The Secret

This morning via twitter I was asked a question that I cannot, in good conscience, allow to pass without blogging an answer: “What are some things no one tells you about Grad School?”

Buckle those seatbelts, folks.

The fact is that this is precisely the question which keeps me blogging.  There is so much that I didn’t know when I started this crazy thing (now my life) which I didn’t even think to ask about.  You know it’s going to be hard work, you know it’s going to be a serious time commitment, but I continue to prove to myself (again and again) that even if someone could have possibly described to me how very much toil went into being a full-time graduate student, I would not have believed them.

I’ve attempted to portray a realistic picture of the life of a Grad Student via this blog; the triumphs, tribulations, successes, failures, and everything in between.  But let me take a moment now to summarize these findings for you in hopes that it will help prospective Graduate Students, those spending their last “sitting duck” summer (i.e. have been accepted to a program and are making final arrangements to arrive and begin in September), or those who simply desire a better understanding of what it is that being a full-time Graduate Student actually entails.

First and foremost, consider yourself warned: you will work.  In fact, you will do so much

one of *those* people

work that you will become one of those people.  Those people who cancel on social gatherings because they have to stay home and work.  Those people who realize that they haven’t actually talked to a real person all day except for the poor undergrad library clerk.  Those people who, when they finish their primary gotta-do-it-now list, start in on their secondary should-do-it-soon list.  Those people who seem to subsist on caffeine and happy thoughts rather than sleep and positive reinforcement.

Prepare to become a machine.  A machine concerned only with your research.  How can you twist this weekend vacation into something you can write a paper about?  What do you find interesting about your hobbies and are those elements at all related to your work?  You will become single-minded; and that’s good.  It’s important.  Without a certain degree of tunnel vision, you would never be able to get through this crazy little thing called grad school.

You will become extremely stressed out about things that only a small subset of the population will comprehend.  Things of utmost importance to you, things which define your very existence for a week, a semester, a year, will be meaningless to those whom you care about the most.  They will not understand.  You will try to explain it to them.  They still won’t get it.  Make friends with your colleagues, they are your only hope for salvation.

You will need to find ways to satisfy yourself with small victories.  Most of the projects which you will work on will be long-term.  What this means is that, unless you find some method of self-validating during the process, you’re in for many years of banging your head against a wall and losing sleep over something which will only give by millimeters in any measurable length of time.  Without validation, you will not survive.  Figure out what you need to do to make yourself feel happy and fulfilled at the end of a long, tiring day of doing seemingly nothing.

You will be expected to know things that you’ve never been taught.  And no, it’s not fair, but it’s the way it is.  Find a way to understand what these things are, and how you can at least keep yourself from embarrassment (…nobody will tell you what these things are, by the way, that’s also left to you to discover).  Find a mentor.  Find someone on the faculty with whom you can speak candidly and with whom you feel comfortable enough to ask the awkward questions behind closed office doors.  They will understand exactly what you are going through and be able to give you the coaching you will desperately need.

my idea of a “day off” when I was getting my Master’s

This is a job.  This is your life.  This is what you are doing for the next two, three, four, five years.  It’s worthwhile, and will get you somewhere that you want to be.  If you don’t believe that with all of your heart; if that mantra isn’t something that you can turn to and depend on in your darkest, most stressful hour; quit now.  If you’re not excited by your work; if this is just something you’re doing to see some letters after your name or call yourself by a fancy title; you are never going to make it.  It takes passion, courage, creativity, the work ethic of Hercules, and the liver of Bacchus to survive grad school.  If you don’t think you’re up for it, you’re right.  If you’re lukewarm on whatever it is you’re studying, you will never be able to make it through the harsh times in store for you.

However, if you’re still reading this, if you’re still excited about buying books in September, if despite these warnings you simply cannot wait to get your hands dirty in the fall, you will find that Grad School is the most thrilling, fulfilling, and exciting adventure you can have.

And, in the interest of opening dialogue with my peers, I encourage you to blog, tweet, facebook, or somehow document your experience.  Get your story out there.  Answer questions.  The more of us doing this sort of thing, the greater a resource we can provide for the generations after us (including, by the by, our some-day students).  In the digital era, there’s no reason that we have to sit alone at our desks all day without anyone to sanity check for us.  Let’s have coffee; let’s keep each other afloat; if (after all) we’re not cheering for each other, then nobody else is gonna.

News from the Front…

A few brief updates to make one large update…

First: I wrote a guest blog for gradshare.com, you should go check it out!  While you’re there, poke around gradshare a little bit.  It’s a great project; basically a wiki for graduate students by the graduate community where folks can ask questions/post advice either anonymously or semi-anonymously.  That ability makes it a wonderful forum for those awkward questions that we are so bad at asking each other (you know, the ones that uttering could kill your career if someone overheard them).  I’m a firm believer in transparency within the academy and truly hope that projects like this can help move towards a profession no longer run behind closed doors.

