I don’t mean for my posts to be discouraging. Quite the opposite, I hope they can foster some sort of feeling of solidarity perhaps? Add to the already circulating calls for change?
For the longest time, I have known that I wanted to be a professor and make a career for myself in academia. I’ve been in academia for about 8 years now, and in all honesty, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. Not that I expected it to be. I am a firm believer in hard work, I guess, I just didn’t expect the toll school could take on one’s emotional and mental health. I went to one of the best universities in Canada, and for the longest time, I felt like I was just a number cycling in and out of classes; a tiny fish in an endless sea. Going through the motions, with no real direction or guidance. It was not until my third year that my professors knew my name or my research interests. But I made it, got a good GPA, and got into a Master’s program. Where things changed a little.
During my masters, I got a lot more guidance, felt less like a number and more like a person. But the transition from undergrad to grad school comes with a whole new set of dynamics..and expectations. I found a really wonderful program that fully funded its master’s students (including internationals – which is rare I assure you). I finished a two-year program in three, something I may have mentioned before perhaps? Many people see this as quite an accomplishment. I do not, I see it is the time in my life where I picked school over my health. And while I wouldn’t say I regret my decisions, I would not make the same choices again. I became so stressed during the last semester (where I was teaching, taking classes and writing my thesis..while being president of the Graduate Student Association) my stress started to manifest physically and I became so ill I was prescribed medication. I couldn’t eat, sleep, think… yet again, somehow I managed. Well not somehow, I had a really great support system actually. My advisors and colleagues at the time were amazing people. Like they say, it takes a village.
And now I find myself pursing my PhD at one of the best programs in the united states. I have taken classes with some of the founding scholars of my discipline. I’ve started working on my research, and I get to go in the field every summer, doing what I love. I even wrote my preliminary exams this past December. For those of you who may not know, these exams are a milestone for most PhD programs. Where you are tested on your understanding of theory and potentially all major topics related to archaeology, ranging from human evolution to the rise of states. Having completed such a task, you would think that I am on top of the world. I’m not. Honestly, studying for prelims was the most miserable time of my life. I have never felt so stressed, overwhelmed and downright stupid in my life. It nearly broke me. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger..right?
So here I am, at the start of a new decade, prelims done (and hopefully passed). My mind buzzing with all the things I have to tackle this coming semester and its daunting, to say the least. I often find myself wondering what I will do at the end of it all.. or if I will even get there. I know people will say, look at all those before you, who have faced the same obstacles you face and survived. But I think a closer look is needed. The academia we find ourselves in today is not the same as the one that produced our professors. I am not saying it was easier to make it in academia before, more that it was a different atmosphere altogether.
What is required of a Phd student in this day and age? Well, you have to take classes for one, if you are in North America. In addition, you have to either work as a teaching assistant or research assistant, to earn your keep so to say. If you teach, you need to make sure you hold office hours, attend extra training sessions and block off chunks of time for grading. Then you must, of course, check off all the program requirements; language, prelims, etc. Not so bad, so far. But don’t forget, you need to attend outside lectures and talks. Conferences, as well. And it helps if you present a paper or poster. Join some association or club, and volunteer, that looks good on your CV. A smart grad students will be on the constant lookout for grants and staying up to date on the literature (because you don’t have enough readings to cover in your classes). Oh yes, you should also aim to have a few publications under your belt before you finish your program. All the while, you should be working on your own research and attending department and school events. How long does this take? On average 8 years in my department. Is this doable, yes, yes it is. But at what expense?
These are not impossible tasks, but navigating them in a broken system seems like it is. I didn’t even touch on the social and ethical dyanmics; all the cases of sexual harassment that have been swept under the rug, the tensions that can arise between students when funding is tight in a department, or between students and advisors when they have different theoretical approaches or communication styles. There is the socioeconomic barrier to consider when it comes to things like acceptances to programs, attendance at conferences, or in the case of archaeology, field schools. It seems to me that academia has become some sort of race to look good on paper. How about trying to get an article published when an anonymous reviewer blocks it with no feedback? How good is the content we are putting out when people splice up their data or rewrite the same paper to get more publications? What effect does this have on the people who are in the process of “becoming academics?” Most of my colleagues struggle with stress, anxiety, depression and imposter syndrome. Most people I’ve talked to feel overwhelmed and underprepared. This is the atmosphere that we are supposed to be creating knowledge in? I would say I worry or the future of our discipline, but I worry more for the health and well being of the people currently in it.
I want to end on a silver lining, however. Things are changing. People are more aware of things like inclusivity, sexual harassment, and mental health issues. To those of you who have felt overwhelmed and underprepared, it is not you. It is the system you’re operating in. In your pursuit to chase your academic dreams, you do not have to sacrifice your physical and mental well being. It is not a race; take your time, do things your way and remember why you entered your field in the first place.
Peace, love, and positivity.