After successfully completing my preliminary exams a couple weeks ago, – an occasion accompanied by a barrage of excited “congratulations!” and “wow, I bet it feels good to be done with that, right?!” – I found myself wondering why I didn’t feel so, well, relieved. Of course, between the daily study blocks from 11am-4pm followed by nightly shifts from 10:30pm-1:30am of reading, writing, and reading again, plus the rewarding but draining demands of caring for a nine-month-old, I was close to curling up with my meow, Annushka, and sleeping the rest of my life away.
After rocking the written portion of the exam, I was feeling better, nay, awesome. That feeling was followed by an inevitable letdown after the “successful” completion of my oral exam, which consisted of getting drilled by my dissertation committee on the distinction between diaspora and migration, minute details concerning shifts in filmic production in Nollywood cinema, and questions on books that weren’t even included on my finalized prelims list (which, for the record, consisted of over 100 books, articles, and films on African & Caribbean literature, film, and theory as well as Black Feminist theory, thankyouverymuch). Despite passing, I found myself wandering aimlessly, unable to really grasp the idea that I had indeed completed another important hurdle in my academic career.
This feeling inspired a few realizations that, while largely undiscussed in academic circles, – especially within the humanities – should be brought out into the open so we all stop feeling so incredibly crappy about being the “ideal” academic.
- Academics are pushed to their emotional and intellectual limits without the promise of praise or reward. After completing the written portion of my preliminary exams I felt invincible. For some reason, I actually thought when it came time for the oral portion of my exam that my dissertation committee would openly praise my written work. Of course, that’s not how it goes. Ever. Instead, I was told that my in-depth analysis of African film represented a “solid” attempt – insert professorial side-glance here – and was asked to discuss in excruciating detail how each film on my list illustrated shifts in African filmic language, production, and aesthetics. This is but one example of why “passing with flying colors” felt like failure.
- The job market sucks. Seriously, once you start thinking about the reality that there are so few jobs that your more advanced colleagues are applying for over 100 positions in the hopes of receiving a few meager interviews, it haunts your every waking dream. You’re constantly told that unless you’re willing to move to Juno, Alaska for a job, ditch your spouse, or accept living in poverty for the rest of your life as an untenured adjunct then you probably don’t belong in academia.
- Book knowledge doesn’t translate well to “real world” careers. I was never more excited about my chosen research interests than while I was frantically reading for my exams. I gained a comprehensive knowledge of my field, broadened my interpretation of concepts like postcolonialism, diaspora, and “feminism,” and developed an appreciation and love for Caribbean literature I didn’t have previously. However, all this reading made me realize how irrelevant all of this information is for “real” jobs (read: non-academic). I found myself obsessively looking up alternate careers for academics in the humanities, scanning sites like Versatile PhD, Higher Ed, and even…dun dun dun…law school programs. Because more school would help, right? RIGHT?! Nope. Even employers in the NGO sector seem to view PhDs outside of the ivory tower as damaged goods, forcing highly educated scholars to scavenge for internships like everyone else. Ultimately, I found myself slamming my head against a wall wondering why I didn’t choose something more “practical” like health, law, or business.
These three realizations have upsides, though. Yes, the job market sucks but there IS help via a dissertation committee, colleagues, networking at conferences, and various online resources such as The Professor Is In. Yes, academics rarely lavish praise on lowly graduate students; however, the fact that you work yourself ragged, pass each trial, and develop a deeper passion for your chosen field is gratifying in and of itself. Yes, most of the knowledge you cram into your head most likely won’t help you get a lucrative job but you’ll have killer party banter. I kid, I kid…You’ll have a PhD, and that’s pretty badass.