We’re all in this together.  Really, we’re future colleagues.  We’re going to be peer reviewing each others’ work.  We’re going to be compiling volumes of each others’ papers for publication.  We’re going to be listening to/speaking with each other on conference panels.  Why shouldn’t we talk about the uncomfortable bits of the profession?  Why shouldn’t we support each other in this incredibly stressful career we’ve chosen to enter?

Through the years, I truly hope to see more forums like gradshare.

Second: I just finished reading this book (Surviving your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School by Adam Ruben PhD).

A confession; there were parts of the book which struck me as laugh-out-loud funny.  I definitely sat in the coffee shop chortling my way through the middle of the volume while desperately trying not to laugh too horribly loudly.

However, that being said, the rest of the gook left me with a very bad taste in my mouth.  Dr. Ruben has a PhD in molecular biology and, as his outlet through his PhD, he performed stand-up comedy.  Much like this blog is my way to express my discontent, discernment, and discombobulating, it seems that Dr. Ruben worked through his via his act which then produced this book.

I will be the first to admit that I write a lot of negative things on here.  However, for every realistically negative and hyperbolic hypercompensative remark I make, I’d like to think that I also say something positive.  I truly believe that I blog the highs and lows of academia, no matter how high and how low those get.

Well… Dr. Ruben got the lows part, but he failed to mention the highs.  Reading this book was like bashing the skull of the academy into the ground repeatedly while screaming “TAKE THAT, JERK!” at the top of one’s lungs when academia was already having a particularly bad day anyway.  I’m not saying that Dr. Ruben’s observations aren’t based in truth, but he takes that truth to such an alarmist extreme that it often moves past the realm of “funny” or “sad” and into “bullying”.  If the academy was a person, I’d call Dr. Ruben’s book slander and be tempted to sue him for libel of character.

In the words of the immortal Edmund Kean (well, attestation of the quote is debatable, but someone else has done the legwork on that): “Dying is easy, Comedy is hard”.

I worked the New York stand-up circuit for a while.  Trust me, I know how difficult it is to be funny.  But humor isn’t always just taking something to its ridiculous and negative extreme (though, granted, sometimes it is).  After reading Dr. Ruben’s book, I wasn’t left wondering about my own life choices.  Instead, I was left wondering about his.  If he truly had such a hideous, horrible, no-good, very-bad time in graduate school, then why did he do it?

Sure, plenty of people get into the PhD having no idea what they’re in for (I would argue that this is anyone and everyone who goes for a PhD, I certainly fell into this category), but nobody says that you have to continue if you’re truly that miserable.  Depending on your field, the rate of attrition is approximately 20% – 30% (higher for mathematics and physical sciences, lower in the humanities).  Plenty of people enter into doctorate living, decide it’s not for them, and leave.

The most important thing for a graduate student to remember while doing her PhD is that THIS IS YOUR LIFE.  It’s not a piece of your life, it’s not something you can just do then do something else afterward, you are training for the rest of your life.  While you are doing so, you are incurring a great deal of debt, stress, and personal strife.  Why would you sacrifice so much for something if you weren’t absolutely in love with it?

Now, I will grant you, I have my bad days.  I, in fact, have my awful days.  But never, since I started, have I ever once thought that I would be better off doing something else.  The

problems I have, while large problems and really tough to deal with, are problems that I would rather have than any other problems in the world.

So, if you must, read Dr. Ruben’s book… but do so with the understanding that a) he’s not a stellar writer, b) he’s not a stellar comedian, and c) if his life were truly that miserable, he should have done something about it other than complain.

…though his commentary on dealing with undergraduate students is dead-on.

Into the Abyss

So I have previously mentioned that part of my process come panic time involves a giant whiteboard.

This is a survival mechanism which I developed in my Master’s.  Often, a graduate student lives in three to four different worlds an each world is represented by a separate syllabus.  Each has its own deadlines, requirements, readings, library pile, points of interest on the internet, points of contact at the department, rules, regulations, and practices.  Often, meshing these worlds together is the cause of a great deal of stress come finals time (see my momentary freak-out about over scheduling myself towards the end of last semester).  Also, because a course can contain many little assignments in addition to a large one, often things can get lost in the shuffle.

To combat this, I developed the whiteboard technique.  Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed by deadlines, I make a chart.  I list what the assignment is (and, if it requires further specificity which due to the nature of grad-school courses it often does not, who it is for), where to send it (if you’re talking about abstracts and publication submissions, often those e-mails can get lost in the shuffle as well), and when it is due.  Then I leave myself a place to check off when the assignment has been completed.  On the side, I create a list of ongoing projects with no due-dates, just things that I need to remember to do.

Getting it all down in black and white (and often also orange, purple, and green when I’m feeling whimsical) helps to assure me that a) I didn’t miss anything, b) I won’t miss anything, and c) I really and truly do have a handle on my life.

At the end of the semester, when all is said and done, I leave the whiteboard there for a while with all of its check boxes intact.  It gives me a sense of accomplishment to see that I’ve met all my deadlines and, at the end of a semester, one needs all the sense of accomplishment one can find.

But the other day, I took the leap.

I erased the whiteboard.

