This photo of a sign welcoming visitors to Antananarivo is theoretically unrelated to the subject of my post. But it does represent how distant finishing my PhD feels right now, at the end of my first year — roughly as far away as the capital of Madagascar. I traveled there briefly for my previous job, in November 2013. Crucially, I did not see the lemurs while I was there. This failure is probably my greatest regret from the working world, on which I have now closed the door in order to descend into the dark cave of academia.
On my very first day in the cave, my professor, who arrived with his two-year-old son and the first of many pairs of colorful patterned socks, asked everyone to tear off a sheet of paper and anonymously write two things: what we were most excited for in grad school and what scared us the most. (Everyone was really nervous on this day, although it paled in comparison to department orientation, a few days earlier, when the chairman asked us without warning to declare the question we had each embarked on a PhD to answer. In those five excruciating minutes while we went around the circle, I tried to determine whether it was worth coming up with an answer or I should just fake an emergency and make for the ladies’ room.) Anyway, Professor J collected our papers, sifted through them, and chuckled. We had all written the same things. We were all excited to pursue whatever intellectual projects struck our fancy (in the words, answer the question we had all almost peed in our pants trying to invent earlier that week) and we were afraid of (1) not having a life; and (2) impostor syndrome. I was in the second camp, because I am generally okay at having a life (which seems to go hand-in-hand with woefully inadequate time management skills). But impostor syndrome is something they tell you everyone feels in grad school, and so far I can confirm that they are right. It’s not constant, but comes in waves that make for an emotional Kingda Ka. (According to a very reputable source, the New York Post, Kingda Ka is one of the seven most terrifying roller coasters in the world.) At our department holiday party, a young female professor nodded knowingly. “Every time you say something that feels sort of intelligent, write it down. Keep this list on hand for all the times you feel like you’ve said something dumb.” I know what you’re thinking (unless you’re also a PhD student): yeah right, I’m sure nothing you kids say is actually dumb. But when you’re discussing Althusser in class and all you remember is something about a kernel and a shell, and you highlighted the word “overdetermination” repeatedly and scribbled a lot of question marks and despairing “WTFs!?” in the margins of your printout, pretty much anything that subsequently comes out of your mouth feels pretty dumb.
People tell you a lot of sad and scary things before you start a PhD. The big two are feeling isolated and depressed, on one hand, and probably not finding a job when you’re finished, on the other. After year 1, with plenty of friends and years away from the job market, my main concern is neither of these. Instead, it’s fear of receding from reality. Only 1.68 percent of adults in the United States have a PhD, and that’s in all fields combined. So it’s a pretty small universe, and debates in which 99.9% of the population has zero interest can loom very large. I remember, for example, a seminar early last semester in which the term “Global North” was raised in a lengthy discussion of alternatives to “the West.” I was familiar with the Global South, maybe because I had worked in the international development sector before grad school, but never Global North. I pointed out to the professors that this was not a term in common parlance (though sure, we could make it happen I guess). My professors did not believe me, so I conducted a very diverse poll of people ranging from my dad to several highly educated friends. Nope, no one had heard of it. A few weeks ago, the Global North reared its ugly head again in another seminar; I realized only later that it sounded utterly mundane. It’s easy to slip into jargon because we spend so much time reading it. It becomes a kind of game to weave scholars you’ve read into your speech, and the verbal footnotes are those people’s jargon.
The other thing that plagues me is the suffocating pressure to be original. Classes in grad school don’t teach content, they teach method. You can go read a textbook on your own time to learn what actually happened in the past, I discovered. It’s an extracurricular activity. But in class, you’re supposed to learn how to argue about the past. Therefore, no one is really interested in whether you’ve mastered what happened, though if you get something wrong it can be very embarrassing. Originality is paramount, but it’s also very, very hard. The more you read, the more it seems like everything has been written. Once, a classmate started the sentence, “there’s an extensive literature on…[fill in the blank].” The professor cut her off: “There’s an extensive literature on everything, isn’t there?” Yes. People have written a lot of things, and most likely someone — or many people — have written on the thing you’ve just hit on as a fresh, fascinating subject. If no one has, it could well be it’s because it really doesn’t matter. In search of original material — or, really, an original argument — it’s easy to get caught in a pendulum of doom between the hackneyed and the irrelevant.
I wasn’t sure when I applied for a PhD that academia was the right career for me; I’m still not, though I understand better some of the advantages (and disadvantages). There is also variety within the academy — research-heavy positions at universities with lots of pressure to publish and teaching-heavy positions at liberal arts colleges. (Or, alternatively, adjunct positions that keep you bobbing just below the poverty line.) I did decide that a PhD itself was the right decision, and I still feel that way. Because I study the modern Middle East, I have always told myself that there are other appealing options if I decide academia is not for me (options that might not exist if I studied any number of other sub-fields). But it is hard to imagine those other options seriously when surrounded by people (faculty) who have won the game, who are at the very top of their field. To say one might consider a different path inevitably feels like confessing to a wish for failure or a concession that failure has already occurred. There is a sense, I think, that doing something else with a PhD is a waste of the degree. Universities are paying increasing lip service to non-academic careers, but it stems from a realization that there aren’t enough teaching jobs for everyone, not from recognition of the intrinsic value of some of those alternatives.
