The Phd/Life Journey: A Beautiful Sense of Tumultuous Calm
I decided to take a departure from my usual blog posts about presentations, social media, and student learning and development to reflect on the journey I’ve been taking for two full years now… that of a PhD student. For those of us privileged enough to undertake doctoral study full time, it presents an amazing opportunity for self-reflection, self-renewal, and often a time for some self-doubt as well. I recently had to introduce myself at the start of a class as a “third year PhD student,” which got me to thinking about how far I’ve come in my own journey in such a short period of time. So if you’ll allow me to take a turn at the personal, I wanted to use this space to indulge in and process through some of my thoughts.
Getting your PhD is a very solitary journey. Certainly, you have your cohort, advisors, mentors, and friends and family for support, but the process is set up in such a way that it tests you as an individual. Pardon my language, but it can be a bit of a mindf**k. I don’t know that there is any other way to describe it. Getting a PhD, you’re going through a journey that less than one percent of the U.S. population will experience, and one that even fewer in the world will. Everyone’s journey is their own. And although there are few that take the path I have chosen, and some will find it easier than others, at the core of it all, I think all PhD students will tell you that the process tested them in ways they didn’t anticipate and challenged them to stretch themselves in ways they hadn’t previously known. As I prepare for my comprehensive exams this summer, and I look back at the past two years, I’m amazed at how much my life has changed. How much my outlook has changed. How much my thinking has changed.
I have always been an academic at heart. My inner high-achieving honors student is a demon with which I’ve always struggled. Like many other honors students with whom I’ve worked with as a professional, I often find it difficult to accept praise, but at the same time find myself wanting it, needing it. Within the past year, the PhD process has finally allowed me to let go of this. It hasn’t completely disappeared, but I find it has lessened. Getting a PhD taught me about what it means to do something FOR ME. This degree is FOR ME, not for others. It has taught me to be selfish, in a good way. I still give of myself to others, but I’ve also found comfort in doing things alone, for my own self-discovery, and demanding that in the experiences that I have.
For me, returning to doctoral study after working professionally for 10 years was a bit like coming home. In describing it to friends, I used the metaphor of closet. I felt like I had put some of my academic skills and abilities, life memories and thoughts, in a box. On occasion, I’d find that kindred spirit that would allow me to take that box off the shelf and nerd out over high theory and discussion, but by-and-large, when working as a professional, that box sat neatly in the dark. Going back for my PhD allowed me to take that box off the shelf and open it up in the light. I rediscovered previous memories, thoughts, and motivations that I had forgotten existed. In an odd way, it was like being born again. How had I let myself get to this point where it seems like I had forgotten who I was?
And that struggle of rediscovery, of how to be true to myself, to try to define myself and what I want out of life, has become what my PhD is truly about. It extends beyond just the academic realm and into my personal life as well. In the past year I’ve experienced emotions that I had never felt before. It’s been a good process, but a difficult one. I’ve handled some of these processes poorly, at the time, but I couldn’t have experienced them any other way. When someone experiences new emotions for the first time, they’re often difficult to process. You’re left looking in your bag of tricks for how to cope with them, but find yourself coming up short. As with any experience, the more you work through it, the easier it becomes to deal with, but that’s sometimes of little solace in the moment. Throughout this process I’ve learned to embrace these emotions as a beautiful reminder that I am alive. That even the difficult emotions and feelings are somehow there to provide contrast and highlight how beautiful the experience of life can be.
Sometimes I feel like the PhD process has allowed me to rediscover myself. The odd thing is, however, that the closer I feel I get to finding myself, the more lost I feel. It sounds like the ravings of a Western intellectual with too much time on their hands, or the reason why the hashtag #firstworldproblems was created, but the tricky lesson to be learned here, however, is that life is a constant process of discovery and change. It doesn’t stop. It’s not as if you find yourself one day and life proceeds forward in a perfect forward march of harmony. I know this, but to feel it, to be comfortable with it, to own it and be calm, is a more difficult feat to accomplish than it sounds. Life does not stop. Thinking you can put it on hold is a folly, and trying to delay or postpone it means you’ll miss out on a lot along the way.
And so I find myself closer to the end of my PhD journey than I am to the beginning. The dissertation phase looms, which, although the last milestone, is certainly not the smallest one. I find myself in a place of flux, a place of change. I am now even less confident of where this journey will take me than when I started. But the wonderful thing it has given me, and continues to give me, is a beautiful sense of tumultuous calm. Although I’m doing the extraordinary, I’ve come to appreciate the ordinary even more. As Pam stated in the recent series finale of The Office television series, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things… Isn’t that kind of the point?”