There is a one-word answer to that question, and that word is spite. Spite is underrated because people think it is an emotion for selfish people who are just nasty for No Good Reason. In an academic context, though, spite can be very useful. Spite, Gordon Gekko might say, is good. In fact, I’m convinced that spite is the best motivator for getting to the end of the long graduate school road.
Will spite work for you?
Before I discovered spite, I went to therapy to figure out how to finish my diss without admitting myself into a mental institution. (My university offered a number of free therapy sessions to all graduate students. What does that tell you?)
Why did I need spite?
I wanted to quit graduate school, but I felt that I was too far gone to turn back. (I was wrong, of course. Quitting can be a virtue.) But I was stuck because I couldn’t remember what I was doing in grad school in the first place. In fact, I did not care to remember. I didn’t care about anything but the answer to the question, when will the misery of this experience end?
Do you wake up every morning trying to summon the energy to open that document, the one that you despise with every fiber of your being, and type more words without puking all over your computer screen? If this sounds familiar, I think you owe it to yourself to cultivate spite.
How does spite work as a motivational tool?
Spite motivates in the absence of any rational context for making progress and in the knowledge that all your effort will most likely come to nothing. Spite is a combination of self-loathing and disgust. It is an elegant contempt. Acting out of spite does not mean that one is always right or blameless, which is what makes spite different than sanctimony. For example, I take responsibility for not doing more research about academia before I enrolled in Humanities graduate school. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t abused once I arrived in academe. And it doesn’t mean I didn’t deserve better as a student and as human being. I was wronged, but I was also a fool. Coming to that awareness and putting it to use is the essence of spite.
How did I discover spite?
When I was deep in dissertation hell, I went batshit crazy for a while. My significant other, who had completed a dissertation himself years before, told me that I should finish out of spite.
That advice really jarred me out of my stupor. I realized that I should not finish my dissertation because I really cared about my research (I didn’t), because I wanted to get a job (I wouldn’t), or because I wanted to please my advisor or anyone else (no one is worth that level of misery).
Instead, I would defend my dissertation to spite everyone who had ever told me to enroll in a graduate program because I was “smart” and smart people should just drop out of society and go to school forever, apparently.
I would finish my dissertation to spite every professor I ever had, even the few who were not smug assholes.
I would complete my diss to spite my supervisors at the Colleges Where I Used to Adjunct who oozed with platitudes about how I would be a sought-after candidate on the job market once I graduated. When I defended my dissertation, they suggested, I would finally be able to stop earning the slave wages they paid me, which of course was all I deserved until then.
Most of all, I would earn the PhD to spite every single one of my dissertation committee members who held so much power over me and could dictate with impunity when I was ready to be released from their clutches.
I owe a lot to spite. I was actually mentally ill for about a year before I finally defended. (I shouldn’t say “finished” because everyone knows that a dissertation is never finished. It is simply done being a dissertation, at which point it becomes another vile creature called a “book manuscript” that inspires further bouts of mental disease.)
Stay tuned for how late-stage Humanities PhD school turned me into a raving lunatic who found refuge in spite.