During my last year of grad school, when I was blithering through a months-long haze of anxiety, insomnia and self-loathing, a fellow student made a comment that snapped me out of my fog, if only for a moment.
I was in a meeting with some grad students from several different departments in the college where we all taught. Even though our supervisor was present, that didn’t stop us from complaining about how much grad school sucked and how miserable we were and how did we get into this mess? One student lamented, “I quit a $50,000/year job to go to grad school! I regret that!” Or something to that effect, only sadder and more suicidal-y.
Honestly, there were about eight of us in the room and no one had a single positive thing to say about living a life of the mind.
One colleague was especially articulate about the daily life one has to have – almost by accident – to succeed in grad school and earn that coveted PhD. He wasn’t talking about having enough money to eat while you’re in school. He was talking about Shitty Things That Happen To Almost Everyone At Some Point.
He said, “If anything happens in your life that is the least bit disruptive, your academic career could be over. For example, if there’s a death in your family and you take time off to grieve, or if you get sick, or your spouse gets sick, or your kid gets sick (or you have a kid). Anything can happen and, all of a sudden, it’s a year later and you’ve done no work and your advisor has forgotten your name and all the new kids in the program are so much smarter and more focused than you. And it’s over, like that.”
In other words, the least bit of instability or emotional distress can really mess up an academic career. His comments made me realize that there’s only one reason I was able to get through my decade-long slog through the grad factory: my long-time partner.
I make this statement in full recognition of the cheese factor. Still, having a partner who loves and supports you no matter what has few equivalents in life. (In my case, it was especially helpful that my partner had been through a grad program himself years before.) Having a relationship that provides emotional security during times of stress is a kind of privilege akin to whiteness or wealth. People who have it (and I’m one of them) don’t know how lucky they are.
Here are some conversations I have had with my sometime beau, now husband, over the last few years.
Me, when we met: “I like you. I would like you to be my boyfriend. Also, I am a first-year grad student, I have no money, and I don’t anticipate having a real job for at least the next 7-10 years. Also, I spend large amounts of time reading esoteric literature in a sub-field of a minor discipline in the Humanities, the details of which I will regale you with at mealtime. In response, you will learn how to nod and say “how interesting! Please pass the salt” a lot.
Him, when we met: “Sounds good. Let’s go get pizza.”
Me, a few years later: “I am five years into this thing and I’m really starting to hate it, which is why I am depressed and confused a lot. Furthermore, I might never have a job at all in my life because there aren’t any. Also, ha ha, did I mention my student loans?”
Him: “They’d have to be crazy not to hire you, but if they don’t, we’ll figure out something. Student loans! Aren’t those things ridiculous?”
Me, when I became a deranged mental patient during my last year of school: “I am going to throw myself off the Brooklyn bridge.”
Him: “Don’t do that. Instead, let’s get you some therapy.”
Me, when it was clear that I really and truly was never going to find an academic job and would have to rebuild a whole new career from scratch. “I really and truly am never going to find an academic job and will now have to rebuild a whole new career from scratch.”
Him: “None of this is your fault. You are better off now anyway.”
Me, at tax time one year: “Oops! I owe $5,000 to the IRS because of that freelance job for which I did not pay any taxes all year.”
Him: “Oh well. That will happen sometimes when you’re freelancing. We’ll just find a way to pay it. Let’s watch Mad Men.”
AND ON AND ON LIKE THAT FOR YEARS! No, I am not joking.
So, if you want to know how to survive grad school (or, for that matter, war and pestilence), get a partner that will find absolutely no reason to hate you, dump you, or even speak an angry word to you ever despite all your best efforts to make hir life a living hell.
I find that this is the only way to get through anything, most of the time.