It’s pretty freeing to be able to sit at my desk and have a giant blank slate hanging over me.  Of course, my summer projects are taking up a lot more of my time than I had anticipated (I dramaturge eight to ten hours a week, German class four hours a week, study approx. ten hours a week, have been trying to catch up on my sleep, my e-mails, my reading, my knitting, my life, and my gym schedule, I haven’t really had time to touch my papers that I wanted to brush off over the summer yet but it will come).  These ongoing projects, though, the kind with no deadline, they’re not exactly whiteboard material.  It’s like looking into a great white expanse of nothing.  My time is my own again.  I’m not working under pressure, I’m not working under any imposed or hard end-stop, I’m just working as much as I can as fast as I can.

…so I guess on the other hand not having white-board deadlines also means that I’m probably working more in between all the other things I do, but at this point I’ll just relish the change of pace.

 

Year One: In the Books

As if 08:30 hours this Sunday morning past, I have done the inevitable, the wonderful, what I thought for some time was the highly improbable; I have finished year one.

Yes, ladies and gents, with one click of a button, that final final was sliding on home to the comfy cozy inbox of my professor and thus closing the book on half of my coursework (…though actually more than half because this year consisted of six classes and next year will consist of four, but let’s not quibble over the small bits, shall we?)

I would like to say that I sent the e-mail then promptly took my pants off, got cozy on the couch, and didn’t move for several days, but in reality I sent the e-mail, ran around my house for a while, drove for two hours, and worked a sixteen-hour day followed by a night of sleeping like the dead then went to a dramaturgy session where I spent two and a half hours sifting through Measure for Measure line by line and explicating every fine detail for my director… when I came home from that THEN I took my pants off, got cozy on the couch, and didn’t move for several hours.  Unfortunately, today can’t be as carefree as yesterday as I still have two professional deadlines nipping at my heels in addition to several personal projects which require my attention…

But I did buy myself ice cream last night.  And I do feel a certain sense of levity.  And I do feel utterly and completely accomplished.  Summer just tastes different – like watermelon and strawberries.  And, having finished my last final, I can safely say that it tastes like summer.

But before I get too far ahead of myself, let me take a moment to revel in what I actually just did.  Over the course of the past year I have: survived the initial shock of PhD work, thrived in the Tufts environment, learned more than I can possibly describe (and learned about a whole host of other things that I now need to learn), kept up with a rigorous course load, not driven myself crazy, met the demands and expectations of my wonderfully demanding professors, kept myself on track professionally and hit all the professional development goals I had realistically set for myself, maintained contact with the outside world (some sections of it more than others and at some moments more contact than others), not made an abject fool of myself in class (and if I did, I don’t know about it because ignorance on this front is bliss), come to grips with my job as a professional academic, stepped out into the wider world of academia at two large conferences with my shiny Tufts byline…

And blogged faithfully twice a week to prove it all!

I cannot even describe how grateful I am to everyone this year for the support, the love, and the cheering section.  I’ve said it before, but I don’t think I could have known what I was getting into even if someone had attempted to tell me.  This year has been rough.  You, dear readers, have definitely made things more bearable and for that I am so thankful.  

Some Statistics for this Semester…

Total library books taken out this semester: 77
Total minutes of in-class presentation given: 85
Total turned-in pages at end of semester: 70
Total pages of drafts written: 337
Total performances attended: 13

So, Dani, you just finished the first year of your PhD, what are you going to do now?  Well, I do have one class over the summer.  I’m taking a German for Reading course in hopes that it will help me pass an exam to fulfill my second language requirement.  I’ve never studied German before and it’s been a while since I’ve done any kind of learning other than “read and discuss”, so this should be very interesting.

In addition, I have a few papers I’ll be taking some time to polish and submit.  It’s time to publish lest I perish, and being a model ABD ain’t just a pipe-dream for a kid with a hope and a dollar.  I will also be making as big a dent on the comps list as I can in my copious amounts of free time.

To further impinge upon that free time, I’m serving as Dramaturge for Tufts’ 2012 production of Measure for Measure.  We don’t start rehearsing until deep fall, but the summer is when we’re getting our acting edition together.  This means that I’ll be spending my days working with the director to get the script into the shape we want it (much more exciting and difficult than it sounds – don’t worry, I’m sure that this will be blog fodder all summer long).

This year, I have been pushed to the outer walls of my limits.  I have accomplished things which I, at points, didn’t think possible.  And, I’ve done it with panache and style!  Here’s the good news for all you faithful readers (and perhaps the bad news for me): the worst is not over by a long shot.  I’ve been fastidiously advised by my senior peers as I was crossing the finish line this semester that coursework is the easiest part of this entire process.

Well, darn it.  I guess I should spend another year in easy land and truly brace for what’s to come.  Because if this is easy, then I’m not sure how I’m going to handle the hard stuff…

But for now, I am hopeful.  It’s a beautiful day, I have a paper to revise, and my red pen is itching for some action.  After that I’m going to lounge on my couch for a while before a rock-climbing date with my favorite traveling companion.

Today: the rock gym.  Tomorrow: the world.

And for now: I will take a much deserved bow.

Notes from the Road

Hello again, my friends and readers!

