Evidently, there’s a fine line between “making it” and “utter failure,” and, right now, I’m managing to stand squarely on it.
There’s less than a week before this chapter of my life ends and I move on from graduate school and happily settle back into one of my favorite places doing different and unsettlingly-unspecified-at-this-point things.
Oh, right there! Did you catch the fine line?
It’s between “Yay! You’ve almost achieved your goal of earning a dual-PhD in five years and get to live in a place that you love!” and “Hmmm…well, that’s nice that you get to choose where you live, but if you’re not going on the academic job market, what are you going to do with doctoral degrees in philosophy and women’s studies?” (The bold and italics are meant to emphasize that, according to some people, I managed to reach the terminal point of not one, but two presumably “useless” disciplines. So, yeah. Where DOES one go from there?)
I’m grateful for those who, upon hearing the news that I’m defending my dissertation next week say, “Congrats! What an accomplishment!” But when it comes to graduate school, there are lots of opportunities to fail along the way, and one of the easiest markers of success or failure depends on how it ends. Many people are quick to assume that if you don’t make it through grad school, or if you persevere through the years but don’t continue on with academia once you’ve graduated (whether by choice or by an unfortunate string of applications, interviews, and rejections for academic positions), then you somehow failed. In other words, if you don’t get a job with that degree then you haven’t done anything worthwhile.
I know this well.
I’ve seen lots of people leave their graduate programs or tirelessly work to the end without ever really having direction about where to go once they’re done. There are also those who finish their programs only to be unable to get that rare tenure-track job. And, degree or no degree, each of these situations make it all too easy to feel like a failure. And to feel very bitter about your terrible life choice to go to grad school. (For these reasons and more, there are so many articles about why one shouldn’t go to grad school in the humanities. Although I’m not bitter, this post leans toward being a lucky survivor’s story, and I tend to agree that graduate school is a poor choice for many.)
I’m currently living in this awkward space of being a now-late-twenty-something-year-old with no semblance of a career. Sure, I may get really lucky and that could change sooner rather than later, but let’s be honest: For now, on the surface, it looks like I don’t have much going for me. Or, at the very least, whatever I have going for me is housed in what I’ve already done. Some might feel better knowing that plenty of other people are in the same graduated-with-advanced-degrees-but-no-direction boat, but for me, the Bitter Boat is too sad and crowded and I don’t want to have any part of it. (I’ll get back to this in a minute.)
For now, let’s address my current situation: The strange thing is that I feel like I’ve already been here.
Concerning my relocation, I’m literally back where I was five years ago when I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Same clouds, same sounds, same coffee shops. It feels like I just took a very long vacation and awoke from a bizarre Pennsylvanian dream.
With respect to my degree, I’m hearing the same question that I heard a hundred times before: “Oh, what are you going to do with a degree in philosophy?” But at least then I had an answer: “Go to grad school.” Duh. Having that answer at the height of the recession felt pretty fortunate. I thought, “It’s a five-year contract with benefits, they’re paying my tuition, and I get to keep studying what I love while being able to teach at the same time!” That was a terrific plan for twenty-one-year-old me, so I was happy to do it.
However, over the past year in particular, (especially after I made it explicit that I wasn’t going on the academic job market), it’s been a different experience when people ask, “What are you going to do with a doctorate degree in philosophy?” For years my inarticulate answers have been relatively vague at best. I’d try to temper my anxiety surrounding the question and dance around a suggestion of continuing to do publicly engaged philosophy, teach, and work within local communities (uhhh….like I always said I wanted to do, mind you). It’s only been a few months now that I could add something more definite: “I’m moving to Colorado!”
But even this is a trap.
People say, “Oh, Colorado is beautiful! Did you get a job?” and my awkward kicks in again since I didn’t move to Colorado because I got a job in Colorado. I moved to Colorado because I wanted to live in Colorado. But, of course, you don’t need a degree to move to a specific place. So the relentless questioning persists: “Yes, but what are you going to do with your DEGREE???”
So fine. Now let’s address the nature of my degree and “what I’m going to do with it”: The strange thing is that, much like how turning twenty-seven doesn’t really feel that different from being twenty-six, I don’t anticipate finally having my PhD to drastically change my life.
Throughout grad school I didn’t (and still don’t, really) know what one does with a doctorate degree in philosophy outside of academia because no one in academia actually supports you in finding other options outside of academia so you feel totally alone and hopeless like you’re looking into an empty-abyss-of-a-future so stop asking me, okay!?! (Although I’ve also come to accept the possibility that many academics don’t help find alternative routes for grad students because they honestly, sincerely, don’t know about them. They are academics, after all.) In my experience, the majority of my worry has been spent desperately wondering what could possibly happen next.
