I am a highly trained professional with exceptional skills.
Academia both creates and erodes confidence in this fact. Yes, fact. (For those that need to hear it.) If you’ve made it through a PhD program (or even if you didn’t) you have demonstrated all those wonderful buzzwords such as talent, drive, ambition, hard work, and dedication. But between you and I, just us squirrel friends, every PhD student I know views systematic issues within academia as personal failures. And when we interpret these broader problems as somehow a lack of individual moral character and integrity, the ensuing depression and self-doubt corrodes our very motivation for being in academia in the first place.
I don’t know all the reasons others decided to do a PhD. I did it because I fell into it, of sorts, then embraced it, and then loved it. Loved it so much that as I sit in my current beleaguered limbo—uncertain of where to direct my energies next—I mourn the potential loss of an academic career if I go elsewhere. If academic professions can be parsed, they come in three general compartments: teaching, research and writing, and administration. When I first entered the doctoral program I considered my prospects in these areas to be excellent: I thoroughly enjoy teaching and am enthusiastic about student ideas; researching was and continues to be a creative and fulfilling act; and I have fifteen years of admin experience in the healthcare field.
But as I near the end, facing some difficult choices, broke, tired, and frustrated with systemic failures to address the issues of doctoral programs and the dismal reality of the academic job market, I am considering all my options and asking, “What kind of work allows me to research, write, teach, and also be a funny bitch on Twitter without getting fired?” I think about how all my online content could be a detriment for some professions, but when I fantasize about my ideal job I imagine someone valuing my dick-and-fart jokes as much as they do my considerable academic skills.
My humour keeps me sane. It makes me a better teacher, too. Not because I’m entertaining, but because when I lecture I’m having fun. There is a distinct rush in being able to break down complex ideas and communicate them in clear and concise ways. This is a small talent I had before grad school, but higher education has improved and then refined this skill. And when I doubt myself all I have to do is have a conversation about religion with…anyone.
I do not teach religion. I teach people how to think about religion: how to ask critical questions, how to re-examine the questions themselves, how to challenge one’s own perceptions. One of my greatest joys in academia is to write on a student’s paper, “Good idea!” because after reading thousands of similar opinions, when I come across one that challenges me I become genuinely excited for the future of scholarship. Provided it all doesn’t come crashing down, of course. (Though it needs that, too.)
So when I get glum about my future, I dream of my graduation party. I fantasize about a convocation bacchanal the way some people dream of their marriage rite. I’m wearing a hot pink metallic 70s inspired spaghetti strap wrap dress. And vintage 70s pink sneakers. And body glitter. LOTS OF IT. Shiny green eye shadow and a wickedly perfect cat eye. Big hair. Hoop earrings.
My mom’s there. She’s in sexy new boots that she can move in. She’s the first person I dance with. Enthusiastically. Giddily. With abandon. We got through this shit together, dammit. My brothers mope in the corner until they get tipsy enough to join the fun. All my close friends are there and they better not goddamn cancel because they’re too tired or busy. This is my major life event. Consider this shit my wedding and you’re all my fucking bridesmaids. So show up and rock out with your tits out.
The DJ goes through eras to please everyone. Maybe starts with some Motown to get everybody grooving. Then moves into 70s funk. Some deep groove stanky funk too, not just the pop hits. Because my DJ is skilled, she can mix in heavy guitar riffs from Black Sabbath to please the goths. We jitterbug and shuffle, bogo and air guitar. In the 80s set it’s synth wave pop and pop pop, because Cindy Lauper and Madonna are timeless. Depeche Mode and Wham. Prince and the NPG.
But the 90s/2000s hip hop is where the party really comes alive. We get Tribe, Bahamadia, Pharaohe Monch, Jean Grae, Dead Prez, Mobb Deep, Snoop, Dre, Ice Cube, Heltah Skeltah, Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, Black Moon, and any beat by Premier or Dilla. Erick Sermon, Black Rob, Missy, OutKast, Rah Digga, Lil Kim, Biggie, Beanie Seagal, Necro, EPMD, Jay Z, Wu-Tang, Apani, Beastie Boys, LL, Nas, and Saul Williams.
Then there’s an interlude with RnB where everyone gets to dance like Ginuwine in Pony. I MEAN EVERYONE, DAMMIT. You better practice your moves now because we are partying away the stress of eight years of the PhD, one autoimmune disease, and one severe depression.
Ideally it’s a barn party. I can miraculously afford a nearby hotel room for everyone. The bar is open and weed is legal so get as fucked up as you want. Midnight poutine is passed around to keep the dancers fuelled ‘til dawn.
At some point, at the height of the frenzy, all my religious studies colleagues perform a ritual to mark my rite of passage. They flank me as I walk between them. I am ceremoniously whipped with marked essays and printed out student evaluations, before I grab them all, throw them in a bin, and light them on fire. A crown of laurels is placed on my head. I throw pomegranates and apples into the crowd.
(In the fantasy, past students are there too and hand me papers I’ve actually graded where they didn’t like the mark and tell me, “You did your fucking job well and now you get to BURN THIS SHIT!” and push me towards the fire, papers in hand.)
Then someone yells “MOSH PIT!” and I finally get to experience this staple of white culture and launch myself into the throng of enthusiastic headbangers.
I periodically throw my middle fingers in the air as a message to all the haters, especially if I’m grinding on someone hot. There are streamers. And cake. And maybe even a food fight. (I have put down a large deposit and also grossly overpaid the cleaning staff.)
Exhausted, delirious, happy, and sweaty, we emerge at dawn to sausages and pancakes and coffee before heading to crash into a soft, down bed. Maybe the next day there’s a chill bonfire with hot dogs and marshmallows. I wear jeans and flannel. I make out with a crush or three.
I take a solo midnight nude swim in a cold lake. Plunging as deep as I can, I compel my lungs to breathe underwater—the way I imagined doing as a girl. This time it works. And I stay for hours, exploring the muddy depths, growing webbed fingers and gills behind my ears.
When I return to the quiet, comfortable gathering of loved ones murmuring around the dimming fire I never tell them that I am now transformed, part amphibian. I keep this secret. It’s mine.
Life continues. I work. I make decisions towards my goals. I flirt. Pay bills. Help my mom. But now I am a Doctor.