I am writing to you from the JetBlue terminal at JFK in the midst of my most hectic week of the 2011/2012 academic year.  I am currently en route home from a week in California and will return to Boston tonight only to be greeted by a desk full of projects and only two days in which to accomplish them before a full week’s course-load crammed into three days (one day of which involves a major project due).  On day three directly after class I leave for the Comparative Drama Conference where I will be giving a paper (which, by the way, is not quite ready to present yet) and, in the next four weeks, I have to give three class-related presentations in addition to my usual course reading and the three seminar papers whose due-dates loom ever-nearer as the semester winds down.

Suffice to say I’m going to be a little tired and harried.

I did, however, want to take a moment to check in after the National Gothic Fiction Conference.  Obligatory weather comment: I managed to be in San Diego for the three days out of the year when it wasn’t sunny in San Diego.  It rained off and on and the entire trip was covered in ominous clouds perhaps as a result of the conference itself.  I have to say, the setting was rather… well… Gothic.

My paper was extremely well-received and I met some very interesting people (and got to spend time with a dear old friend).  I do have a few observations that I would like to share for you graduate students who do conference, have conference, or will conference.

Every time I’m at a conference, I notice some things that I firmly believe the entire profession of academia would be a better place without.  As the next generation of tweedy professors, it’s our job to change these things.  Just like on the New York City Subway; if you see something, say something.

So here’s a list of things that no matter what happens, no matter how much the conference gods beg, no matter how much easier this would make your presentation/flight/life, just don’t do them.  Seriously.

1)      Wear jeans.  No joke.  If you are conferencing, that means that you have an eye towards professional development, which

means that you would like to get a job in the near future, which means that as many people as possible should take you

please excuse the decor, but do you know how hard it is to find a full-length mirror in a hotel with enough landing strip to actually get a full-length photo? Anyway, this is my default conference wear.

seriously.  Jeans may be okay in some people’s professions, but they’re not okay in ours.  It doesn’t take that much effort to put on a pair of slacks and some nice shoes.  Wearing jeans to a conference is like wearing sweats to class; it shows that you just didn’t bother to take yourself seriously enough to get dressed that morning.  This rule also goes for Hawaiian shirts, tee-shirts, miniskirts, and see-through shirts.  Present.  Yourself.  Professionally.  It makes me so angry when I see my colleagues not taking conferencing seriously enough to look their best because they are, in turn, making me look bad.  Graduate Students unite and show the big boys that we mean business.  Do yourself a favor and stop giving me headaches; it’s a two-for-one!

2)      Not have business cards.  Even if you don’t have official university cards (I don’t), get yourself a little slip of cardboard with your name, e-mail, affiliation, etc. on it.  They are not expensive, and they add ages to your credibility.  Also, they’re a great way to quickly give someone your contact information (which happens a lot at conferences).  I don’t have time to write something down, my pen isn’t accessible, etc., but I can definitely take your card and stick it in my pocket.

3)      Have one too many at the bar after hours.  This is especially true of the night before your panel.  There is nothing more disrespectful than being late or hung over while giving a talk.  Remember: the industry of academia is reliant upon time and brainpower.  If a roomful of people have shown up to hear you speak, they are foregoing other important things to do so.  You owe it to them to be as polished and on point as you can.  Also, think about impressions.  You may be drinking with people who will be deciding the fate of your career in the future.  These aren’t your friends from home, they’re your colleagues.  They’re important and vital connections for you to have as you go forward in your career, and they’re what you’re here to do (network, that is).  Getting a bit sloppy means you run the risk of offending them or embarrassing yourself, or a whole host of other ailments which come with drink.  This is not to say that you can’t relax, but treat schmooze time like an interview (albeit an informal one).

4)      Read your paper directly off the page without any connection to your audience or mind for presenting.  I really don’t understand why people do this.  If I wanted to read someone’s paper, I would have had him e-mail it to me.  Remember that a panel consists of three to four papers and generally lasts 45 minutes to 1.5 hours.  The last thing I want to do is listen to someone drone on tonelessly about a work I may or may not have read while using vocabulary that is simply beyond my aural comprehension for that long.  It’s boring, it’s superfluous, and it’s a sure-fire way to lose your audience.  Don’t you want them to listen to you?  Don’t you want your ideas to be heard?  Give it some zing!  Spice it up a bit!  Make it interesting!  Chances are if you are boring yourself, your audience won’t want to sit through it either.  The best papers I’ve seen involve visual stimulation (via powerpoint usually), an engaged speaker who knows what she’s saying and isn’t afraid to speak from notes, and an attention to the feel of the room.  If you’re going first thing in the morning or directly after lunch, this is especially important.

5)      Dominate someone else’s panel from the audience.  The audience is there to ask questions of the panelists, not random audience members.  You need to be a gracious and attentive listener when you come to hear a paper.  Even if you know something that the panelist doesn’t seem to, make a note of it, and quietly go speak with the panelist after the Q&A concludes.  The panelist has done a lot of research on her presentation topic and, should a question arise that she simply can’t answer, it’s her job to find a way to talk around it.  This is great practice for teaching undergrad.  Also, unless you really know your who’s-who of academia, you may be inadvertently stepping on the toes of someone who is influential in your field.  Do you really want your name black-listed from top universities because you were rude at a panel that one time in Graduate School?  Remember that you’re wearing a nametag… it’s not that hard to track you down.

