What Seeking Infinite Jest Means Part II: Completing My First Year of My PhD Program

Thompson Library

(to read What Seeking Infinite Jest Means Part I, click here)

A young man walks out of the Thompson Library at OSU, with a smile on his face, borderline smug, after completing his first year of his PhD program. He’s texting his friends and making plans for the break with an air of confidence that is only granted to those who have marked off accomplishments years in the making. The world is at his fingertips, walking as if he has been granted access to a kind of knowledge reserved only for the most privileged. Perched from a rooftop about a hundred yards away, invisible to everyone else, I can see this young man and his gait. I watch from the shadows, silently observing, attempting to predict his next step. I look at his jovial walk, with something between envy and resentment, and let out a whisper: “What’s going to happen to you?”

My first year of my PhD program at Ohio State University is complete, and the word that best encapsulates this experience is “conflict”. I wish my vocabulary was able to draw on a more nuanced term to describe my experience, or, rather, that this term didn’t have such a negative connotation. I try to think of a visual that most accurately describes this feeling, and see two magnets thrown on a table, finding their way towards each other, swirling and swaying, as if locked in a dance where the two must find each other, while their opposing sides simultaneously turn and spin them away, ultimately locking together. (this image isn’t in my head accidentally- I saw a video of magnets moving in slow motion and it popped up as soon as the word “conflict” came up) I think of all of the contradictions, juxtapositions, and paradoxes students come across while in graduate school. We love what we do, but are always bombarded with work; we love our classmates and mentors while missing home and family; we’re constantly trying to focus on the work in front of us while worrying about the job market we will soon all have to enter. These opposing forces will only cause more struggle and unnecessary stress to an already stressful experience. It’s a hard thing to think about, especially when you consider the work we put into just applying to get into our programs in the first place. I’m supposed to be grateful, and cheery, and encouraging to everyone who is thinking about joining a program (and believe me, I am- I grew up so poor, it’s almost impossible not to be grateful), but I come to this benchmark and all I can think of is….this was really damn hard.

The biggest conflict I struggled with (or contradiction, or difference, or parabole? Still working on the vocabulary thing) was just how different the Fall and Spring semesters were. In the Fall, while acclimating to PhD life and feeling a bit more comfortable on campus and in Ohio, things got remarkably easy. I studied, participated in class, went to club meetings and lectures, did all the things good grad students do. It wasn’t a cake walk, but it was manageable. I was comfortable with talking to people about my experience, to the point where friends and family back home started to think about going back to school and/or getting into higher education. It was easier to think, ‘This program is a really good fit for me”. When the Spring semester kicked in, it was a period best characterized as me being trapped in a vice. My classes were much more demanding, there were more assignments due, and I decided to take a fifth class, thinking I can handle it, ultimately realizing how much work I was adding to my own workload. (Sidenote: if you are reading this because you’re also thinking about graduate studies, or if Google somehow lead you here after searching “PhD life”, allow me to give you a small piece of advice- DO NOT take a fifth class while in a doctoral program. [please don’t] It’s way more work than you need to give to yourself and there’s no real need to do that). Growing up working with my dad on the weekends, to working while in high school, and always having some kind of side job, I’ve always associated work with pride, like, whatever it is you’re working on, you should be able to look at it and say, “Yeah…I did that”. When this semester was over, I had no such feeling- it was over, and I was glad it was over. The first thing I did right after the semester was over (literally, right after- like, the morning after turning in my last Final paper) was take a walk along the Olengtangy Trail. I’ve jogged down the trail before, but walking down helped slow time down to where it used to be. While walking down the trail, I noticed myself periodically rolling my shoulders, as if unwinding the tension built up during the semester. It was a nice walk, and brought some tranquility back into my daily routine. But it didn’t make any conflicts go away.

Olangtangy Trail walk

I don’t wish to speak negatively about my program. That’s not the purpose of this post. I think it’s the internal conflicts within myself that I’m struggling with. I had an idealized vision of what my program would look like, and I’m realizing now that’s it not that. Looking back, I’m not even sure what that vision was. That feeling of walking out a GRE test room, feeling so lost, echoes when I leave the library after hours and hours of writing. How can the thing I wanted the most remind me so much of feeling like I can’t do it? When you’re in an emotional state like this, so vulnerable to pain, soon, the effects of anything resembling bad news are only compounded. When I found out my stipend would be less during my second year when I would start teaching, it just

Motivational Quote from my Notes

reminded me of the exploitation of grad students and adjunct labor, leading to another, more haunting question, wondering if completing my program and pursuing a tenure-track position at a university will perpetuate this problem. I was taking notes in my Victorian Lit class, finding myself making a small note to future me: Just finish your degree. These are the days when it’s really hard to answer the question, What do I want? I walk out of class, playing music on my headset. My Soundcloud playlist always does a great job picking the song I need to hear at the right moment. The song Something Soon by Car Seat Headrest plays, and I listen.

Stay inside all this winter
Filling out forms from a busted printer
I want to talk like Raymond Carver
I want to turn down the goddamn TV

Binging on the latest sitcom
Feeling guilty every second it’s on
I want to put my foot through a window
I want to romanticize my headfuck

Heavy boots on my throat, I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
I can’t talk to my folks, I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
All of my fingers are froze, I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
Only one change of clothes, I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
My head is, my head is, my head is
My head is, my head is, my head is

When I set out to get this degree (not when I applied, but when I told myself this is what I wanted, which was years and years ago), I felt like I was going on a career track that will make a difference in people’s lives, and crack open the answers to the questions I’ve always wanted to ask about life and meaning. I knew this was going to be a long journey, so I trusted in that journey, thinking it will guide me to where I want to be, or maybe need to be. I’ve studied a library’s worth of great works of literature, was taught by brilliant professors, taught my own classes and wrote my own syllabi, and am now steps away from becoming a full-fledged professor. For a while, my program felt like it was just more classes, arbitrarily making me qualified for teaching at a university. It took a lot of conversations and chats with cohort friends and mentors to realize that this whole program was way more than just taking classes, but a building of a kind of skillset that was preparing me for the next desirable step in my career. I’m still reading and writing, and still taking classes with amazing professors, but thanks to previous experiences like working as an adjunct instructor and going to conferences, I started to observe how it was adding breadth to my teaching skillset.

