roasting marshmellows in phd hell

The Dude is Not Impressed

with 20 comments

I’ve been doing a cull of my bookshelf recently and came a cross a purchase

I will only take the weekend off to attend historically accurate Renaissance fairs.

from my early phd days: Graduate Study for the 21st Century by Gregory Colón Semenza.  It’s a pretty helpful book in that Semenza tries to explain things about grad school and the job search that one would otherwise have to learn through a lot of trial and error, or from some kindly Dumbledore type.  And there’s a pretty good appendix with sample resumes, syllabi and stuff.

But there was one passage of the book that jumped out at me.  Scared the shit out of me, really.

The following appears under the subheading “Family Demands on Your Time:”

Educate them.  At the very least, your parents should know what you do on a regular basis, how long it will take you to complete long-term goals, and where you hope your work will take you in the future.  If the people who love you understand even vaguely the nature of your profession and can empathize at all with the pressure you’re under, you have a chance of keeping things civil when you decline their various invitations or head out to the library for a few hours during a weekend visit (54).

Okay.  Deeeep breath.  I feel like this kind of attitude is quite pretentious and reinforces the whole ivory tower idea that work done outside the gated walls somehow doesn’t involve long term goals or hard work.  Presumably, your family (aka the plebs) will have some notion of what you’re talking about.  But this bit is the kicker:

The next time your mom asks you all bleary-eyed whether you’re coming home for the weekend, you might consider saying, “yes,” but then split the weekend in half: “I’m coming home Friday night but, unfortunately, I will have to leave Saturday afternoon so I can work on Sunday”…[or you can] create a workspace in your hometown…try setting aside a few hours each day you’re home for leaving the house and getting some work done.  Tell dad you need to read for three or four hours but that you’ll be back in time for lunch (54).

So, you love these people and are making a compromise by going to visit them at their insistent begging for your company.  Cool beans.  And this plan to see your loved ones involves arriving on a Friday night, leaving on a Saturday afternoon, and possibly spending Saturday morning doing work at Starbucks?  Way to throw Mommy dearest a bone!  Maybe the potential for incivility, as alluded to in the first quotation, comes from the premise that your friends/family don’t get why this work has become your entire life.  And that probably isn’t a result of them not understanding the lofty world of academia, but just not getting why ANYTHING should take over all other areas of your life.

(disclaimer: if you really would rather be holed up in a bunker writing about commas in the original manuscript of Charlotte’s Web or whatever, I guess this doesn’t apply to you.)

I have a distinct memory of reading this passage in the park, lounging on a blanket in the company of some good friends and dogs and food.  I felt a sense of horror akin to what Bruce Jenner might feel if a ban on plastic surgery went into effect.  Was this the lifestyle that I signed up for?  Is a mere weekend too fucking precious to take away from my studies on an obscure subject that nobody else besides me gives half a liquidy shit about?  If I don’t have one of those novelty clocks where, instead of numbers, each part of the circle says THESIS TIME, does that mean I am a fraud or a failure or not deserving of a tenure track position?

These are the kinds of questions and insecurities raised by such a narrative.  And this is one of the 45678 million things wrong with academia.  The lack of tenure track jobs just fans the fire.  “oh, you didn’t get the position that 800 other people applied for?  You probably took a weekend off in 2006.  Slacker.”

Life is short.  We will all die.  And at the end, will you regret you didn’t publish one more journal article in Socioeconomic Patterns of Victorian Shoplifters Digest?


Written by universityoflies

July 11, 2012 at 12:45

20 Responses

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  1. I don’t think I have the words to express how much I love this blog post. Well done. 🙂


    July 11, 2012 at 15:38

  2. I had the “pleasure” of meeting this author. He was a mega, mega, mega dbag.

    Currer Bell

    July 12, 2012 at 00:05

    • thank you SO MUCH for this comment. this gives me hope that there are sane people out there in positions of ‘power’ who don’t feel the same as this guy.

      I feel so freakin validated right now!


      July 12, 2012 at 07:59

  3. This book was assigned reading during my first term of my PhD program, 6 years ago. Last month I found it way, way back in the far reaches of my bottom desk drawer when I cleaned out my office (due to quitting, not finishing the PhD)… I might not be able to remember most of the stuff I’ve read for my research, but I remember those passages you posted SO well. (I also recall some that were basically like, “Unless you’re ALREADY a married dude, good luck having a personal life!” I might be misremembering or making that up, but anyway, I distinctly remember some particulary-awful-for-a-single-lady parts, which basically turned out to be accurate.)

    My hatred of this book probably should have been a hint to quit before I became a crazy, broken shell of a person. Whoops.

    Which is all to say, I really enjoyed this post!


    July 12, 2012 at 03:48

    • I just dug my copy of this book out of the recycling bin to see if I could find the bit you’re talking about (I seem to remember it too) and got so pissed off just skimming that I put it back where I found it. Ah well, we both know its there.

      Thanks so much for the comment, and I’m sorry that your phd study been shitty. 1. Welcome to the club, and 2. congratulations on the big escape!! There is a big freaking world out there and you are going to get out in the fresh air and sunshine and LIVE!


      July 12, 2012 at 08:07

      • Well, I’m glad I wasn’t totally imagining it. I tried skimming the book too before I tossed it (well, put it out on the “free books” pile in my department… although it would have felt good to actually trash it), but I couldn’t bear to look through it too much, either.