6)      Go over your allotted time.  This comes with rehearsing and being prepared.  When you practice your talk, make sure it’s at least two minutes shorter than the panel calls for.  That way you know that you will be fine for time even if you have to divulge into a tangent or two, which does happen.  Going over is rude to your fellow panelists and your audience and is highly unprofessional.  Just don’t do it.

7)      Come unprepared.  Bring a pen, bring a notebook, bring a time piece, bring business cards, bring a bottle of water, bring a snack.  These are all vital bits of my “conference survival” bag (I also usually include some ibuprofen, lip-gloss, mints, a compact mirror, an extra hair tie, a folder, a jump drive, hand lotion without an overpowering smell, my netbook, and my iPad… all of these are items which I have previously needed during a conference).  Also, bring a smile.  Seriously.  It helps.

Now that that’s out of my system, I think I’ll go work on my CDC talk.  If you’re in Baltimore next weekend, be sure to say hi!  I’ll be speaking on session seven which, while still depressingly early in the morning, is at least not the first panel this time so you have no excuse as to why you’re not dressed yet.  Hope to see you there!

Leaving on a Jet Plane

My bags are packed, I’m ready to go.
The speech is written, it’s an appropriate length.
I’d hate to forget something important…

Well folks, in approximately an hour and a half I will be off to my first conference of 2012, the Studies in Gothic Fiction conference in San Diego, California.  I will be giving my paper on The Scottish Play (entitled “The Scottish Play”) and enjoying some spring break sunshine while valiantly attempting to forget all the things waiting for me on my desk when I come home.

By now, I’ve developed something of a system for conferences.  There are a few very important items that you simply cannot forget while prepping for them and, since it’ll serve as a sort of checklist for me (though at this juncture if I’ve forgotten anything, I’m kind of screwed anyway), I’d like to share this system with you.

Logistics

Make reservations at the CONFERENCE HOTEL (not a nearby hotel, not a hotel unaffiliated with the conference) early.  The block of rooms reserved by the conference

prepping for my talk at the 2010 University of Montreal Graduate Conference

inevitably goes quickly, especially during prime conference days (i.e. Friday and Saturday).  There will be a discounted rate for these rooms and, since you’ll likely be sharing a room with at least one colleague, you can generally stay fairly cheaply.

Call the hotel at least a day beforehand and find out how to get from the airport to there

sans a vehicle.  There’s no need to have a car while conferencing; it’s expensive, and too much of a temptation to forsake the networking opportunities and stressful situations for the much preferable sightseeing and relaxing aspect of travel.  Call ahead, be prepared, and make sure you know how much it will cost to get from one place to another.

Put your boarding pass somewhere easily accessible.  This seems like a “duh” but trust me, with all the paper I’m carrying onboard the airplane, one thin slip of it can get lost pretty easily amongst my notes and papers.

Your Paper

REHEARSE your paper.  At least four times.  Time yourself.  Come in at least two minutes under your time allotment.  Try to eliminate speech disfluencies from your presentation (like, uh, and, um).  You will come off more polished and more professional if you can manage to give a succinct and timely performance on conference day.

Don’t just read off the page, actually speak to your audience.  Also, keep in mind that a paper being read aloud to someone is a different medium than a paper the individual herself reads.  We process information differently in this different medium.  Allow for this, adjust your paper accordingly.  There is nothing more tedious than sitting through a paper which hasn’t been re-jiggered for reading.  You want your audience to listen to your ideas, not fall asleep on you.

Print at least one hard copy, have a copy on a jump drive, and pre-load the paper (and your notes) onto your laptop/netbook/tablet before you leave your house.  Redundancy is key here.  I’ve had so many anxiety dreams about giving a presentation only to find that someone spilled something on/ate/incinerated my paper and notes.

Packing

Say it with me: I will not wear sneakers to the conference.  Even if they are all black and my pants are a little too long.  PRESENT YOURSELF PROFESSIONALLY, people!  Graduate students already sit at the bottom of the barrel, we don’t need to reinforce this by looking like we stole our suits from our parents’ closets.  Get some nice shoes, have some nice conferencing clothes, and for god’s sake put on some makeup and do your hair.  First impressions are everything and for all you know someone you meet on any given day at a conference will want to give you a job.  Don’t give him a reason not to.

Again, redundancy is key.  Have a backup shirt/pants/clean pair of socks in case the unspeakable happens to your primary pair.

Bringing Work

My panel at the 2011 Rutgers Newark MA Consortium

Realistically, you’re not going to get a whole lot done at the conference and that’s okay.  You’re there to network and meet people while getting your ideas out into the academic ether.  Your primary focus is to make yourself available to do this.  Don’t hide in your room with homework; you may as well be at home if you’re going to spend the weekend that way.  Prevent the temptation to over-book yourself by reading way ahead the week before.  I tend to read everything that I need out of a physical book at home, then load up PDFs and articles for the plane ride.  I also take a back-up book off my comps list, you know, in case I get really antsy/ambitious.  This, for me, has been a good balance between “OHGODOHGODIGOTTAGETTHINGSDONE” and “conference time”.

