Remember when you were an undergrad (or maybe you are an undergrad right now) and you were taking classes from all sorts of fascinating disciplines? On any given day during my undergrad I could have Philosophy, German, History, English, Sociology, or whatever and it was truly a delightful thing. I would show up and these smart people would teach me things–usually–and my only job was to absorb those things and apply them when it came time for the exam and/or term paper. University really is a great system in that way; its structure is very straightforward.
The career of an undergraduate really is a fantastic mixture of socialization and book learnin’. In the interests of full disclosure, I freely admit that I had outgrown most of the socialization we usually associate with university by the time I started at age 22. I began my bachelor’s degree as many of my friends who had gone to university straight out of high school were finishing. This was a strange feeling and it was also my first real taste of imposter syndrome. In many ways I did not have what we might think of as a traditional undergraduate experience. There was very little fanfare, let alone whipped cream, during my first semester. We all went to university in an 80s comedy, right?
Getting back to the topic at hand, what really prompted me to think back to my undergrad days was a colleague who was lamenting the pressure put on PhD students to be ‘competitive’ for the job market. That many-headed beast who is never satisfied with your accomplishments and always hungry for more. More publications. More scholarships. More networking. It’s all a real mindfuck if you sit down and give it any serious thought. As we all know, academic hiring is not a meritocracy and luck plays as much a role as any of your sweet publications (although the latter cannot possibly hurt). It’s when I began to think, as I often do, about this whole world I’ve willfully chosen to be a part of that I was reminded of a former version of myself who loved every minute of the university experience.
This is not to say, however, that I don’t love what I’m doing. I don’t think you can do academia very successfully if you don’t have at least a bit of love for your work. I guess the stage I’m at right now might be what I’d call ‘old love.’ I love my work the way grandparents might love each other: they’re not giddy about it and rolling around in the back of a Studebaker anymore, but they really can’t imagine a life without one another. Back when I was an undergrad I was like that old photo of your grandfather with the Bogart hairdo and smart jacket. My classes were your grandmother with ruby red lips and risqué form-fitting dress and, boy howdy, were we mad for each other. It continued on apace for the entirety of my four year degree and, by the end, it was still quite something but perhaps with the luxury of a little maturity and experience.
Studying as an undergrad meant that you would never leave campus without knowing much more than you did when you arrived that day. Study, attend lecture, study some more, have class discussion, exam, term paper equaled one learned young man. After undergrad I did a teaching degree, but we’ll kindly avoid that subject. My education degree, if we’re sticking with the grandparent metaphor here, is the period they don’t like to discuss but nobody really knows why.
The master’s degree was very much a study, attend lecture, class discussion type of affair except that this time the stakes were much higher in terms of what was expected to come out of our mouths and brains. This is not even to mention how much more specialized the subject matter was. Master’s coursework allowed me to fill in the gaps of my broad knowledge in English. Still discovering things and reading widely and voraciously, at breakneck pace. This is when your grandparents first had your mum or dad and every day was a struggle, financially and emotionally, but they wouldn’t have traded it for the world. In a lot of ways, these were the best days of your grandparents’ lives and they learned a lot about who they were.
Finally, we get to the PhD. This is the point when your grandparents have begun establishing themselves. Maybe your grandpa smokes a pipe now. There is a comfort level and a feeling like everything will probably be okay. There’s a clear path to success, you just have to be sure to make something out of what you’re doing. At many points during the process it is frustrating, the kids are misbehaving, and your relationship seems strained. Expectations become more nebulous as you fall into a routine that is not actually a routine and you sometimes wish you could just get back into that Studebaker and let nature take its course. That was a lot of fun, but you realize that you can’t really ever go back and that’s okay, except when it’s not.
As the doctorate presses on, it is a given that you love your thesis topic but maybe you don’t buy it flowers much anymore and wouldn’t it be nice if all you had to do was show up? Sometimes, when I think about what it was like to be an undergrad student, attending lectures and being let into the seemingly secret worlds of the disciplines I studied I can’t help but play this in my head: