor in our department up and said: “Sie werden eine gute Professorin sein (You’ll be a good professor).”
- Pros: Awards; accolades; grants; conference invitations; a halo.
- Cons: The occasional passive-aggressive remark: “I like your dress, Rebecca.” (“Thank you!”) “I wish I had time to dress up like that.” (Sadface.)
I was more snark than bully. Maybe, I thought, I would fit in amongst the sneering clique of misanthropic anthropologists, where every other would-be Ph.D. was conspicuously too cool for Irvine and spoke, when they deigned to do so in my general direction, about their impending transfer to Columbia.
- Pros: I, too, missed New York. We had so much in common.
- Cons: I was way too earnest. Someone was paying me to pursue a doctorate and learn about things I enjoyed, in a place that didn’t have winter. Life in New York was overrated (and cold). Simply by virtue of being in grad school, I had come to terms with the indisputable fact that I would never be cool again.
Perhaps, then, it was time lean in, as they say, and become one of the Lifers — like “Garth,” who was in his 11th year and hadn’t quite passed his qualifying exams yet, but was president of the Grad Student Association, the Humanities Grad Council, the union, the housing board, and captain of the Comp Lit intramural softball team, the Derridevils (actual name).
- Pros: Garth, quite correctly, suspected that grad school might be the closest he ever got to the life of an academician. If you’ve got frugal tastes, and they keep renewing your teaching assistantship, why fix what ain’t broke? (Or, what is broke, but happily so?)
- Cons: I was there to study Franz Kafka’s parable “Before the Law,” not live it.
Finally, there was “Jeff,” a guy in my department about four years ahead of me, who was making unremarkable but consistent progress on his dissertation. “Two pages a day,” he would tell me. “Two pages.”
As I stocked up on sunscreen and coffee and made myself at home in Irvine, I became an unholy amalgam of every mentor-archetype I encountered. For one term, I was a fixture at the blur of weekend parties that constituted Irvine’s only social life; during the next, an insufferable striver, charging into seminar with an umlaut-shaped chip on my shoulder.
When it came time to write my own dissertation, I surveyed the landscape of my peers once more. Andy the prodigy had absconded to an off-campus apartment and was in a 12-step program. Martina the golden child had fallen into a vortex of perfectionism, and was now three years behind (we would, indeed, submit our dissertations within a month of each other). The cool anthropologists had dropped out — presumably to found an artisanal reverse-infusery in Brooklyn. Garth the Lifer was, literally, in the exact same place he had been when I arrived.
Then there was Jeff. Jeff, and his two pages a day, had finished and filed his dissertation at exactly “normative time to degree,” and was in his second year in a full-time, non-tenure-track job at an R1 university. Jeff seemed happy enough.
So I cleared the dry-erase board that hung over my desk, and made myself a plan. Instead of two pages, it was a 500-word daily average. Some days I wrote more than that, and other days I barely managed to squeeze out three sentences, banking on the “credit” I’d racked up before. At 7 p.m. every night, no matter what, I would clock out my scholarly brain and enjoy a coffee, or a single beer, or an episode of this brand-new show everyone was talking about, Mad Men. Sometimes I would watch speeches by an electrifying, idealistic young senator from Illinois, whose hopes for the country made me weep with joy.
I had no need to show off in seminars and not even the slightest inkling of a pretense that I was cool. But I did have a firm eye on the expiration date of my time as a grad student. I never ended up on the tenure track — but that was probably only because the tenure track in my discipline derailed altogether. But, like Jeff, I finished on time, with my limbs and liver intact. He and I never knew each other well, weren’t anything more than casual acquaintances. I’m sure he never considered me his protégé. But Jeff and his two pages turned out to be the best peer mentor a socially-awkward, former TV-trivia writer-turned-academic-turned-ex-academic could want.