phD uncertainty.

In year four of my Ph.D program, doubt sets in.  I’ll be plain about my studies: I’ve done terribly with my benchmarks, those milestones of progress that should pace me through “normative” time to earning the doctorate.  To be clear, the demands are by no means unreasonable.  I should at this point have completed my oral exams after finishing my position papers.  I’ve drafted my position papers, one a review of research, another an empirical study, and a third paper that serves as a draft proposal for my dissertation project.  Only one of those has completed the review process, and the other two have gathered varying degrees of dust on a digital shelf, having already garnered valuable feedback from my advisor and classmates, awaiting my attention like starved offspring.  Also, a paper I was invited to submit to a publication, the not-yet-ripe fruit of a long collaboration with some very willing and thoughtful research partners, also sits and waits.  I believe in all these projects.  They are rich with data, with conceptual relevance, well-articulated methodology, meaningful findings.  They sit and wait.  I can’t bear to revise them.  It is grinding and grueling work for me, combing through my own writing, re-writing and seeking clarity, making the judgment of Solomon for concision’s sake.  I need to approach it with freshness, stamina, and expanses of time.  The first I find from time to time, the latter two elude me, and always have.

I admit I feel at this point like I’m languishing, my scholarly career in a prenatal ICU, caught in the contradiction between not having enough funding to focus on the work and not having focused on the work enough to be competitive for funding.  My first semester was a sunlit backstroke on a Maui beach, and then my daughter was born and time disappeared in a diaper-shaped vacuum.  Stints of teaching, working at my church, family and family and family, all those local and familiar attachments of not having moved away for graduate school, and then the scholar-related chances at teaching, publication, research projects… all have left no margins for the clean, well-lighted place and the uninterrupted time to apprentice in the rigors of fifth drafts, peer review, lengthy reading lists.  I read, read constantly, read widely, read promiscuously, read fruitfully… but in scattered bits, like a desperate prisoner squirreling away illicit bits of food and sunlight.  Meanwhile, by day, I keep hustlin’ for fatherhood, for meaningful labor in schools, for these other facets that I cannot divorce from myself, the million yeses I could not no, rows of doors opened for me or that I’ve pried open that I cannot shut.

So much dissatisfaction in a life that should feel satisfying makes me question whether to continue trying to become a scholar.  An analogy: my spotty bilingualism.  Mandarin was my first language, the earliest language of my consciousness, the first reservoirs of culture, the primal sounds of intimacy.  But moving to the US, my literacy in English soared and my literacy in Chinese dissipated, and with them my access to the productive capacities of those language structures.  Yet, even though as a ninth grader, I routinely read 19th century British literature, crime novels, and dramatic theory, I did not know the difference between what was called a “stove” and an “oven”.  I could distinguish regional accents of Mandarin but forgot how to write “dog.”  Gaps.  Glaring gaps.  The side effect of inhabiting multiple worlds.

My formation as a scholar, divided as it has been with all these other obligations, is riddled with gaps.  I haven’t done any conference presentations.  Haven’t even written a proposal for one.  I’ve written hundreds of pages but can’t get myself to turn in twenty-five.  I have not served on any committees– I have to be home by dinner time.  I’ve joined all the organizations but contributed to none, not even attended their meetings or conferences– I have to take mom to the doctor.  I’ve accumulated repositories of journal articles and books about my research areas, but can’t pull together my orals list– I lost a whole summer selling our house, renting another one, and moving. It goes on and on like this.

And I have to question my readiness to enroll in scholarly work as a whole-life endeavor.  Research engages me, especially the kind of research I get to do, the horizons of research that are humanizing and decolonizing and reflexively rigorous, the possibilities of what research can introduce us to and how it can engage practice.  I appreciate critiques and the opportunity to refine my work.  But I have insufficient space and capacity for them in a hard drive and CPU so tasked with being a good dad, and drafting rubrics, and expounding Scriptures, and maintaining loyal friendships, and keeping up with my cherished former students.  I don’t know that I really want to sacrifice those, whether that is even a possibility.  Even leaving aside for a moment the extra-professional spheres, I don’t know that I want to give up chatty lunchtimes and teacher collaborations and curating educative experiences for lectureships and grant-writing and checking citations.

My ambitions have always been that I can have it all, the opportunity to study, to speak to the world, to remain a teacher for equity and justice, to be a family man, to be a follower of Jesus.  What I did not count adequately before, what I always fail to account for, is the unavoidable costs of such a division of self.  No matter how integrated my vision, no matter how productive the cross-pollination of identities and roles, each day still only has 24 hours, each month only its 35 days.  Oh, wait.

A professor who I have not worked closely with but whose advice I cherish once challenged me with a hard, direct question: do you really want to be a researcher?  Do you really want to do academic work?  My enthusiastic yes at the time is now wavering under the strains and the tradeoffs.  Usually, such tensions feel right, necessary, appropriate.  Today, my fingers reach for the white flag.

6 thoughts on “phD uncertainty.

