Post-PhD Blues

I sometimes joke with friends that I gave birth twice during grad school. Once when I delivered my son at Queen’s hospital in Honolulu, and a second time two and a half years later when I successfully defended my dissertation.

Both births were intense, simultaneously filled with joy and anxiety.

Both events bestowed on me complicated identities that regularly felt incompatible with one another.

When I formed each sentence of my dissertation, I wondered what my son was doing and whether I should be playing with him instead of his daycare teacher. As I read my son to sleep at the end of his day, a list of chapter edits scrolled through my head.

There was rarely a moment when I felt settled in either role as academic or mother.

And yet, when the identity of one threatened to consume me, the other swooped in to remind me of my wholeness. There was security in the tenuous balance of juxtaposing these major life roles.

***

It’s been nearly 12 months since graduating, and I’ve only begun to make sense of my life since earning that doctoral degree. In my first year as “Dr. Yuka” the stitches that held together my carefully woven identities began to unravel.

The problem was that I had expected to feel elated as a newly anointed PhD. As a well-defined social identity, “doctor,” I thought I could rest easy in knowing who I was; or at least how I thought others saw me. Instead, I didn’t really know who I was, if I was not a grad student.

How could I have been so attached to an identity that I felt so desperate to shed?

No longer was I enthralled in the unrelenting labor of my biographical research project. In the achievement-focused academic space, I hadn’t appreciated the profound experience of the journey there. Instead, I had obsessed over the destination.

As Dr. Yuka, I looked back nostalgically at researching and writing for their own sake, unencumbered by the pressure of publishing or achieving tenure. I missed the comfort of concrete and clearly defined milestones of my program, the very same ones that as a grad student I had loathed.

Soon after my convocation, I felt aimless and depressed.

***

Our society has come a long way in recognizing mental health, though much work remains to be done in this area. When I was pregnant I had known about the possibilities of postpartum depression. I worried about this and took precautions, expressing concern with loved ones and my therapist.

I managed to evade the euphemistically labeled “baby blues.”

Perhaps this gave me a false sense of resiliency for the “PhD blues.” I certainly didn’t take precautions for my mental health while growing my project in the same way I did when I was pregnant.

During grad school when I spent time with my family, the guilt from not working on my dissertation was overwhelming. Even if I took a physical break or holiday from work, my mind never ceased to churn.

Feeling guilty over not producing work became a well-defined neural reflex in my brain, and it didn’t disappear with a new and fancy designation after my name. Instead, my consciousness quickly replaced one form of pressure with another: the need to lock down a steady and well-compensated career to make up for the years of a low-wage, no-benefits graduate student salary.

Much like what I’d imagine is the case for struggling artists, my work barely fed our family. This challenged my sense of self as provider and caregiver. The romance of intellectual work for its own sake quickly faded after I was released from the world of doctoral work. My partner, who never understood my desire to learn for the sake of it, supported me anyway. But after six years (three of which included raising our young child) I knew I had depleted his tolerance for our grad school lifestyle.

If I felt the weight of working through the PhD program was heavy, it paled in comparison to my immediate life after. For six years, I conducted my research and fulfilled my teaching obligations under the pretense that I was working toward an unknown but idealized potential self: Dr. Yuka.

But graduate school is really only designed to prepare you for an academic life. At best, I felt ambivalent about a career in the ivory tower, even if I loved working on my dissertation with my amazing committee, and supportive cohort.

As I questioned my next steps, I went down a dangerous rabbit hole of scrutinizing all my decisions during school. The ones that took me away from my young son and partner in favor for working weekends and evenings elicited too much grief over the time lost with my family. I felt confused about my priorities.

***

Had trying to strike a balance with my two roles—mom and academic—finally caught up to me?

My self-talk was mean and relentless.

How dare I not apply for postdocs or tenure-track positions. I have some nerve taking time to explore my next steps. What a luxury and privilege to struggle as an over-educated, under-employed parent. Graduate school was selfish. My lack of direction is an insult to my partner and son. Do I deserve them? Did I waste six years of my life?

In the immediate months after graduation, I continued to lecture for my department and started freelance work, but the unstable and temporary nature of both jobs hardly felt like enduring careers.

