What I Wish I’d Known in Grad School by Kiki Petrosino

You’re going to be jealous.

In torrents, in sheets. In chapters. You’re going to spend entire Wednesdays being jealous, entire hikes being jealous, you’re going to be jealous right through the spin cycle.

Pinpricks of jealousy will poke at you just as you’re stirring tiny cubes of red onion into your famous guacamole, which you’ve made for your old grad school buddy’s book release party. You’ll be jealous as you spoon that guacamole onto a festive platter. The truth is, you don’t feel like making your famous guacamole right now, let alone a whole festive platterful. In fact, you strongly desire to break that platter, & all platters, into tiny cubes. You’ll realize, with a surge of vision, that breaking things is your favorite activity. Especially if those things belong to your old grad school buddy, & double especially if you can start breaking things right now, at this party.

Here is what will happen.

Once a week for the rest of your life, your old grad school buddy will win a different, prestigious fellowship. Then, they’ll get a tenure-track job at your dream college (an idyllic woodland campus that is also Hogwarts & also a lunar colony). While you’re still sending out your CV & driving to job interviews in unfamiliar towns, while you’re still waiting tables or working for minimum wage at the art supply store, your old grad school buddy will be promoted to Full Professor. They’ll receive a six figure salary, a research assistant, & their own lab. On your busted laptop, you’ll watch your old grad school buddy appear on The Daily Show as an “expert commentator.” You’ll watch your old buddy laugh along with the host, both of them simplifying, for the purposes of television, what should be a nuanced argument on a cultural topic you care deeply about. You’ll watch all this & the image of your old grad school buddy—on TV, wearing a bright, asymmetrical jacket you heartily loathe—will weave & feather across your mind, glistening like scar tissue.

Years will pass.

You’ll get a job & move steadily up the ranks. You’ll publish some papers, & soon: your first book. You’ll take your famous guacamole to faculty potlucks where it’s a grand favorite. You’ll buy a house, go to conferences, & help your students. Eventually, you’ll hear from mutual friends that your old grad school buddy has resigned their Professorship. You’ll hear they’ve bought a houseboat & moved to Paris to write full time, because why not? One morning, as you’re reviewing the galleys of your next book, you’ll kiki-petrosinoreceive an e-mail from your old grad school buddy. In this e-mail, they’ll complain—ever so lightly, ever so elegantly—about the rain in Paris, about the dull, trudging crowds that make the Beaubourg simply impossible every weekend & about how difficult it is to run an Airbnb from a houseboat while simultaneously choosing where to spend one’s Guggenheim year. This e-mail will actually contain the sentence: I miss American TV.

You’re going to be jealous when you read this e-mail.

What else will you be?

Your professional jealousy will never leave you, not fully. But if you allow it to shut down your heart, to make you small or bitter or sarcastic when you hear of someone else’s success, then you’re the one who’ll miss out on crucial opportunities to grow as a person & as a colleague. Every time you encounter jealousy, you have a chance to improve your character.

Here’s a truth: someone else’s star will always glimmer just a bit more brightly than yours; someone else will always be able to move faster up the ladder than you will. C’est la vie. But la vie—especially after grad school—isn’t a zero sum game. Have faith that many invisible gifts & opportunities are waiting for you, most of them you can’t even imagine right now. Did you decide to enter graduate school for the awards & the houseboats? Or did you fall in love with an idea, a book, a set of irresistible questions? It’s supremely difficult to reach past jealousy to that generous, expansive precinct of the mind, but it’s that very capacity in you—that thing that allows you, in your research, to make connections across seemingly disparate queries—that you must activate in order to be a good colleague.

Start practicing now. When you hear that a classmate has won an award, gotten a job, or been recognized in some other way, challenge yourself to be the first to congratulate them. Even if they’ve won something you wanted for yourself—especially then. Don’t let yourself be second or third to congratulate your grad school buddies: be the very first. Do it quickly, before the embers of your jealousy have time to kindle themselves into a true flame. Choose any method you wish: a personal conversation, an e-mail, a text, a greeting card, whatever you can do swiftly. You’ll find that wishing someone else well has positive effects on your own outlook. Try saying “I’m happy for you,” & stand back as it becomes true.

 

Kiki Petrosino is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at U of L. Her books of poetry include Witch Wife (forthcoming in 2017), Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013), and Fort Red Border (2009), all from Sarabande Books. She co-edits the independent on-line journal Transom and serves as Editor for the Mineral Point Poetry Series of Brain Mill Press. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

 

 

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