6 years on: I am still aboard the PhD train
6 years is a long time.
In 6 years, a newborn becomes a first grader.
In 6 years, Jupiter travels halfway around the sun.
In 6 years, World War II began and ended.
And after 6 years, .
Yes, technically, I realize that I am currently in my 6th year, which means that it’s been 5 years and some change since I started my PhD. But while 6 years have not passed since I took my first seminar, I still am technically a “sixth year.” Which means that I have been in graduate school for a very long time.
I usually make light of it though, and try to poke some fun at my situation. For instance, when strangers, after learning that I am a graduate student, innocently ask what kind of degree I’m pursuing, I reply, “It’s either a PhD or a really long Master’s.” I’ve also started copying . When people ask about her dissertation defense date, she responds, “I’d rather tell you how much I weigh.” Our old age in graduate-school years has made us both a bit snarky.
I’ve found other “productive” ways to cope with my perpetual studenthood. Together with Elizabeth, who also happens to be my roommate, I finished the entire Parks and Recreation series. In a moment of creativity, I purchased and repainted some patio furniture. And, perhaps most importantly, I have adopted a guinea pig. Isn’t she adorable??
Grad school isn’t easy, though. And despite my healthy coping strategies—guinea pigs really are the best therapy pets—this journey often becomes exhausting. I guess this makes sense; after all, I’ve been working on this degree for more than half a decade. My friends who started their Master’s programs with me in 2012 have been gainfully employed for at least three years now. Some of my other friends have worked multiple jobs since finishing college. Still others have gotten married and had their second kid. Yet here I am, still a student. I realize that getting a doctorate is a job in itself, but I can’t help feeling like I’m caught in an extended form of adulthood-limbo. And sometimes I find myself wondering whether pursuing my PhD was the right thing to do. Whether all the hours—YEARS—poring over books, traveling to archives, and staring at a computer screen will eventually be worth it.
On my good days, when I find an interesting source, when I run into a former student, or when I receive positive feedback on my work, my answer is yes. In those moments, it’s easy to believe that this journey, with all its ups and downs, has been and will be worthwhile. I try to hold onto those days when this happens, and to recall these “small victories” even after they’ve passed. But in reality, those “good” days don’t happen very often. They can be rather few and far between, and their memory fades much more quickly than I’d like. The majority of the other days aren’t “bad,” per se, but they can become rather wearisome. Almost six years of delayed gratification can have that effect, I suppose. I am worn out. And while I’m not going to quit—I have come waaayyyy too far for that—sometimes I just want to curl up into a ball and sleep for a really, really long time. Rest is a good thing, I know; and I am doing my best to take it along the way. But at some point, I have to muster up the energy to just keep going. And sometimes that seems very hard to do.
I’m currently in Germany on a one-month research stay at an institute in Marburg. It’s been good to have a break from “normal” life for a bit, and I’ve found some information in their archives that has helped with my project. Anyway, this institute (and the guest apartment where I’m staying) happen to be on top of a mountain. This means that, when I go grocery shopping, run errands, or do anything besides hang out at the institute, I end by climbing back up the mountain. Last week, I decided to go for a long run along the river and through the city center. The run was beautiful, the weather was perfect, and my legs felt so happy. Until, that is, I started climbing back up the mountain. It. Was. Brutal. My lungs were heaving, my legs were twitching, and according to my Garmin watch, my heartrate was embarrassingly high. I found myself stopping every 1/10th of a mile to rest, which made for a very slow trek up the ¾-mile-high mountain. It was awful!
As I was trying to coax myself up another tenth-of-a-mile segment, popped into my head. This was one of my favorite passages; I used to quote this passage to myself when I ran track, so I wouldn’t give up during training runs or the merciless 800-meter races. I hadn’t thought about it in a while, but my oxygen-deprived brain would take any distraction it could get. And so I started repeating it to myself: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who, for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
I am weary. My brain is tired. My body is tired. I am tired of working on the same project, staring at the same computer screen, thinking through the same questions and ideas. I know that graduate school is a privilege and that not many people get to do it. I understand that, and I am grateful. But I am so tired. Very, very tired. So, I guess the question posed to me is this: what am I going to do with that exhaustion? Will I curl up in a ball and sleep for days on end? Will I get down and discouraged like I am often so tempted to do? Or will I do everything I can to “fix my eyes on Jesus… so I won’t grow weary and lose heart”?
I wish I could answer once and for all, but I’m finding that every day (sometimes every moment) asks me that question again. And oftentimes, all I can muster up the energy to say is, “Help me, Jesus.” I guess that counts for something.
Tonight, though, it’s time for some R&R. If only I could hold that adorable little guinea pig…
Stefanie Woodard (@steffikrull) is a PhD Candidate and Dean's Teaching Fellow at Emory University in Atlanta. This story was published on October 19, 2017, on Stefanie’s blog, In Plain Sight (available here), and has been published here with her permission.