Did you think that going to grad school would solve the problem you had about what to be when you grew up?
I delayed answering this question in 2001 when I decided to apply to graduate school. And for eight years, I have been (mostly) in ignorant bliss–the future life of Doctor Jones was much too far away to worry about.
I have certainly worked on opening doors for Doctor Jones, doing internships, assistant directorships, teaching, going to conferences, etc. But all my experience, the dissertation, and the degree are simply not enough to guarantee that I’ll be employed as an English professor.
I haven’t felt this way since college. And I sincerely believed then that going to college was answering this question for good. But I have grown up. And unfortunately, growing up doesn’t mean that I have all the answers. I do have some experience grappling for solutions. And that’s about it.
I’m not bringing this up to scare you. I’m bringing this up because my friend Rebecca, who has been busting her butt for three years to get a cello performance degree, said upon graduating that she wished someone would have told her that she’d be transported right back into the confusing decision making process of age twenty-one.
So, I’m telling you. I hope that if you expect it, it won’t be quite as scary when it happens. And take some comfort in knowing that what you do with your life is not something you “should” have figured out at your age.
As I approach graduation, I’m finding that my emotions are unusually roller coaster-y. The FEAR (of not graduating, of producing inferior work, of not being able to schedule a defense time, of not having a good dissertation topic) looms large much of the time. Yet every time something happens to let me know that graduating in May could really happen, I feel an almost paralyzing giddiness. (Today, one of my committee members said that she thought my introduction and conclusion drafts are defensible now.)
I recently talked with my friend Doctor Gale, who said that she was surprised at how quickly her self-confidence diminished after defending her dissertaton. She said that she still asks herself questions about her intelligence that have been bugging her since before she came to graduate school.
The academic environment can be a huge confidence-evaporator. People identify with their work, and then any small setback becomes a big problem. My feelings are super easily hurt, especially by my committee members, and I know many of my colleagues have the same issue.
I don’t know how to silence the FEAR.
I do know that degrees are not a measure of intelligence, and neither are the number of books written. If you’re far enough along to graduate, you know too many smart people who either decided graduate school wasn’t for them or who never applied in the first place.
The best way I know to pause the roller coaster is to remind myself that the FEAR is normal, and that transitions are hard for humans (and most organisms, for that matter). The FEAR comes to plenty of really smart people who do great work, so the FEAR’s presence does not guarantee my inadequacy.