Bah Humbug

It’s funny, but being in Graduate School has taught me one thing very very well: I know the fastest way to end a conversation.

With the holidays approaching, this is a particularly pertinent skill. Holidays mean parties, they mean family, they mean seeing people who have a concern for your life and who, while they may know and care about you, don’t necessarily talk to you every day of the year. That means you have to do the inevitable “life-news shuffle” which goes a little something like this:

Family Member: How are you doing?

You: Really well, and you?
Family Member: Well. What are you up to?
You: Oh, you know, in Graduate School… getting my [Master’s/MFA/PhD] in [_____].

When I was getting my Master’s, this was sure to develop into the dreaded:

Family Member: Oh, well, what are you going to do with that?

Or perhaps the even more dreaded…

Family Member: Oh, well, what are you going to do with that?

To which I would reply (depending on my mood and where I was in my work) in either a good-natured way (“get a PhD and become a professor”) or an embittered way (“I don’t know, never have a real job I guess”).

Since I’ve been in a PhD program, very often the conversation turns a different direction.

sometimes, you just hold onto each other for dear life. Christmas last year. We are now both in grad school.

The minute I say I’m getting a PhD, people will usually ask “what in?” (which, by the by, is a flawed question anyway because while you are in a department for your PhD, you don’t really get a PhD in anything per say but rather have an area of expertise, so if they actually knew something about the higher education process they would stop using terminology that treats it like an undergraduate degree and thereby devaluing all the blood, sweat, and tears that go into this process with their anti-academic rhetoric… but I’m not bitter). When I tell them that my area of specialty is Shakespeare (usually I leave it at that because a) the specifics change weekly, and b) I don’t really want to have to explain hundreds of years of specialized history to someone who doesn’t entirely care about it), they immediately stop talking.

Conversation effectively ended.

The thing is this: most people don’t understand what it means to be getting a PhD. They don’t understand the amount of work that goes into it, they don’t understand the kind of work that goes into it, and they don’t understand the day-to-day realities of your existence. Moreover, they don’t really care. A distant relative asking you this question at a holiday party is small-talk; the same way we ask people what they do for a job when we first meet them. It’s a way to make conversation and supposedly human connection in a socially appropriate fashion.

And here’s the bad news: more often than not, people will think that “being a graduate student” means living off of loans and reading books all day without doing any real or meaningful work.

Get ready for the judgment. Get ready for the bewildered glances. Get ready for people not really caring about the intricacies of this very specialized field that you know a whole lot about and seems really important to you because you spend all day every day working in it.

The truth is, the real world doesn’t have a paradigm for understanding an academic lifestyle. The bench-markers are different. The measurements of success are different. The politics are different. There are a lot of things about this profession that are downright medieval (and, let’s face it, a lot of things that haven’t changed since the invention of academia by the Bolognese in 1088). Your relatives and casual acquaintances (and heck even some of your close friends) will know nothing about this and, moreover, will not care to know anything about this.

So how do you navigate that? How do you get through the holidays without letting them crush your academic spirit, completely staunch your work ethic, or turn you into a raging alcoholic?

You can choose to adopt one of several attitudes:

Attitude the first: You don’t understand me or value my profession and that’s okay because someday I’ll have letters after my name so HAHA to you society, what’s your job anyway? “A Consultant”?

these are my siblings. And these are the faces they make at nay-sayers. Go on, nay say. I dare you.

Attitude the second: You may not understand me, but that’s fine because I’ll be teaching your children about [your field] someday and, thereby, will have the power to mold and shape their little minds and bend them to understand and value me in the way my parents never did.

Attitude the third: I know something you don’t know and my life is better for it, so say what you want I’ll just smile here serenely and pour myself another glass of wine.

Attitude the fourth: My DEPARTMENT respects me and that’s all that matters!

Attitude the fifth: Yes, thank you for this lecture on how to live my life. If you don’t mind, I have some very pressing research on my desk about a life-changing development in [obscure field] that I really must return to. See you later; hope you don’t trip and fall into Dr. Evil’s shark tank.

No matter which of these options you choose, just remember this: their judgment comes from ignorance, not from any sense of validity or reality. They can’t know what you’re going through because they don’t see you every day. They have no connection to the world you live in and, thereby, their commentary is nothing but a fantastical expression of a perceived fairy-land where you sit on giant gilded lilies with your book and tea and do nothing but turn pages all day (if only, right?).

…and if all else fails, I know some undevelopable land and have an SUV that hoses out really well.

3 thoughts on “Bah Humbug

  1. Attitude the e’th: leave the country. You won’t have to see your relatives at a holiday party for a long, long time.

    Avogadro’s attitude: Tremble before me, mortals! Your puny minds cannot comprehend the magnitude of my powers! Mwahahahaha.

  2. Pingback: A Lift from the Aether | FarOuterHebrides

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