Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Year of Magical Thinking

I haven't read Joan Didion's book, but it must be about grad school, right? There are so many years of magical thinking there it's hard to pick one ---- the "I will finish the entire dissertation in 8 months" year, the "I am brilliant and I will get a wonderful job at Harvard" year, the "fuckit, I'll drop out to become a best-selling avant-garde novelist" year ... take your pick.

My favorite, though, was the two weeks before the graduation ceremonies. That's not a year? Well, that's the magical part.

I had such big plans ---- After I Graduate Everything Will Be Perfect! I Will Be Perfect! Even though I was completely incapable of motivating myself to work on the dissertation, I was sure Once I Graduate, my apartment would be always clean, I would be able to write effortlessly and fluently, I would go on a diet and stop slacking on my (expensive, already-paid-for) exercise program, I would cook healthy stuff I have at home rather than throwing out rotten stuff and then buying expensive, unhealthy crap on my way into the library. I would go out and do social stuff more and be an all-around better friend. I would, I told myself, Turn Over a New Leaf.

Something tells me that's not going to happen now.

Mainly because nothing feels any different. I mean, sure, yay, I graduated. But I'm over that now ---- I'm not done, so the week after the graduation hasn't been any materially different from the week before the graduation: I go to school, procrastinate in the library and roll the damn rock a little way. I have seen a bunch of random people ---- someone I TA'd for years ago, someone from a grad class my first year, a couple librarians I've met ---- and it's very fun to say "I'm almost finished! I just graduated and I'm getting ready to file!" (ok, I am exaggerating on the "getting ready" part, but they don't need to know that, right?) Yes, that part is nice.

But I don't feel any wiser or more accomplished or really like I've succeeded at anything. I don't feel like a "Dr." and let me tell you, if I were going off to be a "professor" in some tenure-track job in fall I would be dealing with huge academic fraud syndrome, something that never troubled me much as a grad student (heck, I've been one long enough that I'm quite comfortable in the identity). I still feel like me. And I've gotten quite used to "me" being equivalent to the snarky, procrastinating, backsliding lil' old grad student. So while I never turn down the chance to have a party in my honor, it didn't really feel transformative or like it actually marked any sort of real transition.

That's not to say I won't work on my List of Perfection above as goals ---- money is tight and my clothes are too after the past couple months of high-stress, low-free-time eating, so I need to undo that bad habit ---- but I keep coming to these new milestones and thinking "here's the happily ever after!" here is the moment of perfection, of nirvana, of closure, of something! And then it just turns out to be the everyday. Is getting a job, is getting tenure, going to be the same deal?

Sigh. Oh well. I sought an epic narrative and found only the quotidian. Maybe the epic can only be found in representations rather than experience. Good thing I'm a fan of satire and bathos, because those are always applicable to reality itself.

In other news, it is hot over here ---- something that's not helping my plan to eat out less and consume less ice cream. I start up the summer session very soon and will be complaining and questioning you all about my adventures in it presently, I'm sure, and besides finishing my dissertation ---- and the joy of formatting the dissertation, which, I have been told, will cause me to pull all my hair out, so you will get updates on that, too ---- I need to get my articles revised and sent out again, write another conference paper, plan for the next job search --- oh yes, I have many things on my plate this summer. You will get to hear me whine about them all. For that part of my personality hasn't changed a bit either.


Breena Ronan said...

I'm not sure anyone ever feels done, perfected. The other day my friend, who is about the age of my parents, told me that she finally felt like a grown up because her bedroom was done. Everything in her bedroom is now something she likes, not just something that is good enough "for now."

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Heh, my mom, who's in her 70s, has been known to say she still doesn't know what she wants to do when she grows up!

I'm sorry to say that I never felt "done," either. There was no transformative moment - I was always still me. Me with a PhD was pretty nice, but it was pretty much the same as before. I did the same thing you did - went through graduation before formally filing; heck, I defended the dissertation and didn't end up filing it for 14 months (lame!), because I had revisions to do and didn't get them done before moving and starting a t-t job. I think in terms of transformation, filing was a bigger deal than going through graduation, because while graduation was nice and I'm glad I did it, I knew it didn't mean squat in terms of me actually earning the degree. I felt so much the same, though, that for the first few years of that job, I'd be walking around campus and I'd catch myself thinking, "Wow. I have a PhD? How did that happen?" Because I didn't feel any different than without it.

It wasn't until about 2 years later when I was back on my grad campus interacting with grad students for the first time in a while that I actually felt different and realized that I had changed. But nope, no big moment of transformation. (And I think yes, getting a job, getting tenure - though I never did the latter - will be the same. Though getting my first job was a moment filled with transcendent relief, so that was kind of different.)

Historiann said...

What NKOTH and Breena said. One of the unfortunate side-effects of Ph.D. graduate school, I think, is that you get used to everything taking so long--dissertation, book-writing, job-procuring, tenure, etc., that by the time you officially achieve one of these milestones, you're already much more worried about achieving the next one. I always told myself that I would take time to celebrate and do something special after each major accomplishment, and while I've done that, I've spend the vacation, or the meal, or whatever thinking, "now, if I could only make that *next* milestone, then I'll really feel like I've achieved something big!

On the one hand, we've turned ourselves into rodents on a hamster wheel. On the other, it's not so bad if you look at it as a journey and not a destination. What will it mean when I've truly written every book and done absolutely everything I wanted to in my career? What will I have to live for then? I think it will mean clinical depression, in my case, and so have come to believe that it's good to be busy.

Earnest English said...

Dr. Cog,

I didn't feel any moment of transformation either. I defended, filed, graduated, and then got on a plane to a place where I was the one of three, maybe five people out of thirty in my department (which had just turned into a department, so they were having growing pains anyway) to have a PhD, the only one actually in the field. This was not conducive to making me feel like I had actually accomplished something and that I was on the other side. The other side of what? Then coming back here and not working in academia and being a glorified secretary? Earnest, please call this stupid credit card company and see if we can finagle a better rate. Then pay my bills, will you? Would it be too much to reply only if you call me doctor?

I've been told from a wonderful academic who I totally loved before he deserted me to retire that getting tenure feels like a total let-down. So there must be no there there. Which is so depressing. But then at least we know that everyone feels like a fraud, so we don't have to worry about our own particular fraudiness.

Also, CONGRATULATIONS ON GRADUATING! I wish this were the end of the stress for you, but it isn't. Dr. English says you can think about Turning Over a New Leaf (impossible anyway) ONLY once the diss is done.

Belle said...

Ditto. My committee tried to make it momentous; they insisted that I call them by their first names (they'd never noticed I never called them by any name) and bought be an alcoholic beverage. Told me I was their peer (never happen, they were both Huge Names/Experts). Nice, but ineffective.

I spent years wondering at the lack of the diss cloud over my head.

k8 said...

I can't speak to the post-phd part since I'm still dissertating. However - summer and ice cream. Every year I tell myself that summer is the time to start eating uber-healthy. Then I realize that I will miss out on any number of frozen desserts. Sigh.

Belle said...

Hey Sisyphus, you've been tagged for the music meme!