Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Yesterday I attended a fairly small and informal talk given by Bitch PhD. I've never seen a blogger in real life, and as she's just now starting to straddle the line from anonymity into open identity, I'd never seen her picture. As I wandered around the building, trying to find the room where she'd be speaking, I found myself wondering if each person I saw was her -- but what does a feminist, political, open-marriage-embracing, maternal academic blogger look like?

Pretty much like you'd guess, actually. She does the confident, geeky hip look very well.

Her remarks were mostly focused around mentoring graduate students, and some obvious changes that could and should be made in the process. The focus was squarely on humanities disciplines, and if it hadn't been, I think I would have run from the room, gasping for breath. The length of time it takes to get a PhD in English, for example, and the job prospects afterwards are, to put it bluntly, depressing. Whatever issues I have, at least I'm not facing the question of, "Okay, now I've spent 8 years working on my degree, my personal life is shot, and I don't know how to take care of myself anymore -- which of these jobs outside of my discipline am I willing to take in order to pay the bills?" So. There's that. At least I haven't spent 8 years here, and I'll likely get a job in my actual, you know, field.

She did repeat the conventional wisdom, which I hate, that grad school is the ideal time to have kids. Her son was born while she was writing her dissertation, so she hired a nanny for three hours a day, focused intently on writing while the nanny was there, and poof! Everybody's happy. Again, a difference between the humanities and the sciences -- the competition and push for grants would never successfully allow that kind of schedule here. Obviously, I do have flexibility now, but there is a cost that isn't openly acknowledged often; it's become like a personal crusade for me to make those trade-offs explicit. I do believe that having kids while writing is probably easier than many other times, but there is a popular conception (which I heard over and over) that it was actually easy. Bald-faced lie. Recall bias. Call it what you will.

One other comment that she made that resonated with me was in response to a woman who earnestly laid out the chronology of her life: graduated college, took a couple of years off as she had been advised to do, did a terminal masters in order to get into a PhD program, now was in the PhD program and if she graduates after the average number of years will be - wait for it - OHMYGOD 32! And then, apparently, someone told her, "Don't forget about menopause!" So, she was panicking and felt like she'd been misled. Bitch addressed it perfectly -- told her that you have kids when you have kids, and you can't plan your life like that. More importantly, though, she reminded her that where you are is, well, where you are. This is the point -- not your eventual job, not your eventual family. You are living your life, not waiting for your life to start. That's how I've been approaching grad school, and truthfully is a large part of why I'm still here, instead of having pushed to finish. This is my life.


Anne said...

I swear, sometimes you read my mind. After a truly craptacular proposal meeting, I have revisions which will push my graduation date back again. And I was starting to think of throwing in the towel...because is this really worth it? And don't I want my life back?

Thanks for reminding me that this is my life...and that it will happen as it happens.

Ruth said...

Oh Anne, I'm so sorry to hear about your meeting. I know how happy you were to be turning in your proposal before the holidays; it sucks to go back a step. I wish that hadn't happened to you.

Once again, though, we find that grad students have spookily similar experiences... It's hard not to view this as nothing but preparation for the great beyond, but I, at least, am much happier when I can avoid that.