What I Wish I Knew in Grad School: Or, Two or Three Things I (now) Know for Sure (Or am Trying To) by Dr. Karen Kopelson

The Myth of the Holy Grail

For many of you right now, the academic job, particularly the tenure track job, is the proverbial Holy Grail—in both associations of that phrase: it is what you are questing for and is what you assume or hope (unconsciously perhaps) will provide happiness and “eternal life.” But adjusting to faculty life can be surprisingly hard. And this may be true even if you somehow land a, or even THE, job you really wanted, as I did, and end up in an exceedingly welcoming department, as I did. Perhaps there is something Freudian about this difficulty (weird, I have never cited Freud in my life, but . . . ):  Freud famously observed that depression can, and apparently often does, follow on the heels of achieving a long-pursued dream, but there are also more pragmatic factors, I think, that make the transition from grad student to faculty particularly difficult.

One, as both Beth and Brenda suggested in their posts [last year], there is something unique, and frankly irreplicable (I declare this a word), about the graduate school cohort experience. Right now you are likely surrounded by people who not only have similar interests to you but are all basically in a similar phase of career and life, and are living, with some exceptions of course, a similar style of life. When you get to your faculty destination, you will likely be surrounded by people in all different phases of their careers and lives, many of whom will be comfortably settled into the deep grooves of their lives. While you all at UofL have observed, twice, over the last few years, large cohorts of young faculty coming in to our department at the same time, this is not normal. It’s great, for everyone involved (and I think especially for them), but it’s not typical. Rather, you may find that you are the only young (or, if not so young, “new”) faculty in your department; you may be the only person in your field, as Beth discussed; you may be the only single person, or the only person who doesn’t have kids. You may find yourself living in a type of town or part of the country (or world) that doesn’t feel familiar. Any/all of these factors can be alienating. If you are a minority of any kind, you (undoubtedly know) may need to multiply your potential sense of alienation by (insert factor here).

Plus—and at the significant risk of looking the proverbial gift horse deep in the mouth here—being a new, or “junior,” or, to use a term I detest and thankfully have only heard once in my many years at U of L, “probationary” faculty, brings its own unique challenges to sense of place and self. Think about it (I hadn’t): you finish your graduate program at the top of the pecking order, and, ideally, at the top of your game. Some of you will finish as a leader of your graduate student community or “star” of your program. Even if you are fortunate enough to land a tenure track position, those former and ego-affirming positionalities will be erased/effaced and you will be starting again at the bottom for yet another apprenticeship period that is very long—rivaled only by the apprenticeship or “probationary” periods in law and medicine, I believe. Let’s just say the years leading up to tenure are not always the most ego-affirming times.

“I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself.”~Fran Lebowitz   

“Wherever you go, there you are”~Self-helpy slogan that happens to be true

Related to the above, if you happen to suffer from “impostor syndrome”—and academics are (in)famous for so suffering—this is probably not going to go away any time soon. Actually, what I think academics feel more often than “fraudulence,” is simple inferiority—feelings of being not as good as, smart as, and (the big ones) as accomplished as, and productive as one’s colleagues, peers, friends, neighbors, strangers  . . . (insert person here). I cannot repeat often enough, because I still have to repeat it to myself, what Brenda said in her post, and so I will repeat it in commandment form: Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s CV. (But you probably will.) I am writing this post on the weekend of my 50th birthday and smack in the middle of my FIFTEENTH year as a professor and, while I do not actually “covet” other people’s CVs—that is, I do not really desire them for myself at this point—I do sit in a sort of awe at them and feel anxiety and/or (again) inferiority in their presences. In her post, Amy Clukey linked us to an article by Devoney Looser which traces out the rejections or failures behind her enormous successes. This article did not comfort me, as was its intent—perhaps precisely like my post is not comforting you!! My response to it was, as it always is, to feel panicky at the thought that Looser has “failed” at more endeavors than I could ever conceive of, let alone pursue. If I could fully eradicate this anxious inferiority response from my affective repertoire, believe me, I would have done so by now and would tell you how I did it. But the only formula I have found thus far is to be honest with yourself about your goals, motivations, desires, and, yes, abilities, and then strive mightily every day, as Brenda also said, to develop and measure yourself by your own yardsticks. This does get easier to do with time and age (and it gets easier as you meet your personal yardstick goals!).

“The more things stay the same . . .”

Graduate school can feel like, and be, one sustained hypomanic burst of intellectual and psychic energy in pursuit of the finish line and aforementioned Holy Grail. Though I have focused above on ways you may not be fundamentally transformed by becoming a faculty member, the constant state of arousal you may be in now will dissipate, for better and for worse. Yes, the pre-tenure period can evoke similar states of arousal and mad productivity pushes as does grad school, and yes, as other posters have noted, you may have times when you are busier as a faculty member than you are now. But the truth remains that, ideally, careers are long and you will go through many new phases—ebbs and flows, periods fertile and periods fallow. In my experience, the first few “ebbs” or fallow times can be alarming. If you are a person who draws much of your energy from teaching, your first uninspiring and uninspired semester (and you will have them) will be an unwelcome reverse-jolt of sorts to your system and you may think you’ve lost your mojo (or your love or joy—you will get it back). Or, the first time you find yourself without an idea at the ready for a new project, or that you experience intense “writer’s block” if you have not been particularly prone to blockage, you may think you’ve simply lost IT (you probably just need to read, and relax). You will have many new experiences, in other words. And not all of them will be good. I recently had a not-at-all-good new experience of and with my writing, and whined to a mentor, “but this has never happened to me before.” She said in response, “Well now it has.” karen-kopelson

Concrete advice: find a mentor who cuts through the shit, and save some money on therapy.

Dr. Karen Kopelson is an Associate Professor and University Distinguished Teaching Professor of English. 

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