On Being A Bad Academic

I fear that I will try too hard and alienate myself, or that I will try too little and be a disappointment.

I am a bad academic. At least, that’s what I tell myself sometimes.

The semester is wrapping up and people I know are graduating from their respective programs. One friend, after years of blood, sweat, and tears, juggling multiple jobs, and occasionally getting by on crocheting and cat snuggles, finally defends her dissertation. She buys the eight-sided tam for her ceremony. “If anything,” she says, “I deserve a fancy hat.”

It makes my heart swell to see my friends, colleagues, and former students achieving their academic goals. I want to see pictures of them basking in the afterglow of so much hard work, relishing a job well done. At the same time, I try to remember that photos like these only scratch the surface of academic life. They don’t capture the stresses of taking on too much, the meltdowns over deadlines, the sad discarding of unusable research. They capture the decisions made but not the time spent agonizing over their making. I try to remember this because, selfishly, there is a sliver of me licking at old wounds. I’m feeling like a Bad Academic, because this was the semester I was supposed to defend my own dissertation.

Life is full of “supposed to,” isn’t it? That was the crux of a column I wrote back in 2016, when I took a hard look at my decision to drop out of my doctoral program. If I would have stuck with it like I was supposed to, I would be finished by now, I still occasionally think. But I would also most likely have been miserable in a program that wasn’t right for me. I would have continued living in a city I hated so that I could commute to the university. And I never would have moved and met my current partner.

After dropping out of that program, I took a hiatus from academia. I moved to a nicer area and, incidentally, into an apartment five minutes down the road from a community college. I recalibrated my brain to prioritize not what I thought I should be doing or what others thought I should be doing, but what I really wanted. Taking this pause helped steer me, in my own time, toward meeting with a few faculty and gradually wading back into the classroom. In the fall, I tutored in the college’s writing center after work. In the spring, I taught a communications course. Each time I set foot on campus confirmed that this is where I needed to be.

After some searching, I found the ideal graduate program for my skillset, interests, and career goals. I applied, and was accepted. This past fall, I started taking classes for a master’s in rhetoric and composition: a degree that I hope will pair nicely with my existing master’s in literature, broaden my instructional capabilities, and make me more effective in a writing center environment. A year into my coursework, I’m completely in love with the program. The faculty are passionate, talented, and incredibly supportive. The other students in my cohort are wonderful, and it’s been a delight to share this experience with them. Pausing and seeking out a better fit was clearly the best decision I could have made.

I have a fulfilling academic life again. I have made time to talk about ideas and create meaningful work. But every once in a while, that voice comes back. The voice that says I’m not doing this the right way, that I’m a Bad Academic.

Mothers are told that if they choose the bottle over the breast, or daycare instead of staying at home, or disobey any number of mommy forum do’s and don’ts, they are parenting incorrectly. Feminism is still full of in-house policing, like the girl in college who told me that good feminists don’t wear high heels. In academia, the “proper” way to do things is simple: Get a PhD. Research. Get a tenure-track position at a research university, where you will continue to research for your institution.

Many of the other students in my classes are on the PhD track. They hold graduate assistantships or teach classes for the university to supplement their income. They are immersed in material for their comprehensive exams, preparing for the dissertation process. They produce, and will continue to produce, incredible work that will one day be on par with the scholars we read. One night, after a particularly invigorating lecture, I confess to one of my classmates that if I were to go for a PhD, it would be in this program. A few former colleagues and professors encourage me to take this step. You’re still young, they say. You can do it!

But do I want to? That’s always the question. What would it look like if my love of academia eclipsed other things that I value? The PhD life, like all major decisions, requires compromise. I wonder if I am selfish for wanting to keep my full-time job so that I don’t have to return to scraping by on academic labor and odd menial jobs. I wonder if I am selfish for wanting some insulation around my mental health, aware that anxiety and depression are statistically much higher among graduate students than the general population. And for the first time, I am prioritizing dating and relationships as I look forward to building a life with my partner. As these priorities shift, I recognize that my decisions are deeply connected to those closest to me. Does wanting balance make me a bad academic?

I also think about the kind of labor that is most meaningful to me, and how this relates to the question of wanting.

One night at a happy hour, a co-worker looked down his nose and asked why I put up with an adjunct salary for so long. I explained that it took a while to get serious about other options because I love teaching so much. He snorted. “You don’t have to. Focus on your research and let the TAs love the teaching for you.” My face flushed. I was furious at the assumption that a professor’s work would not be about putting students first. In that moment, I realized just how important teaching was to me. More than research, more than a dissertation, my greatest work must be my students. I want to equip them with skills for their daily lives, but also to help them appreciate writing as an art. I want them to put art into the world. I want to put art into the world to share with them.

Guilt and fear are in my blood. Like all women, I live within the instructions to speak softly and not to take up too much space; the word sorry is as reflexive as a prayer. I fear that I will try too hard and alienate myself, or that I will try too little and be a disappointment. Maybe I will always wrestle with this question of how to be the best thing I want to be. Maybe the only answer is to unapologetically, and without explanation, try according to my own standards.

Chelsea Cristene is an international student adviser, English professor, and graduate student based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, The Establishment, and MamaMia, and has appeared on HuffPost Live. Find her on Twitter.

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