  1. hey Paul.
    I’m both moved and impressed by your vulnerability, honesty and thoughtfulness. This is, no question, at times a herculean task. And you are right, that it is not so much the academic work itself, but really the myriad of competing and often more enjoyable competing demands for your attention that make the scholarly work feels less like a mole hill and more like a mountain. OK, on its own the scholarly work is really closer to a mountain – but you get the point. At the same time, I would encourage you to recognize how your anxiety is causing paralysis. I say this because it happens often to me and I hear recognizable symptoms in your thoughts above. What I often do, in those moments of inertness brought upon by stress, is to give myself small, manageable tasks – I write up a reference list I’ve been putting off, re-read a chapter of a book that gets my wheels churning, revise an introduction paragraph I know could be improved. At times, this effort leads to more small tasks, and at a certain point, I’ve been more productive than I anticipated. At times,it does not – and I try not to dwell on it. At the end of each day I want to be able to point to at least one thing and say – well, at least I did that!
    One strategy that also helps me is to be mindful that this is the work. That after the PhD and the job, as we see with our professors, these challenges don’t dissipate. Therefore, I try to have the long view – to enjoy the journey, to celebrate small victories and bounce back from small (and big) defeats. To enjoy my recorded Warriors game when the house is quiet at about ten pm. I try to steel my mind to a future beset with peaks and valleys for my professional career. And at the end of the day I continually remind myself why you and I both do this work. The students we’ve served, the hopes we have for public education, the commitment to issues of equity and social justice – is greater than our own professional highs and lows.
    I know you know all this, but I just want you to know that I feel ya!
    You say you’d like to have it all. Good news. You already do.

    • Tony, always a font of good advice and perspective. You’re right about the paralysis, and it is a sound way to cope, to take things task by task, to divide and conquer the insurmountable, to look back each day on something you can count as progress. You encourage me to take the long view, and it’s the only way I’ve gotten anywhere, you’re right. Thanks, brother.

  2. Paul, my reply is predictable and unhumble: Don’t give in! Don’t give up! I’m sure my opinion is worth less because I am not a scholar, I am not an educator, I have not been through the rigors of doctoral work and so I cannot truly judge, as others can, your work as a scholar. But I have and remain convinced from the beginning, that this is your work, this is your unique contribution, this is the path that makes so much sense of the distinct life God has led you along on for the last three decades – culturally, spiritually, educationally. But again, I am in no position to judge the merits of your work, I am not your peer; I am more like a son who thinks his dad is Superman, a mother who thinks her boy is the greatest. But still: Reach for another page, not a flag!

    And yet, as a fellow thirty-something, I can sympathize with the pressures, the “distractions”, and the impulses. I don’t resent, but never quite understood how others could pursue their dreams without the constrictions of reality and responsibilities. Without the (visible) twitches that betray seasons of self-doubt. I cannot say where I will be in 10 years, so how dare I press you? I am not where I thought I’d be 10 years ago, and yet I don’t regret the failures, disappointment, and what-at-that-time-seemed-like-detours. So how dare I not affirm the doubt?

    In the end, I strongly believe in your vocational path as a scholar. But what I believe in more is you. And by faith, through grace, you will ultimately find your groove.

    • I appreciate your spiritual perspective, Brian, as one of the few people in the universe, sometimes the only one, who could imagine a vocation (in the sense of “calling and a Caller”) out of this line of work, and specifically for me. You’ve walked down much of this road with me and now again you fortify me.

  3. Hello my brother and my friend,
    When I was engaged, people told me that planning for a wedding was a good test for how you would do with marriage. When I was pregnant (and when we were adopting), people told me that this would be good preparation for the challenges of parenting. When I was in the PhD program, people told me that it would prepare for the challenges of academia. They were all right. What they failed to tell me was the importance of rest, self-care and compassion.

    You are one of the most caring, committed and thoughtful people that I know. Of course, I resonate with many of the things in this blog and appreciate your vulnerability and honesty as Tony noted above. From the other side of this particular uncertainty, let me tell you that what I hear in your voice is the weariness of trying to do it all. You can have it all (and do already also as Tony notes), but you cannot do it all. At least not all at once and perhaps not at the level that you might be capable of were you not to have all of these things on your plate. Individually, each one is a blessing, but taken together, they are overwhelming and discouraging.

    Our mutual cultures tell us that if we work hard enough, individually, we will prevail, but I have found that this is false and full of pride. It is false in that hard work when one is exhausted and cannot think straight is labored at best and unproductive/frustrating at worst. It is proud in that we were not meant to be alone or to work alone. Reaching out and collaborating with others is the key to success in academia, fellowship, schools and life. Just like a blog post reaches out from one’s own isolated brainspace into a space of relationship and understanding.

    When I was really ill a few years back, I adopted the mantra of one day at a time, which sometimes morphed into “moment by moment” and tried to stay present to the moment that I was in as best I could. It helps to get me through moments of despair and doubt, which come less frequently now, but still come occasionally. It reminds me of the passage in Matthew that encourages us not to worry about tomorrow for today has enough of it’s own worries. A powerful truth.

    I love you very much and hope these comments are somewhat helpful. I’m always only a message away. Please get some good rest–make it a priority to take care of Paul, because Paul has a lot of others that depend on his care, but mainly because Paul is a valuable person and child of God.

    One last thought: there will always be “better” but sometimes we need to believe that “good enough” is okay.

  4. Your words of wisdom are all the more meaningful because they are as earnest and genuine as anyone’s could be. Betina, I always think of you as a role model, not only in teaching and academia, but in generously caring for others in a self-giving fashion. Part of the makeup of my condition for possibility. Thanks for your sage words.

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