My self-loathing evolved to anger. I was still recouping from the hustle and exhaustion of dissertating, the process of which had led me to feel entitled to some guarantee of a career, even as I knew about the grim prospects for doctoral graduates seeking academic paths. My ego was caught up in a series of unreasonable expectations about whom I should be and what I “deserved” for no other reason than three new letters after my name.

The tricky thing about transitioning identities is how we manage the expectations for ourselves we didn’t realize we had. In this way, earning my PhD was a lot like becoming a parent. Graduation, like giving birth, was just the beginning.

As with parenting, when I started to let go of expectations (mine and society’s) surrounding my role as a newly minted PhD, I started to allow for more grace and forgiveness with adjusting to this new identity. In so doing, I’ve given my new status some much needed perspective: that it’s only a part of who I am.

I don’t yet know how I’ll evolve professionally. But how many actually do, with real certainty? As my first “gradu-anniversary” came and passed this May, I reflect on the past year in which life remained relatively uneventful, though my internal world ran amuck. Recently, I’ve been sitting more comfortably with the unknown “next-steps.” With the noise of arbitrary expectations quieting in my head, I’ve been giving my professional aspirations a fighting chance to be heard.

 

Yuka lives in Washington, D.C.

 

Image: Pineapple Bud (Georgia O’Keeffe)

Fighting for My Beliefs

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It’s still on my bookshelf: the paperback copy of Moby Dick (Signet Classic, 75¢) that I read while serving in the Army in Vietnam, indelibly stained with the red dirt from western edge of III Corps, along the Cambodian border, where I spent six months in the late 1960s. It is about the same latitude as Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, and a tourist destination for many Americans.

I was a young man with liberal beliefs who went to a Quaker college. How did I end up in the Army, fighting in a war I despised? (read more…)

That Time I Policed a Woman’s Voice

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I recently read an article about “radical candor” in the workplace (the idea that supervisors should give very direct feedback to their team) that contained a shocking anecdote.

While at Google, a woman named Kim Scott gave a presentation to senior management. She was nervous, but overall felt the presentation had gone well and could tell that the owners of the company were pleased. But afterward her boss – who happened to be Sheryl Sandberg – took her aside to give her some feedback on her presentation style. At first Sheryl was gentle with her criticisms of Kim’s public speaking, but could tell none of it was landing. According to Kim, Sheryl finally said, ‘You know, Kim, I can tell I’m not really getting through to you. I’m going to have to be clearer here. When you say um every third word, it makes you sound stupid.’”

At first Sandberg’s comment seemed startlingly direct to me, even offensive. But I realized that I’d done something similar to someone I used to manage. (read more…)

Oreo versus Art

Andy-Warhol-32-Soup-CansI recently sang about Oreos in a TV commercial.

I’m part of a band that’s had some recent success, which has been hugely exciting for me. I love music and consider being a musician a core part of my identity (not that I am fully supporting myself this way yet, Oreo commercial notwithstanding).  I genuinely enjoyed producing the Oreo spots, which might horrify some artists. Thinking about why an Oreo commercial might stir up negative emotions for others led me to question my work. Does my participation in this commercial affect the “purity” of my music as an art? (read more…)

Are Video Games Art?

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As a video game designer, I feel like I constantly have to defend the relevance of my chosen career. Yes, some people think it sounds cool and fun, but many – especially those born before 1970 – are disappointed to hear that this is what I do. Unlike writing or fine art, game design doesn’t have widespread cultural recognition as a valid form of art and expression. This has always bothered me and, at times, made me feel insecure about what people think about my work. Recently, I had a funny run-in with a capital-A-Artist that made me reconsider the whole question of whether games qualify as art.

I was taking a ferry to an island off the coast of Maine for a few days vacation away from game development. This was in late September, so school was in session and the tourists that swell Maine’s population every summer had thinned out. It was a warm fall day and there were no other passengers above decks, which meant – I thought – that I could relax with a book and forget about the world for a short while.

And then, before the boat had even left the dock, an old man climbed the stairs to the top deck, sat next to me, and asked me if I knew Nijinsky, the great Russian dancer. (I didn’t then, but I sure as hell do now.)

(read more…)