No experience better captures this than a time when I went to the gym on campus and struck up a conversation with a stranger. I finished a set on the lat pull down machine, resting my forearms on the leg lock. A girl using the low-row machine next to me said, “I like your tattoo”, pointing to the one on my arm. I said “thank you”, and continued to catch my breath. She soon started asking questions like how my day was going and what I study. She then asked, “What do you do when you have a bad day?” I soon started to think of the reasons why someone would ask that question; maybe she was really struggling with a long day, or with college altogether, or maybe she was at the gym because this was a possible answer to her question. I responded by saying, “Well, when you have a really bad day, it’s most likely because a lot of things haven’t been going your way, and sometimes you can’t control that. When that happens, I usually unplug for a while, like, do something non-academic, like hang out with friends or go home and watch Netflix for a while, or come here, to the gym”. Her facial expression was a mixture of acceptance and slight disappointment. I then tried salvaging my response by stating, “I think the best thing to do on those days is to just stop what you’re doing and ground yourself for a second, and think, everyone has bad days”. She nodded and said, “thanks”, and we both continued our workouts. I finished my set, then wiped down the machine and stood up, moving to her side, since the low row was my next in my workout circuit. When I stood up, I saw on the top of her left wrist a series of self-inflicted cuts going down her arm, some healed, some with freshly formed scabs. Soon, every quote, analysis, insight I learned from my Medical Humanities classes that addressed empathy were summed into this experience. I see someone who needs help, and the skillset from these classes taught me about listening to stories like medical histories, trying to understand people and where they are coming from, acknowledging the work and difficulty of sharing something. Except, she’s not directly asking for my help with her self-inflicted cutting. So how do I respond? When she stood up, she wiped down the machine and gestured that she was done and it was okay to start using it. I then asked, “So where are you from? Did you move here, or…?”, and shortly we had a conversation about being outsiders in a new environment, and the pressures of college. When I told her I was from California, she said, “I’ve always wanted to go there!”, then briefly discussed all of the things she wished to do there. She then said it was nice talking to me and was about to leave. I said, “HEY WAIT!!”, and gave her my contact info. Neither of us had our phones on us, so I gave her my full name and told her to find me on social media. Till this day, I have not heard from her. In this brief exchange, I was able to see the fruit of studying something this program introduced me to and put it to practice. To whatever extent it ended up becoming, I sought out to help someone with what I’ve learned, and I did that.

This is not a narrative about how this one experience changed my whole attitude about grad school. (that’s just lazy writing) Grad school is ultimately way more than the thing it presents itself to be. Grad school is people, exchanges, filling your brain with knowledge you can’t get anywhere else. It’s daunting at times, dealing with the pressure of what comes next, or feeling like you’re in competition with everyone, but that’s a product of the job market, not what you set out to learn. It’s a pursuit of knowledge, sure, but when you’re in it, it’s so much more than a finite amount of data. It’s a growing body you are familiarizing yourself with, in a space that welcomes questions and discussion. You feel support and kinship from your advisors and cohort one day, then a consuming void the next. Your knowledge is in a constant state of molding, shaping, chiseling, buffing, finishing. It can be painstaking, but like a good batch of gin, the distillation process takes time and labor, in hopes that this lengthy process produces a finished product that meets the highest of your expectations. We soon get to channel this passion into the world through the appropriate spaces- your research, your teaching pedagogy, a well-balanced Negroni. You’re here to work, and to produce good work. When you are doing that good work, you become an ambassador of knowledge, ready to share what you have been working on. When you do, you get to see it and say, “My work looks pretty damn good”. It’s a feeling to be proud of, and it’s good that your day has come to an end thinking that.

My previous post ended with a Shakespeare quote. I didn’t read much Shakespeare this year, but I came across a quote that is just as breathtaking:

-from Rita Charon’s The Principles and Practices of Narrative Medicine

Seeing others fully and faithfully means seeing them in all their particularity, ambiguity, and contradiction while being forced to question one’s own convictions. Therefore, to decide to listen, to attend to the other’s story, is already to take an ethical stand. To enter a story, the listener must experience its moral complexity in all its ambiguity and challenge to one’s own moral sense.

In the beginning of the Fall semester, there will be a flock of students walking into the Thompson Library. Some will be nervous, or agitated, or feeling like they are going to save the world. I don’t know what will happen to them, but they are all in the right place, all ready to learn.

**********************************************************

This post is dedicated to all the lovely people I’ve met during my first year at OSU- this includes my cohort, my advisors, the people in my department who went out of their way to help students who were in my position a year ago, and the faces that bring me joy whenever I come across them on campus. Sometime earlier in the second semester, I attended a wellness fair, which included physical and social exercises to address stress, team-building workshops, and crafting. One of the very last activities included a Wellness Wall, where you write down what helps you work through the stress of college. I wrote down “I’m grateful for my support ecosystem”. If we have ever crossed paths and shared a handshake, a hug, or words of encouragement, consider yourself part of my support ecosystem.

Ecosystem Notes

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