Monday, March 18, 2013

Balancing Work and Everything Else

Before I learned that it would take me two more years to finish grad school (when I thought that I would be done by the end of next year), I had been seriously considering joining an online dating site again. I recently received a LinkedIn request from a guy whose name only sounded vaguely familiar. I'm not on LinkedIn, but I clicked on the guy's page to see who it was.

It turned out to be a guy I went on a date with a few years ago. He actually mentioned his wife on his job profile. I wasn't sad or disappointed to learn that he'd gotten married, since I hadn't even spoken to him since our one date and I hadn't even liked him very much anyway. On that night, he acted like he was doing me a favor by hugging me goodbye, and at one point during the date he high-fived me. And when I say "he high-fived me", I don't mean that as a euphemism for something dirty; I mean he actually gave me a high five. (It made me feel like I was his fraternity brother or something.)

I was curious, so I Googled a couple of the other guys I'd met through online dating. (I'm not on Facebook, so I couldn't check out their profiles. And I wouldn't WANT to, because what if they found out I was checking up on them and then they either laughed pityingly at me or did something worse, like call me?) I found out that a guy I hadn't even dated had gotten married as well; I found his wedding picture online. This was one of the disappearing acts, who e-mailed me once and then I never heard from him again. In his one e-mail, he had mentioned that he was a filmmaker, and I later learned that he had made a film about stick figures having sex with each other. (I WISH I was making that up.)

So after learning that those two had both found love, I started making plans to try online dating again. A lot of women wonder where the men are, but I already know. In Chicago, many of them are at the sports bars, yelling authoritatively at the games on the TV screens and chugging beer with their friends. But seeing as how the last time I drank alcohol (I used to let myself have a drink once every few years, but I don't do that anymore.), I tripped and fell into a crowd of people (and this was after I'd had only ONE drink),  I figured that I wouldn't make a very good impression at a bar. And my idea of playing a sport is imagining my loud, annoying, and inconsiderate neighbors trapped in an arena with a couple of gladiators, or perhaps a couple of lions who haven't eaten yet. (Just kidding. Sort of.)

I wanted to try, because it's so popular, NOT because of all the commercials that feature people having fun on their first dates. That already tells me that those commercials are unrealistic, because on most of my first dates - including the ones that I went on the first time I tried - I did NOT have fun. Instead, I spent most of the time counting the number of exits in the places that I went to with my dates, or wishing that I had worn sneakers instead of heels so that I could make a faster getaway. The more popular a site is, though, the more people are on it.

But that meeting with my professors made me realize that I have to make my dissertation a top priority, now more than ever. What if I screw up again, and they told me I have to leave the graduate program? When your life revolves around your work, the possibility of failing at your work is enough to completely freak you out. Knowing that any of those guys I went on dates with had gotten married doesn't bother me. But knowing that I couldn't be a teacher anymore would truly break my heart.

I really do want to start dating again, even if it means going on more awkward first dates (sighhhh). And I want to get married someday, and have children. (But seeing as how I'm pushing thirty-two, I'm not sure how many children I'll be able to have. I hope I get to have at least one, though.)

But instead, I've become even more of a workaholic. I spend most of my free time studying. The problem with online dating is that it takes up a lot of time. There are all the hours spent combing through profiles, writing e-mails and answering them, talking on the phone with people I'm interested in, and going on the actual dates. There is also the time I have to spend blocking certain guys from e-mailing me again, particularly if they a) are too old or too young for me; b) apparently believe that no response from me means that they should keep e-mailing me as many times as possible, since the word "stalker" is not in their vocabularies; c) make it clear in their profiles that they're looking for someone to hook up with (on okcupid you can specify if you're looking for a "casual encounter"); d) make their profiles sound like they were written by one of the characters on South Park or Family Guy.

So I've decided that unfortunately, online dating is going to have to wait until the end of the school year. It sucks, but it would just be too much of a distraction right now. I wish I could figure out a way to balance work and everything else, but it's hard to do that when graduate school makes you feel like if you don't commit to it completely, the other academics will haunt you or you'll have nightmares about footnotes.

What about you? How do you balance work and everything else?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reaching Out to Others

After that brutal meeting with two of my professors, I contemplated several ways of dealing with all the fear, shame, and sadness that I felt as a result. One way involved about two gallons of caffeine (preferably in the form of Coca-Cola) and a barrel of chocolate. (I decided against doing that, but I was REALLY tempted.) Another way involved crawling into bed and listening to sad music for several hours, but all of my playlists consist of stuff like Maroon 5's Fifty-Ways-to-Sing-about-Lust-songs and Britney Spears' I'm-going-to-sing-really-fast-while-dancing-around-in-tight-clothes songs.

