Monday, November 17, 2014

Saving Face

I was supposed to give a major presentation to the entire English Department at my school recently. I cancelled it. I am trying to think of things to say to all the grad students, lecturers, and professors who will want to know why I am the only Ph.D. candidate who cancelled her presentation (all the candidates are required to make individual presentations). Here are some of the things I might say:

Grad School Nemesis #1: Why didn't you do your presentation? Where were you that day?
Me: I don't know. Why don't you ask your boyfriend?

Grad School Nemesis #2: Why did you cancel your presentation? I know you were nervous, but that's really not an excuse to cancel something like this.
Me: I'm not nervous at all. I just earned a black belt in karate. Allow me to demonstrate some of my moves on you.

Professor who once referred to my work as a "disappointment": You do realize how important these presentations are, right?
Me: Are they as important as the days when Garrett gives out free popcorn?

I didn't want to cancel this presentation. I felt nervous, scared, and stressed out about it, as everyone else did when they presented their work. But I was anxious to prove that I WASN'T a mediocre scholar. For years, I've been told that my academic work was not good enough, which made me feel like I was not good enough.

I always envied and resented the other grad students for their academic accomplishments, especially because some (though not all) made me feel bad about my lack of awards, fellowships, and publications. I remember confiding in one classmate about how awful I felt after our professor and the entire class tore apart my paper. She responded, "Well, the professor really liked my paper. You should see all the great comments she wrote on it."

I was an A student from the first grade through the master's program. Everyone always told me that I was smart. But once I enrolled in the Ph.D. program, I didn't feel smart anymore. I just felt tired, stressed, and stupid.

Since this is supposed to be my last year in the program, this presentation was my last chance to prove to the entire department that my work really is good enough and that I really am smart. In academia, reputation is very important, especially when you are networking.

But I had to cancel it. Ever since my doctor increased my medication, the side effects have gotten worse. It affected my appetite, and I lost nearly ten pounds. I still feel tired all the time, and I get sick on a regular basis. One of the other side effects is that it makes my feet feel like they're falling asleep, and I often wake up in pain in the middle of the night. I'm not able to exercise as much as I used to. I still hear that whooshing sound in my ear. I'll ask my doctor to reduce my medication, but I'm scared that she'll tell me that a) I'm still not getting better; b) I'm getting worse; c) I'll have to stay on this medication indefinitely; d) I'll have to get surgery.

I have managed to get some work done. For example, I've applied to teach at more than two dozen schools around the country. I still have my website job, which I need to pay for these medical bills (my insurance doesn't cover all of them). And of course, I still have to work on my dissertation. So even though I don't have a lot of energy, I can't stay in bed all day.

As a workaholic, I always kept working, even if I got a cold or felt tired. But this is different.  I don't feel like I can tell the other people about what I'm going through. My dissertation committee knows, and they understood when I told them I had to cancel my presentation. But I don't know what to say to the other graduate students, and I don't think they'd understand anyway. Even though I am very sick, I don't look sick or act sick. If any of them tries to criticize me or question me too much about why I cancelled, I just might scream at them.

What about you? Have you ever had to cancel something that was important to you? How do you answer questions about private issues like health problems when you don't want everyone to know?

Monday, November 3, 2014

My Next Move

I wish I could participate in NaNoWriMo, but instead I'm working on my job applications. The application process in academia takes months. I've applied to more than a dozen schools so far, but I'll be lucky if I get one interview this year. The professors told the graduate students that the job search for tenure-track positions can take years.

And some people never find a tenure-track position. I seriously fear that I will be one of those people. But I will NOT go back to working in retail, because instead of telling people to "have a nice day," I'll say, "Have a nice hell! Hahahahahaha!" before the retail supervisors drag me away and punish me by making me fold a never-ending stack of sweaters and constantly criticizing "my folding skills."

Most of the schools I am applying to are not in Chicago; they're not even in Illinois. So far, I've applied to schools in California, New York, Indiana, Maryland, and Florida, among others. The thing about my field is that I can't pick and choose where to live and work. Instead, I have to go wherever the work is. That means that eventually, I'm probably going to have to leave Chicago, sooner rather than later.

My parents want me to live near them. They offered to help me get an apartment and a car. I told them no. I think it is better if I live on my own. Besides, I do NOT want to take money from my parents. I spent years grinding my teeth at nasty customers who threw hissy fits over the fact that I wasn't ringing up their purchases fast enough. Two people (who I think of as Satan's spawn) demanded that I refold their clothes three times (and kept insulting me) before they were finally satisfied and let me put the clothes in their shopping bag. It took all the strength that I had not to fling the clothes at them or to chase after them with a clothes hanger (though not in the Joan Crawford Mommy Dearest sense).

I spent years working as an adjunct faculty member at various colleges around the city, where the word "adjunct" basically means "those whom we do not have to pay a living wage, HAHAHAHA, now let's go and enjoy our country club memberships and houses in the suburbs, DAH-LING" (But I digress.) I dealt with way too many undergrads who waltzed into class forty minutes late, missed half a dozen (or more) classes in a row, turned in their assignments late (or not at all) and then blamed ME when they didn't get As. (If my life was a cartoon, that would have been the moment where my face would have turned into an erupting volcano.)

I put up with all of that and worked multiple jobs for the majority of my twenties and well into my thirties, specifically so that I would not have to ask my parents for money. Even all those jobs were not enough, to the point that I finally had to break down and accept the fact that even I couldn't keep working seven days a week (because it got to the point where I was so stressed that I kept shrieking at drivers who apparently think that if they stop staring at their phones, even long enough to keep their eyes on the road, they will burst into flames).

So for my last two years in graduate school, I went against my earlier conviction of never accumulating any student debt and took out a couple small loans. I'll have a sizable debt when I complete my degree, but at least it still won't be half as big as the debt that my fellow graduate students have, since they took out loans every year or relied on family members and did not work additional jobs like I did.

Financial independence is important to me, because it allows me to live my life on my own terms rather than someone else's. My parents have been talking to several of their friends who work in academia. My father even contacted a few faculty members at a couple schools in the state where he and my mother live and told them that I was looking for a job, which is why I received some bemused but kind e-mails from those faculty members who explained that I should send a formal application to their search committees. I was so embarrassed, and I told my father never to do that again (though he insists he knows more about this than I do, even though he's never worked in academia). He may have meant well, but his attempt to take charge of the situation only served to reflect badly on me and made me look like I didn't know anything about the application process.

I'd like to find a job in an interesting big city or a nice college town that's close enough to a big city that I could visit at least once a month or even every other month. I hope that wherever I do live has some good restaurants  (partly because everything I touch in the kitchen turns into fire, and I mean that literally, because I keep burning everything) and cafes that I can write in. It'd be good if there was at least one bookstore with a decent selection of books, as well as a well-stocked public library. It would also be nice to live near a Catholic church, since I am Catholic and I still attend Mass. I want to live some place safe, where I don't have to worry about creeps who try to grope me or think that following me down the street or yelling lewd things at me is going to make me run into their arms (instead, it makes me run in the opposite direction or throw things at them). I want to live in a place where I won't be made to feel like a freak just because I'm different, because I was treated like a freak for the first eighteen years of my life in the small town that I grew up in. If I could find a school in a town that fits most of that criteria, I think I could be happy (and of course, as long as the school was a good school with disciplined, polite, and hard-working students).

What about you? If you could pick and choose where you got to live and work (or if you already have), what kinds of factors would affect your decision?