        Thanks! Even with my current fear that I’ll never find a non-academic job, I still don’t have the crippling anxiety/guilt/depression cocktail that I had as a grad student. It’s SO much better!


        July 13, 2012 at 23:59

  4. Have you considered script writing. You are hilarious and your posts are always insightful and I always find myself smiling after reading them. I especially love when you make statements like how taking some me time is just one of the “45678 million things wrong with academia”. LOVE IT!!!


    July 12, 2012 at 08:09

    • howdy KACL and thank you for your kind words.

      In my secret dream career I write stories and shiet, but since that seems scary and hard and the rejection would be more personal, um.. well that might be a contributing factor to how I ended up doing a phd. It’s still writing but if it sucks, it’s not that personal electrode-on-balls kind of pain like when your ‘baby’ is deemed crap writing or unfunny. Some fear I’d like to get over. I’m hoping the blog writing will help.

      thanks again for being so nice 🙂


      July 12, 2012 at 08:31

  5. My favourite is line is:

    “oh, you didn’t get the position that 800 other people applied for? You probably took a weekend off in 2006. Slacker.”

    Sadly too pithily accurate of the attitude I have confronted in aca interviews

  6. […] so-called training scheme (and are crazy enough to make the kinds of scarifies discussed in my last entry), you’re not left with much.  No social/personal life, no job, no plan b, no other work […]

  7. “(disclaimer: if you really would rather be holed up in a bunker writing about commas in the original manuscript of Charlotte’s Web or whatever, I guess this doesn’t apply to you.)”

    I didn’t realize when I started doctoral studies that the folks who fit this category weren’t just outliers who couldn’t function in any other employment context — they were the norm. Beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon? What better way to spend it than at the university library, circling instances of assonance and alliteration involving “guh” sounds in pre-Elizabethan sonnets? Then again, what else *would* you do if you were serious about “the profession” (and don’t get me started about the way *that* term is tossed around)?

    “oh, you didn’t get the position that 800 other people applied for? You probably took a weekend off in 2006. Slacker.”

    I had a nice, healthy social life during my grad school years — met some of the greatest people I’ve ever known, hiked across valleys and mountains, ran on the beach, met my (soon to be) wife…I regret none of it. I once had a senior faculty member explain that taking hir job at U of Anywhere had been a contributing factor in ending a 10-year relationship. I have know that there were weekends during my dissertation years that I could have spent re-reading Sidney’s poetry for the umpteenth time, or re-revising a chapter to incorporate even more esoteric committee feedback, but instead chose to go to a bbq with friends (many of whom were in the same boat). Sure, there were plenty of times that I turned down an invite to go to a movie, or skipped a party somewhere, because I really did want to finish researching a source. But I have no regrets about the ratio of living:research over the past few years.

    Josh M

    July 15, 2012 at 20:38

  8. Wow…I missed out on that book but in some senses I’m glad that I did since my social life was non-existant…it was truely all work and no play. I think that if I’d had the book I would have made me even more depressed. My colleauges were a dire unfriendly lot all desperate to be part of the ivory tower.


    July 17, 2012 at 02:45

    • I wonder what percentage of people eliminate all outside contact with the world as the result of some burning passion to do nothing else, and how many others do it because they feel the pressure and are made to feel they have to… are there any of those mythical first category people? maybe even semenza himself is spouting the bullshit he thinks people expect him to say? although I think some types get off on this holier than thou attitude..

      thanks for your comment 🙂


      July 17, 2012 at 07:33

      • i know for a fact that there are at least SOME of the former, because they are/were in my cohort. and in my experience, they’re either a) on the autism spectrum or b) self-loathing, shit-scared-of-the-world, sadomasochistic, resentful little trolls who couldn’t sustain a healthy human relationship to save their lives. both will do just fine in academia, i’d say.


        August 10, 2012 at 13:55

  9. no doubt, anon! I think that’s why I love ‘the big bang theory’ so much.. I find sheldon hilfuckingarious when he’s on my tv and not in my office. (who am I kidding, I don’t even have my own office.)

    thanks for the comment 🙂


    August 10, 2012 at 20:00

  10. I dutifully read that book cover-to-cover my first semester. The sad thing is, I remember agreeing with that part you posted when I was at home for my first Christmas “break”, during which I was supposed to produce 60+ pages of coursework papers (obviously, under those conditions, I was not in my right mind). My program “gave” us those weeks during “break” to write our papers, rather than having them due at the end of the semester, so that we could produce better quality work, and there was a hard deadline at the end so that we couldn’t take extensions. This was all supposed to be in our best interest (and I can see how racking up extensions would be a bad idea), but I remember that I only took a half day off for Christmas Eve and a full day for Christmas, and otherwise worked pretty much nonstop every day. It was totally miserable and caused all kinds of conflict with my family, who couldn’t understand why I was having to do such a crazy workload during my time “off” (ok, I am really overusing the scare quotes here). In retrospect, this all sounds as insane as it actually was.

    And, just to add to Currer’s personal assessment of Semenza, one year one of the admits at my program’s recruitment had also got into UConn and met him, and she found him to be creepy and terrifying.


    August 11, 2012 at 02:11

  11. […] post on that Graduate Study for the 21st Century Book offers some pretty good responses to this kind […]

  12. Those jackass parents, don’t they understand that grad school is SURRIOUS BIZNESS?? Those unread, obscure dissertations aren’t going to write themselves!

    Mama Nervosa (@MamaNervosa)

    August 29, 2012 at 19:12

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