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.
Interview with… Adam Byatt - Today it’s the turn of Adam Byatt to sit down and share his writing with us. This is my 13th interview, and there are still some wonderful authors to come!...
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