While at the Conference…

Shower frequently.  Brush your teeth often.  Carry mints.  Seriously.  Do you want your personal hygiene to prevent you from getting a job?

Sleep at least eight hours a night.  Conferences are rough and can run you down easily (especially if you, like me, are something of an introvert and need a lot of re-charge time after being ON all day).  Make this concession and don’t spend too much time at the bar with your buddies the night before you give your talk.

Be courteous to EVERYONE.  Unless you’ve memorized the facebook of everyone in academia ever, you have NO IDEA who you may cut off in the coffee line or accidentally bump into while rushing to your panel.  Don’t let your career die a fiery death because you are a jerk.

And on that note, I have to go tie up some loose ends before I’m off.  I may or may not be checking in next week due to traveling, but I will try to return with a few choice anecdotes from the wide world of conferencing.

Cheers!

A Moment of Gratitude

I’ve been doing a lot of complaining lately.  This semester is really wearing me down, and because of that I’ve felt the need to comically whine about all the things that are stressing me out.

But a few things have happened this week that have made me realize that I need to take a break and express how truly thankful I am to be where I am right now.

Yes, this semester is hard, but you know what?  Last year at this time was even harder.

I have a couple friends going through the PhD application process (some for the second or third time).  Watching them doing it (even from afar) has been like watching a documentary on war: I remember what it was like, it was well and truly awful, watching it from a distance has made me re-experience some of the feelings that I felt while going through it the first time, and I am so very very glad that I have the buffer of “it’s happening to someone else right now” because you seriously couldn’t pay me enough to put myself through that again.

The application process itself is hard work.  You pour your soul into those aps and you agonize over every piece of it; what should I put in my personal statement?  Should I talk about the work of scholars whom I admire in this program, or will it make me look like a brown-noser?  Should I quote them at themselves?  How should I format my CV?  When you only have about ten pages of information with which you must present your very essence, every single letter is critical.

Then you submit the applications sometime between December and early January… and you’re free for a time.  Hitting the “send” button is a culmination of all the soul-wrenching work that you’ve done in the past few months.  It’s like those last steps as you reach the peak of the mountain; the hardest part, but also the most fulfilling.

And then you wait.  For several months.  You sit on your hands, unable to do anything, unable to say anything, unable to plan anything, with nothing to do but worry.  What if you get in x place, where will you live?  What if you get in y place, how far are you willing to commute?  What if you don’t get in anyplace, what part (and how much) of your integrity are you willing to compromise for a paycheck?

And you start making back-up plans.  Like “Well, if I don’t get in, I’ll just go do this and try again next year.”  And you convince yourself that those back-up plans are just as good as (if not better than) starting the next leg of your journey.

And you wait.

And you lose sleep.

And you bite your nails.

And then you check the gradcafe forums and see that some people have started getting their decision letters, and that just begins the vicious cycle all over again.

Today, I had coffee with someone who has gotten into my program and is considering it (amongst some others).  It was a true pleasure to meet and speak with him, and it made me think about how weird it is to be on the opposite end of this process.  Just a year ago, I was the person sniffing out the programs.  Just a year ago, I was in limbo not sure where I was going yet.  Just a year ago, I was embroiled in a decision making process that was stressful, difficult, and absolutely draining.

The circle has come round.  I’m the expert now, the person who is where other people want to be (or think they may want to be).  That is an indescribably odd thing; to quote Joni Mitchell, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now”.

So for today, I am grateful.  I am still stressed out and tired, but nowhere near as stressed out and tired as I was last year.  I have a ton of work to do, but at least I’m not worried about where I’m going to live come July.  I don’t see an end to my crazy amounts of everything, but at least I have a plan to get it all done.

I really do love my life.  Even when the going gets tough.  And, despite the down-sides to my job, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

…and now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Some Days you’re the Bug, Some Days you’re the Windshield.

Yesterday was perhaps the single most awful day I’ve had in a long time.

I’ve been overwrought for a while now preparing for my first BIG presentation this semester.  I managed to secure the ever terrifying “first presentation for department’s new professor” slot for one of my classes.  Professor Y is wonderful and extremely supportive, but that only goes so far to allay the panic.  There is (of course) a certain degree of concern that goes into any major presentation, but I would say that I get more stressed over presentations for professors I like than those for professors I do not like.  At least with a bad professor you can blame any fault in your work on his teaching methodologies (warning: only goes so far) and/or bemoan your state with your colleagues afterwards.  When you do work for a good professor, there’s the greater fear of not measuring up to her standards or even (gulp) disappointing her.

