Ph.Ds & Other Drugs

For the past six months, every conversation with a close friend has eventually veered into the direction of the three-word sentence––I hate school. My three closest Chicago friends, whom I met while completing an Americorps program, have each at one point or another been on the listening end of this rant. As a collective, we found ourselves committing a full service year as a time buffer before transitioning into what we thought would become lifelong careers. 1700 hours of service later, we landed right where we started, dazed and confused about what lay ahead of us. One of us fell into the nonprofit world, while the rest of us settled on graduate school.

One week into my English Ph.D. program, I knew it was a mistake. Butterflies preceding my in-class comments turned into full-blown panic attacks, complete with tunnel vision and fast-paced heart racing. I bookmarked thirty different “How To Survive Graduate School” guides that emphasized self-care, but reading them only led to insomnia-inducing guilt; I disappointed myself by choosing to read those guides instead of class material. Everyone caught the wrath of my blame: my classmates for actually understanding and keeping up with the material. My professors for seemingly never-ending assignments at a quarter-system university. My partner for having a job that allowed him to come home and completely disconnect and read books for pleasure instead of grades. I blamed everyone but myself.

In retrospect, attributing blame to a person functioning almost entirely out of anxiety feels heavy-handed. As a first-generation American and first of my family accomplishing this educational milestone, the thought of disappointment was a desolate reality. I was convinced my only true talent existed in the classroom, so I couldn’t imagine a life beyond it.

After finally breaking through my glossy graduate school exterior and engaging in genuine conversations, the floodgates of honesty opened. One friend disclosed that in her third year, she drafted her email of departure with no plans of looking back. Now in her fifth year, she realizes her mistake and sympathizes with me. Another friend shared his dream of becoming a sound engineer but was steered into academia by family members who, like mine, voiced the need for young Black thinkers in the academy.

For many of us in graduate programs, our fuel is 30% research and 70% anxiety. The post-doctorate struggle is so heavily romanticized that leaving translates to a lack of courage and perseverance. For many, it takes throwing oneself into the depths of this experience to realize that there are other galaxies we have yet to touch. Unfortunately, these are galaxies and truths left undiscovered because many of us tremble at the thought of these difficult conversations with family members or advisors fighting for our success. I continue to discuss these fears with friends, hoping we will inspire each other with our determination; not to struggle through school, but to persevere and create lives for ourselves that exist beyond external standards of success.

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