But the very real and painful risk of realizing that I DID just waste five (but likely more for most people) years of my life is always there, ready to nag at the first moment of pessimistic cynicism, insecurity, or self-doubt, to which, just like feeling like a failure, is pretty easy to fall victim.
Facebook tells me that many people with whom I graduated high school and college have their own homes, cars, and even their own businesses. While others got busy raising babies, I spent all that time reading, writing, studying, and teaching so that I could eventually put some letters after my name. And what am I doing with that dual-doctorate degree? I already told you, I’m moving to Colorado! But when others don’t see “moving because you want to” as a decently admirable response, working so hard in grad school for all of those years does start to sound pretty useless.
Here’s why: If I thought that this degree is just something with which you are to do one particular thing (i.e., get a tenure-track job at a university) and I’m not, at least not now, doing that one particular thing then I would be totally bitter. With such an undefined future and no pending applications for tenure-track jobs, my degree obviously isn’t doing that one thing for me so the only reasonable conclusion would be this: It WAS a waste of time, an incredible amount of difficulty and sustained stress for no good reason, and yadda yadda this is why so many grad students are miserable jerks.
Fortunately for me, my sanity, and those who have to deal with me on a daily basis, I don’t look at my time in grad school like that.
Sure, there were plenty of things about graduate school that really sucked, and it broke my heart when one professor told me, “You’re in your second year! Enjoy the rest of your time in grad school. It’s the best time of your life.” My thought was, “I have THREE more years of this…and it only gets worse!?!?” But for me, a young person with no dependents, there were aspects of grad school that were pretty sweet.
Once I accepted the fact that for five years I would have to get by on a very meager salary (a major downfall of going to graduate school), I made certain decisions for myself about how I was going to spend the next several years living. Especially once I decided to not kill myself doing all of the things one is supposed to do in preparation for the job market, I managed to create time to do lots of other valuable and worthwhile things, like hang out with friends a lot more than I did in college, go dancing on a very regular basis, cook, and work on “side projects” like my blog and YouTube channel (coincidentally enough, the very projects that have supported things that I might actually have going for me at present).
Most importantly, in grad school, I got to do what I wanted to do. I got to continue studying the things that interested me and teaching philosophy how I think it is best taught.
So how did I manage to stay balanced and motivated for those five years? And how do I leave a graduate program now, without a job nailed down, and still feel good about what I’ve done? By being bull-headed (as some faculty were keen to note), and by doing what I love. (As a side note, I want to suggest that this has something to do with the value of integrity – even for one’s own well-being – but I’ll let those connections hang for now.)
I made sure that throughout grad school I remained true to the reasons why I started studying philosophy in the first place. And because of all that, my years of study have and will continue to shape and inform what I do from here. That’s the cool thing about philosophy, or about doing philosophy in a way that respects the idea of “doing philosophy” as cultivating a specific way of life (a philifesophy, if you will!). It can’t help but shape you and inform your every action, whether you continue to exist within or outside of the ivory tower of academia. In other words, if you take a good look at me, who I am, and how I live my life, you’ll see what I’m doing with my degree! Five years ago I didn’t fully appreciate the weight that would be put on the degree upon finishing, but whatever peace of mind I have now exists because I can see that I wasn’t just getting a philosophy degree. I was doing philosophy in a way that, for five whole years, was cultivating a different sort of philosophical me.
Now that I’m in a new place, I’m happy about my geographical location. And in terms of my philosophical activity, I’m still up to the many of the same things. I still want and plan to teach. I still want and plan to write. I still want and plan to read. And I still want to live and breathe and enact and practice philosophy as I have been over the past five years – with passion, with pleasure, and with practical applications that help people live better. At some point all of this might actually lead back to an academic position. But right now, I also have the freedom to find new ways to do all of that which otherwise might be too restricted, overdetermined, or secondary to other demands if I were going directly into a conventional academic position at this point in my life.
So not getting an academic job right after graduation may look like a failure to some, it may make going to graduate school look like a waste of time to others, and it may even feel like it to many of those who share my position. But I’m not bitter because I never backed out on what I was doing and why I was doing it from the moment I chose to go to grad school. Without those years of grad school, I would still be undergraduate-philosophical-me. I had a lot of the same philosophical ideas when I was twenty-one, but I didn’t have the years I’ve spent exploring them. My relationship with philosophy then was like a summer fling. Now it’s like a committed marriage that has sustained through the ups and downs and plans to push on.