I even contemplated dropping out of grad school. I can't stop beating myself up over the fact that it has taken me so long to work on this dissertation. After what my professors said, I became so discouraged that I wondered if everything I've done over the past ten years - all the teaching jobs, the retail work, the nights where I felt so exhausted after working all day that I wanted to scream, cry, and head butt anyone who did anything remotely annoying (like the people who sneeze on me and THEN say, "I think I'm coming down with a cold."), the low pay, the sacrifices, etc. - had been for nothing.

With the exception of a few close friends and the occasional foray into the dating scene (which never ends well for me, and is partly why my Taylor Swift playlists - yes, I have more than one playlist, I admit it - are good to listen to after yet another disappointing date), I am a loner. I prefer solitude most of the time, and if I'm going to spend time with other people, I want it to be with people I actually like. I don't want to spend time with people who cause me to paste my fake smile on my face while I'm secretly thinking, "If I pretend to throw up right now, will they take that as a hint that they really are that boring and self-centered? Or will it at least give me an excuse to leave early?"

But this time, I was so devastated that I uncharacteristically reached out to other people. I called an old friend. I joined an online community called Versatile PhD, which is a community made up of grad students and other academics; it was founded by a woman who has an English PhD and helps other academics find "nontraditional" (i.e., nonacademic) jobs. There are online forums on Versatile PhD where people can seek advice and feedback; I wrote a description of my situation, and received several detailed responses from other academics. They told me about dissertation coaches and writing groups; they commiserated by sharing their own difficult experiences in grad school; they told me about how they struggled to support themselves financially too.

I also talked to someone in my department at school; she already has her PhD, but she continues to teach at the school. She told me about how other grad students have struggled with their committees and dissertations, and she advised me to stand up to those professors, especially if I really believed in what I was writing. She also put me in touch with another grad student, who offered to meet with me this week and give me more advice.

Talking to them made me feel a lot better about my situation. It made me wish that I had reached out to more of them in the past. I had tried to socialize with other grad students before, but faced some difficulties because a) I don't drink alcohol; b) when they started talking about their accomplishments, I had little to add to the conversation; c) there are several cliques in grad school, and I belong to none of them. The last one in particular was tough because when they talked about dinner outings or parties, I was rarely invited. I would sit at my desk and pretend that I didn't care. So I focused on the other things that made me happy and stopped trying to "fit in" with the grad school cliques. But I ended up missing out on the chance to connect with other peers who weren't like them.

I contacted another professor on my dissertation committee, and what she said surprised me. She encouraged me to stay in grad school and finish my dissertation. She pointed me in the direction of another professor who might be able to provide guidance. She said that I was talented, and it made me feel good to know that there was someone who believed in me. 

What also helped was blogging about it, and reading all the thoughtful and nice comments that you wrote. The great people in the blogosphere are why I continue to blog (also, I figure that ranting about my obsessions online is a better way to deal with it than giving annoying people wedgies). I am grateful to you for your support.

I'm still plugging away on a new draft, and hopefully this one will be enough to satisfy my professors. I am still scared, ashamed, and sad over the fact that it will take me two more years to finish this dissertation, but knowing that I am not alone makes it easier to deal with it.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Wrong Kind of Workaholic

Recently I had a meeting with two of the professors from my dissertation committee. They wanted to meet with me because they are both concerned about my lack of progress on my dissertation. Technically, I am at least two years behind many of my classmates. Several (though not all) of them are already on the job market, and I am still struggling to develop a solid argument for my dissertation.

It isn't like I haven't tried. I have spent countless hours studying, poring over articles and books until it felt like my eyes were going to fall out of my head. I have submitted draft after draft to my professors.

But no matter what I write, it isn't good enough. One of my professors commented on the fact that academically, I was behind many of my classmates when I first started the Ph.D. program. My other professor, who I had taken classes with when I was in the M.A. program, said that he could tell that I'd been struggling, and that the work I had been producing in the last year had not been as good as the work I used to produce. He said that he'd asked himself what had happened to me since I had written the papers that had impressed him when I was an M.A. student.

