Week 6: Never Forget how Lucky You Are
A friend and former DePaul colleague asked me the other night to talk to him about pursuing a PhD. He had applied to a number of programs, including the program I’m in, and wanted to know more about what my experiences have been. I was honest and fair with both him and myself, and I tried to give him a balanced description of what the challenges and rewards of a PhD are. This was an interesting exercise in and of itself because as I was describing the process of beginning a PhD I realized just how many things had to break my way in order for me to find myself where I am right now. There was a complex 100+ page application to complete, scarce and uncertain funding to secure, an innocuous but secretly terrifying academic review to successfully pass, a new community of intimidatingly brilliant colleagues to join, a family to continue to be a part of, bills to attempt to pay, teaching to become familiar with, writing-career work of my own which pre-dated school to continue and, as we’ve seen here on this blog, mountains of research to complete and shape into original scholarship.
In the broadest sense these things are continually and sometimes oppressively daunting, but even on the scale of the completion of a week’s or day’s work, they depend more heavily on luck than I usually prefer think about. For example, Typee the novel we read this week for ENG779, happened to be available in a free and high-quality audiobook. This allowed me to read ahead by about ten days on the course calendar, off-setting Frank Norris’ The Pit and the second half of Siegfried Kracaur’s The Mass Ornament which I also had to read and for which there exist no audiobooks. Last week, we read Norris’ McTeague and Poe’s A Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, both of which were available on audiobook. By using the 30+ hours I spent in the car over those last few weeks, along with the time I spent washing dishes, driving to and from my teaching job in Chicago, folding laundry, and the two or three hours each night after my wife fell asleep, I was able to gain just enough ground on the relentless reading schedule of this term to carve out six or seven hours of time the week before last for research and again today to work on the first draft of my paper. These blocks of time were incredibly contingent; if even one minor thing had gone wrong, I could have easily lost my best (and maybe only) chance to spend a significant chunk of time accomplishing these critical and tricky tasks. If my son got sick, or if my phone died in the middle of a book, or if my computer crashed, or if we happened to hit a week in which none of the books were available as audiobooks, it could have had serious consequences to my workflow.
On an even smaller scale, just a single day, luck has to be on my side for me to succeed. I’ve been struggling with headaches, eye strain, and back pain since about the third week of class from all the sitting, driving, and reading, and lately they’ve been particularly acute. I’ve had to change my contacts regularly, rest my eyes as much as possible, use hot and cold packs on my back, stretch on a yoga ball, and consume a never-ending stream of caffeine and anti-inflammatories to power through the avalanche of reading and writing and the endless commuting. Even with today’s six or seven hours on offer, if I’d had a nasty episode of back pain that drove me to my couch or away from my computer, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish as much as I did (which turned out to be quite a lot—an entire draft, in fact). If some emergency at my teaching job had pulled me away or some other pressing thing intruded—if anything happened to go wrong today—I’d be in trouble. But somehow, nothing did. Somehow I continue to live a just-charmed-enough life that I can continue to plow ahead with this program and make it happen.
This is the sort of thing you can’t explain to someone when they ask you what PhD research and coursework is like. It’s like becoming a parent, full of pride and wonder and self-growth bookended with grinding work and random outbreaks of panic, but it also involves a difficult-to-fathom quotient of luck that I try to remain continually thankful for and conscientious of in the moments when the workload threatens to overwhelm.