Suffice to say that I’ve been HARD at work to ensure that this does not happen.  That in itself was enough to send me into crazy stress mode, but to top it off a few things happened in my personal life that simply broke the frazzled camel’s back.  And, at the pinnacle of my misery, I received a rejection from a journal to which I had submitted an article.  Not a huge deal and totally expected (really, publishing is a numbers game and finding the right fit for your work), but it definitely was the rancid cherry on top of my sewer sundae.

I’ve spoken a great deal about “survival mode” in the past few months and I realized that perhaps now was a good time to take a moment and really quantify this.  How, when you’re bawling messily into a hastily grabbed handful of tissue so that you don’t drip onto the piles of work laid out for you, do you cope?  How do you pull yourself together and still manage to make your deadlines, and (perhaps more importantly) do so with panache?

Well, let me tell you how I do it.  It’s not easy (I would go so far as to say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done… and that includes surviving two years as a little white girl in Newark without getting shot or robbed), but it is possible.

Survival mechanism number one: understand that THIS IS YOUR JOB.  It may not be like everyone else’s job, you may do most of your work sitting in your PJs at home, but it is still a valid vocation and you get paid to do it (well… usually… if not, then you may way to re-evaluate your life choices).  Everyone has off-days.  Everyone does a certain degree of facebook surfing while at their desk.  But if you can recognize that your PhD is a FULL-TIME PROFESSIONAL GIG, it will go a long way towards mending your mindset about your work.

Survival mechanism number two: always keep a glass of water (or tea, or coffee) nearby.  This ensures that you stay hydrated and gives you built-in breaks at regular intervals to refill or pause for potty breaks.  Just make sure that those breaks remain short.

Survival mechanism number three: take care of yourself.  Eat well, sleep at least eight hours a night, and get your lazy bones to the gym.  It means that you get sick less and you feel your best (which is important when you’re grappling with the GIANT IDEAS floating around your head and on your desk).  Also it means you can carry more library books without getting winded.

Survival mechanism number four: your friends are your friends.  They are part of your life for a reason and, when things really go to hell, they are there to support you.  Don’t be afraid to tell someone that you need help.  They may not be able to do your research for you, but they can probably at least bring by dinner and give you a hug.  This was KEY to getting through my day yesterday.

Survival mechanism number five: know how and when to reward yourself.  Sometimes

oh, Ru!

I deserve a beer.  Sometimes I deserve a cookie.  Sometimes I deserve an hour or two drooling on the couch while watching bad TV shows.  Sometimes I deserve all of those things combined.  Understand what it is that you need to give yourself at the end of a hard day, and make sure that you do.  Remember the sage words of Ru Paul, “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”

Survival mechanism number six: know when you have done enough and it is time to walk away.  Seriously.  You will always have more work to do.  I sometimes write lists of things that I MUST accomplish today, and things that can get bumped until tomorrow.  Set daily work goals.  When you meet your daily goal, STOP.  If you meet it early, STOP EARLY.  This is especially important during finals time when you-time is at a premium; remember that regular 9-5ers work for 7-8 hours a day.  If you are like me and up and at your computer by 8:15, working until 8 or 9 PM is, actually, a twelve-hour day.  Enough is enough.

Survival mechanism number seven: say it with me, “I am awesome, my work is important and pertinent, my department chose me out of hundreds of other applicants for a reason, and they haven’t kicked me out yet so I must be doing something right”.  I am particularly bad at this one and need reminding fairly frequently.  Luckily, I have mentors, friends, and colleagues who are very good at reminding me.  Implement a system for yourself that gives you some validation for your work; whether this means blogging, putting it out there more often, meeting with colleagues for coffee, more hours in your mentor’s office, increased e-mails home, or whatever you need to do.  If you don’t believe this, nobody else will.

Survival mechanism number eight: keep a bookmark folder of things that make you laugh.  Extra points if it has to do with your area of expertise!  Here are a few from mine:

Shakespeare gotta get paid, son

SHAKESCAT!

Good luck and godspeed my friends.  Here’s hoping my week picks up, and that yours isn’t anywhere near as awful.

Three’s a Crowd

So I have a new roommate.

We seem to get along pretty well. He’s into theatre (like… REALLY into theatre), he’s directed a bunch of stuff (even a lot of Shakespeare which is neat because we can talk about it at great length), he’s written a few published items, he’s smart, talented, and really I don’t think I’m over-emphasizing how great he is when I say he’s a visionary and the voice of a generation. He demands a lot of attention though and I’ve found that spending time with him has really cut into my social time (as well as hours I can devote to other projects). He just has a lot to say and I find that, when I think a conversation has finished, it’s only just beginning. He could talk for hours and hours.

Well, I guess he has the prerogative to do so since he is an eighty-seven year old man.

I’m getting to the point now, though, that I really wish he’d just stop talking. I mean, I know a great deal about him (and you can always know more, but sometimes there’s knowing someone and KNOWING someone and you really don’t need to KNOW everybody). His stories are beginning to conflict. I’m starting to develop cross information and mixed signals. It may just be that he’s somewhat forgetful…

To make matters worse, the more I know the more I feel like I’m obligated to tell other people when I go to introduce him. It’s no longer good enough to say “Hey, this is Peter and he’s a director.” Now I have to tell them about the shows he’s directed, the places he’s lived, random bits about his personal life… I mean, most of his accounts are professional so I don’t know too inordinately much about his personal life (not enough to be awkward at least) but I do know a thing or two.