For a moment I was terrified that they would tell me to drop out. I was afraid that they would say, "You've screwed up too much this time. There's nothing more we can do to help you."

They didn't say that. But they did warn me about how difficult it would be for me to find a job if and when I completed my degree. They told me about other graduate students who struggled to find a tenure-track job at a research university, or even a job as a lecturer at a community college, even though they had done everything right: they had published articles in scholarly journals; they had presented their research at conferences; they had written stellar dissertations (or novels, if they were creative writing majors). I had done none of those things, which means that it will be much, much harder for me to find something.

I felt what I'd been feeling for a long time now: shame and sadness that I haven't accomplished as much as my peers and that I'd let my professors and myself down. I also felt guilt for not always studying as much as I could have, because I was the wrong kind of workaholic: I spent more time on my paying jobs than on my academic work.

What kind of accomplishments could I point to, in order to show my professors how I hadn't been wasting my time and how I really had worked hard? I thought about the nine-hour shifts I'd worked at the clothing store, and how I once received a prize for my efficiency and speed at completing my tasks. I thought of how I was praised by my supervisors at the Tourist Trap for convincing customers to buy more souvenirs than they originally planned to buy. I thought of my supervisors at my website job, who recently commended me for the work I was doing. I wanted to say that most of my peers had more time to study because they relied on spouses or loans, but now they had six-figure debts that they would have to spend the next twenty years paying off. I, on the other hand, do not have debts from student loans because I was so determined to support myself; the trade-off, though, was that I spent more time working than studying.

I wanted to tell my professors about the positive evaluations I'd received from my students, and the way that I felt when I stood at the front of a classroom. I wanted to tell them about how several of my students signed up for more than one class with me, and how others had approached me on the last day of class and told me how much they had learned and what they had enjoyed.

I wanted to tell my professors about the friends that I'd lost because I spent so much time working, and how only a few close friends who understood what I was going through now remained. I also felt tempted to tell them about the guys who'd cared about me, but I had pushed them all away, because the one thing that always came first in my heart was my work. I truly was "married to the job".

I wanted to tell them that I wouldn't have done all this work, made all of these sacrifices, or suffered more than I ever thought I would if I wasn't still committed to completing my degree. I tried to tell them some of this, but it didn't come out right. And it wouldn't have mattered, either, because what matters to academics is the work that you've done as an academic, not all the other stuff.

It wasn't always this hard. When I was an undergraduate, I received scholarships for my work as an English major. I graduated magna cum laude. When I was in the M.A. program, some of my professors praised my writing. I wasn't working two or three jobs back then.

But after I got my master's degree, something in me kept me from going straight into the PhD program. I wanted to be completely sure that it was what I wanted. So I spent a few years teaching high school students and college students at other schools. I also worked in retail and at various other jobs.

When I finally went into the PhD program, things went downhill. Even though as a professor I will teach undergraduate courses on literature and writing, as a scholar I am expected to write articles and books that have little (if anything) to do with literature; instead, they have to focus on critical theory. And THAT is my biggest problem. I spent so long pretending to understand what seemed to come so easily to everyone else, and my professors made it clear that I hadn't fooled them.

They told me that in addition to taking next year to finish the dissertation, I will need to take another year to complete it. The problem is that this was supposed to be my final year, but last year, when I submitted a draft of my argument, they said that I would need to take another year in addition to this one. Now they're saying that I will have to take yet another year, which puts me two years behind everyone else.

They said that I have to rework the draft that I turned in and work as quickly as possible to turn in a better one soon. They said I still had a lot of research to do, and looked doubtful that I would finish it before the end of the term. I sat there trying not to cry, and then I had to wait through the long commute home before I could finally cry in private.

I'm going to keep trying, but sometimes I wish that I hadn't gone to graduate school. I wish that I had allowed myself to have more of a LIFE outside of my work, because then maybe I wouldn't have lost several of my friends. Then maybe I would be in a happy relationship with a guy; maybe I'd even be married and have kids, like so many other people my age. Maybe I could have pursued a different career, instead of a career that makes me overqualified and underqualified for most jobs outside of academia.

How do you deal with failure? Have you ever had a professor or employer tell you that your work wasn't good enough? Do you ever find yourself comparing yourself to peers who are more successful? How do you deal with it?

P.S. I'm sorry this post is kind of depressing. I usually try to write posts that are funny and upbeat, but I didn't really feel like that type of post would be honest right now.