The paralysis that ensues from the quest for originality is heightened by offhanded reminders to choose a topic well because “it will be the next 10-15 years of your life.” Maybe more, if you’re aiming for the academic job market and banking on said project getting you hired for the long haul. In any event, they say, it will occupy several years of grad school, a postdoc during which maybe you make your dissertation into a book, your first job, and then talking about the book for a while. Again, this is paralyzing. A professor recently told me, “Do not pick a topic for its novelty,” because this novelty will definitely wear off. “Pick it because it answers a big, important question, not because it fills a hole [that maybe doesn’t need to be filled].” This is good advice, but (again) terrifying. What is big enough and important enough, and also something no one has done (at least in the last few decades)? (I don’t know.)
Getting a PhD is very different from undergrad, not only because you’re not struggling to see through the clouds of bullshit, but because it feels like what you’re producing should matter. In undergrad, you want to hand in decent work, get good grades, learn some things, and find yourself — then go do whatever you want. Thereafter, it is entirely valid to spend some years figuring things out, trying on different versions of your future life. My first year after graduation, when I lived in Egypt, was obviously an ephemeral moment. While I imagine I’ll be tied to Egypt forever, that period did not feel like “real life.” (Unless real life is hitting up the local juice joint three times a day, eating hot dog croissants for breakfast, and paying rent in massive wads of cash to a guy upstairs drinking imported whiskey in a gold-leaf Louis XIV chaise.) Working in international development in Atlanta, my next move, felt like an audition for what could be my real life — but eventually I knew it probably wouldn’t be. Changing jobs is easy in your 20s, and actually people will give you the side-eye if you stay with any one thing too long: you should be out there building your resume! Academia is different, I now know. You don’t dabble in a PhD. You’re in it for the long haul. Yes, you can quit, flip the academy the bird, and go open a bar. Most people don’t do this, however. And after six years, I imagine it’s a bummer if you decide it’s not what you want to do. Given the trend toward narrow specialization, once you’re on a certain course it is nearly impossible to change course and fly in another direction.
So enrolling in a PhD program might predestine certain neuroses, ones you didn’t know you had. But it can also be pretty great, and not only because it comes hand in hand with regularly scheduled free pizza and beer. (Also, having been over to the real world and back, I can testify that not only students scavenge for free food. I distinctly remember slinking away from a real-world office function with empanadas oozing out of my purse, and I was not the only one.) Spending hours a day reading, or at least binge-buying books you like to look at with anticipatory satisfaction, is a beautiful thing. Moreover, contrary to the ominous warnings of the finger-waggers, it is easy to make friends. Friends who always have something they’re excited about, who also regularly wade through stacks of books they hope to read one day.
Perks aside, I’ll focus on a class I took this year that made me happy to have chosen this. I enrolled in a small seminar with seven other women (take note: the future of academia is the hands of smart ladies!) entitled Law, Medicine, and Justice in Modern Egypt. Our professor, who is unfortunately only visiting Harvard for a couple years, is the foremost historian of Egypt probably anywhere in the world. The class focused on the crafting of the modern Egyptian state in nineteenth century, specifically in the decades that preceded the British occupation in 1882. Perennially caught between wanting to do something with obvious impact now and recognizing that someone has to do the longer-term thinky-thinky stuff that shapes, questions, and undermines the way we understand and act in the world, I finally found comfort. In short, I’ve never been so convinced in my life of the 19th century’s urgent relevance. A good course should always, I think, have at its heart a question rather than an argument. Broadly, this one asked: “Where are the roots of the violence of the modern Egyptian state?” In our professor’s convincing view, the answer is deeper than colonialism, and requires looking to the institutions that were taking shape before it. What we read dug at the heart of the contradictions of modernization — the co-evolution of medicine and control, of justice and torture. Today, when faced with the Egypt of virginity tests, tear gas, mass detentions, and the killing of Giulio Regeni — and many, many more Egyptians whose names will never make the news — how and why can be powerful tools in the arsenal of those fighting for something different.
Some day, I hope to have the same certainty that what I am studying matters. Perhaps I’ll find space this summer to identify those questions that will give me that certainty.
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I have in mind for this blog a blend of reflections on topics (I hope of general interest) related to my research and the PhD life and dispatches from faraway places. I’ll be away from Cambridge for three months this summer, primarily in Cairo, Istanbul, and London. My first stop, Cairo, was my home for just over a year (June 2012-July 2013), a particularly eventful year in which a new government rose and then fell very hard. I’m going back on May 20 to visit friends and make a preliminary foray into some archival collections. From June 2 and through the end of July, I’ll be in Istanbul, learning my Turkish ABCs. And in mid-August I’ll burrow down in the British National Archives outside London. Off to adventures!