His presence in my apartment is really beginning to put a cramp on my life. I have spent the weekend almost entirely devoted to him. Tonight I’m home alone with him while my roommate goes out gallivanting with her girlfriends. I mean, he’s not possessive or anything, but I’m beginning to wonder if my obsession with him is bordering on “unhealthy”. I feel like he’s watching me every time I sit down at my desk to type. He does tend to hang out on my desk (and sometimes even on my desktop). I’ve pushed Jerry aside in favor of his company multiple times. I even precluded plans with other friends to hang out with Peter. Tonight I started googling childhood images of him and I’m in the process of making a powerpoint about all the things I’ve learned…

He does have a charming accent though, so that helps matters a bit.

….working on a big scary presentation about RSC founding Director Peter Brook. I feel

The B-Man

like that’s all I have to talk about these days. Would love to review Whistler in the Dark’s Dogg’s Hamlet Cahoot’s Macbeth or The Donkey Show (both of which I saw in this past week), but am unable to wrap my brain around anything that doesn’t involve my new English beau.

Oh, and by the way, night-time Pajama-clad trips to the library didn’t go out of style in your undergrad. Or at least I hope they didn’t because if they did, I’m about to commit a gigantic fashion faux-pas. Maybe if I wait long enough, the library will empty of credible witnesses…

Gettin’ by with a Little Help from my Friends

Since things are firmly set in motion and I think I’ve finally gotten into a good rhythm with my class reading, you know what that means.

Time to start thinking about final papers.

And, ideally, time to start doing more than thinking about final papers.

In my case, I’ve begun preliminary research on all three of my finals and am pending final approval on my (albeit currently vague) topics.

This means meetings.  Meetings with Professors.  During office house.

One of my Professors happens to be the chair of my department, so our little sit-down also meant that I had to opportunity to catch up on certain administrative particulars about my Tufts career.  The meeting was going so well, and was so brief, that at the end I had the opportunity to ask a few questions.  Really, the only thing that I could articulate at 10AM before I had finished my coffee was a broad and sweeping statement assuring that I covered my own bum in case of giant blind spots…  “So… is there anything else I should be worried about?”

He smiled and said, “Well, is there anything else you are worried about?  Some students find their first semester overwhelming, but you seem to be doing pretty well.”

I’m not going to lie, the vote of confident was nice.

However.  I had to laugh.

“Well, yes.”  I said, once I could manage a sentence again.  “But I was an actor in a former life.”

…. Oh yes, cool, calm, collected on the outside.  Let me assure you, Professor, it’s not just

We're gonna need a bigger boat...

“some” students who find their first semester overwhelming.  In many ways, the first semester has been akin to walking into a room and sitting in what you thought was a nice comfy chair.  Then there emerge straps from the chair which twine themselves around you and hold you firmly and securely in place.  After the initial shock of that, you realize that the chair is still comfortable; it simply cares for your well-being (clearly) and doesn’t want to let anything bad happen to you.  Just are you begin to wonder why it would be that a CHAIR would have PREHENSILE STRAPS and the vague notion stirs in your mind that maybe sitting in this particular chair wasn’t your most brilliant plan, the chair begins to toss and turn like the Minnow on that fateful stormy sea at the tail end of its three hour tour.  You become dizzy.  You become sick.  You become tired.  Everything is brand new, and there’s so much of it, shape, form, color, it threatens to swallow you whole…

…and then just as you begin to think that your sanity is done for, the chair steadies out a bit.  Oh it’s not smooth sailing, and there are definitely some rough patches, but you begin to get a feel for navigating.  You begin to understand where you have to exert pressure to help keep yourself from tipping.  You begin to anticipate the least comfortable positions that the chair could be in and learn how to prepare for them.  You even begin to think about how to fit this chair into your own living room so that the rest of your life can go on during the brief glimpses of calm ocean.

And (perhaps most importantly) you begin to spot other chairs.  You begin to get advice from those who have traveled further down this path.  You begin to learn from their mistakes, to let them guide you because they probably know what they’re talking about.  You bring your chair into synch with some of the chair-sitters next to you.  You all paddle together for a while so you don’t feel so alone.  You give each other advice about things you’ve found out during your sojourns on the open ocean by yourself.  You have a support network.

My colleagues have proven an invaluable resource in this journey so far, and I look forward to many years of that continuing.  It is strange and funny to think about how long I will potentially know these people, and how much they will influence my sanity (or lack thereof).  The department has provided multiple opportunities for academic boozefests (which, trust me, I have indulged in as much as so-far possible).  These have turned into a wealth of information-sharing, sanity-retention, and overall comfort-regaining in this crazy thing that I’ve decided to do with my life.

I suppose the moral of today’s story is such: learn to rely on those around you and provide as much support to them as you can because, trust me, you’re going to need their support in return.  Work hard, try to keep your eyes on a still point in the turning world, and above all remember the Hitchhiker’s credo.