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Why Am I Doing This? A Dangerous Question During Exam Time for Graduate Students

Published August 17, 2014 by Tabby

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I am a Ph.D. student in History. I am having an existential crisis. This can apply to people in any type of situation when it gets tough and makes you ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Sometimes you don’t have an answer. 

To earn a Ph.D. in history at my university, you must take so many semesters/credit hours of coursework, earning a grade no lower than a B. That is not enough to prove your worth, however. You must take three, six hour long exams over three days, known as comprehensive exams (comps). The three exams are your general field (US history), secondary field (American West), and a minor field (Public History). 

Why are these so daunting? For me personally, I am not good at tests. Sure, I know the information inside and out but when I am handed an exam I can’t even remember what name to put at the top of the page. I will do reviews, projects, or write you a frickin’ book but don’t give me a test. In addition, I am aware that the exam can ask anything that happened in the United States from 1492 until the 1980s. That’s roughly five hundred years of stuff. And you must know what every historian has written about each era as well. 

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Yes, I’m aware it’s a form of academic hazing. It’s weeding out the lesser, supposed to be humbling, etc. As if taking (and acing) history courses for about ten years isn’t good enough. And humbling? What about surviving the professors that routinely made your colleagues cry and whose classes required multiple all-nighters (not from procrastination either). 

What I’m getting at, besides being whiney, is today after I found out I must also submit a dissertation proposal during the exact same time as I’m supposed to be studying (and getting signatures from my committee is like herding cats). I made the mistake of asking myself, “Why am I doing this to myself? Why am I even getting my Ph.D.?”

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Most people go to graduate school to get degrees required for higher jobs. I went for my Ph.D. because I had just gone through a divorce, wanted to avoid a personal life, and only knew of adulthood through the lens of a college student. I genuinely love the classroom and reading, any academic pursuit really. If I had unlimited scholarships I would be happy doing nothing but being a perpetual student. 

But then there’s real life. The place where I had to quit my dream job I went to graduate school for in the first place because it didn’t pay enough for me to survive on. The place where I work a horrid 40+ hours a week job with a verbally abusive boss before going home to stress over these exams. I’m proud to say that through hard work, scholarships, help, and luck I have no student loans, but I’ve paid dearly for that in other ways. Because I work, I am unable to dedicate myself to publishing (which is the only means to employment, if you can even find it). So why am I doing this?

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In addition, where I live, having higher education makes you more unemployable than a felon. I often lie and leave off my higher education on resumes or I don’t receive interviews or are flat out told I am over-educated, over-qualified, etc. Smart people need to eat too. (I’m serious about the felon part-I know of a registered sex offender that has a job that pays three times as much as mine)

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I wish I could end this post with an enlightened, ‘This is what I reminded myself of why I’m doing what I’m doing’ but I’m not there yet. I don’t have an answer. Maybe I’m doing this because I’ve already worked for three years to get this far into the Ph.D. Maybe because school was the only thing I felt I was ever good at and base my sense of worth upon it. 

Perhaps this is why you seldom see sober Ph.D. students when they’re studying for comps.

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Working as an Assistant…and Slowly Losing What’s Left of My Self Esteem

Published August 2, 2014 by Tabby

Everyone has had a job in high school, during college, etc. that totally sucked (like fast food or retail) and was meant just to pay the bills or buy booze on the weekends. However, there’s always the dream ( *cough* expectation *cough*) that after college we will never have to do those jobs again because we can use whatever degree we’ve earned to do our dream job. Then you get to the real world…and yeah, it gets a little depressing…time for a shot of tequila.

Original post here.

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I was actually a very lucky person to get my dream job right out of college. However, after working said dream job for about four years, budget cuts and inflation meant I could no longer pay my bills or buy food on that never-changing salary. After my family scraped together to help me pay a few bills and cutting down to eating only twice I day, I said goodbye to my dream job and looked for a job doing whatever that would enable me to buy food.

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So I became a legal assistant. I was ecstatic. I could pay my bills for the first time in a long time working only one job and I had always had an interest in law (my degree is in history) so at least it would be somewhat interesting. Man, was I wrong. I’ve worked there for only three months now and I think each day I’ve lost a little piece of self esteem and my soul.

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I found this great excerpt from Don’t Worry, It Gets Worse by Alida Nugent that I think accurately describes a little of what I experience each day:

“After a few weeks of working at an office, I realized I was becoming the kind of person who was finding joy in the little things-and by little things, I mean meaningless, stupid distractions from my shitty job. A reprieve of going to the copy machine and getting the pleasure of mindlessly staring at the wall for five minutes was magical. Trips to the bathroom were a joyous urination break where I washed my hands until they became pruney. And don’t forget about the absolute thrill of lunch . . . On the occasions that I went out beyond the office doors to buy a salad, you’d think I was being let out of prison after a twenty-year sentence . . . .”

It hit me yesterday, after being called varying forms of stupid and being cursed at all day long by someone less educated than myself, that I can’t continue to do this job much longer and remain sane. Like Alida Nugent, I’ve been taking breaks to hide in the stairwell on varying floors in my building to get away from it. I go to the restroom on different floors each time so my boss can’t send someone in to tell me he needs me at that absolute moment because he can’t walk to the break room to get his own f*^&%ing Diet Pepsi.

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I’m not sure what the purpose of this post is, other than venting. But if you are in a job like this, working for a narcissistic, insecure, asshat that thinks of himself as a special little snowflake, know you’re not alone. Tell yourself every single morning before your shift begins and when you leave that you are intelligent, you are a good worker, etc. I find this experience similar to being in an emotionally/verbally abusive relationship. I’ve found myself in social situations where someone politely asks what I do and I simply say, “I’m just an assistant” despite the fact that I’m halfway through a Ph.D. (though a useless one) and am really excited about original research I will begin soon. The person I was with began inputting what I was doing with school and it made me realize that it’s sad another person has to speak up for my accomplishments and that it was a sign that I am slowly beginning to believe I am useless and stupid. That’s not healthy. There’s no reprieve since I work at a small place with no HR department and well paying jobs (aka I make enough to pay my bills) are rare.

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Just remember, “You is smart, you is kind, you is important.” And you are much better than these types of people, regardless of how much money they have. Rich white men put their pants on every morning the exact same we do: one leg at a time. Remember that when you become a supervisor.

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via Working as an Assistant…and Slowly Losing What’s Left of My Self Esteem.

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