Three Symptoms of Post-Prelims PTSD

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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  • Reply Andrea May 25, 2015 at 7:02 am

    I felt the same way after passing my prelims and oral exam! I passed my written but then in my program our oral exam was off topic, in that we had to write a whole proposal and defend a topic we aren’t doing research on in front of our dissertation committee. It was the most stressful and hardest time of grad school, and I had so much anxiety because I was fearful of failure and sounding like an idiot in front of five professors! A lot of those thoughts u listed went thru my head! And then when it was all over and I passed, I was wondering why I was so worried and stressed! Ah grad school and stresses and worries of not having a job afterwards! We will all get thru it! Xo

    • Amanda Rico
      Reply Amanda Rico May 27, 2015 at 9:05 pm

      Hey, Andrea! Thanks so much for this comment! Yeah, it’s one of the most intense professional experiences EVER. I can’t believe they made you present and defend on a completely unrelated topic from your prelim list in the orals! Ugh I would have completely freaked out. I think our profs just want to push us to our limits because they know how hostile the job market and conference environments can be. We both passed, though – yay us! At least blogging helps even out the stress a bit…Now onto the diss stage! 😀

  • Reply Kristyn May 20, 2015 at 7:48 pm

    i didn’t start bonding with Zoey until she started talking. I felt so bad that I didn’t feel connected to her when she was born but when I opened up to others I found out that my story was relatively common! I couldn’t believe it! Real life is a lot different than the fairy tales we get sold!

    When Zoey started talking and developed a personality we quickly because best friends and by 2 years old she was my whole world. But just like any relationship it took time and work.

    • Amanda Rico
      Reply Amanda Rico May 24, 2015 at 6:21 pm

      It’s awesome to see that you’re willing to be real about being a mom, Kristyn. We’re judged so harshly that it can be tough to actually discuss what it means to give birth to another person – ANOTHER PERSON! – and raise them. Thanks for sharing your story here; it feels pretty awesome to know that there’s no “normal” when it comes to connecting with out kiddos. 🙂

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