Best and Worst Times

“I just don’t understand the “grad school sucks” takes I see on here constantly. Only time better than GS is being a postdoc.”

A tweet from Andrew Kern that got pretty thoroughly ratioed (116 replies to 13 retweets, last I checked) keeps popping back into my twitter feed. Each time the tweet returns, I feel a lot of feelings and think a lot of thoughts. Unexpectedly, these thoughts and feelings simply have not coalesced into a straightforward narrative. But each time, they seem more and more insistent that I weigh in on this recurring debate, so here goes.

I am, thus far, a successful academic. I had a spectacular grad school experience—I got along fantastically with my famous grad school advisor at an elite institution, found a few other mentors from whom I learnt a lot, found friends who are among the next movers and shakers in biology and for whom I’m very grateful. On paper, I’m doing about as well as I could hope. I have a prestigious postdoc fellowship and a pretty kickass CV. I even won a prize that I’m super excited (and not at all humble) about!

In this period that’s supposed to be, and may well be, the best part of my career, I’m also exhausted. In the last month, I’ve crisscrossed the US for different fieldwork trips, gone on job interviews, visited my long-distance partner after a gap of more than two months, and traveled halfway across the globe to be with my parents as my father lies critically ill in hospital. Every single one of these trips has felt, has been, essential. Planning and re-planning them—amidst the necessary uncertainty of illness, the inevitable uncertainty of human emotion, and the offhand, sometimes callous uncertainty of the academic job market—has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

I’ve leveraged my jetlag to get writing done, partly because I love the collaborations I’m currently working on and partly because I can’t afford to go without publications in 2019. There’s no room to explain, in a cover letter or research statement, that life is difficult sometimes and I’m just as brilliant, just as motivated right now as when I was publishing more. And so it’s easier to forego the sleep that’s reluctant anyway. I find that those stolen hours of writing in my childhood bedroom, and a 3:30 am phone call with a collaborator, let me feel excited in way that I so badly need right now. Does it suck to be a postdoc, or am I immeasurably blessed to be a postdoc? The answer is always both.

A little while ago, I had a nervous conversation with a faculty mentor from grad school about how I seem to be doing nothing these days, even as I juggle more and more different projects than ever before. He patiently explains that this is what it feels like to transition to being a PI. It’s a bigger relief than I imagined that he understands how I’m playing the long game here, the confident game wherein I behave as though I will get a faculty job, and plan accordingly. But the relief inevitably gives way to a more practical acceptance that he understands me only because he knows me well enough to give me the benefit of the doubt.

Thing is, I can’t expect to get that benefit of the doubt. My elite education probably gets me the benefit of the doubt more often than I realize, and I know that my education is the result of an unparseable combination of privilege, hard work, and skill. I also know that my elite education leads people to expect me to be a certain way, the status quo way, and that I unsettle people when they discover that I am not. Every time I face the question of whether or not to conform, and whether my lack of conformity should be public or private, I influence whether or not I will get the benefit of the doubt. I’m lucky to have this choice.

And the advantages of an elite education somehow don’t go so far as to shield me entirely from the consequences of being, well, not the norm. My identity trumps it often…try as I might, I can’t seem to forget how men in my grad school cohort would explain statistical analyses to me that I’d been doing for years and that they had never done. Or the NSF reviewer who asked why I hadn’t specified who would teach me the statistics I would need to use to analyze my data. Being Amherst-and-Harvard educated didn’t lead them to say, “well, surely she knows this, or could figure it out.” What they saw was a woman, who couldn’t know math, a South Asian woman who could probably follow instructions but would never be creative enough to forge her own path. Does it suck to be a not-quite-the-norm grad student? Sometimes, it does. Is it a remarkable privilege that I got to do those statistical analyses, publish that paper, get that Harvard degree anyway, despite their doubt? Absolutely.

I can’t shake the weight of these moments of being denied the benefit of the doubt, moments that have added up slowly. But the weight that’s bigger, that I’ve somehow absorbed, is the weight of worse experiences of those around me. In the last several years, I have put more time and energy than you can imagine into advising, mentoring, and mediating in the face of abuses of power within academia. I do this because I believe it is the right thing to do, and because I’ve said that I believe so publicly. I am asked to do this work because I do it well, because people know I care, and because I’m a woman of colour. I do it despite not being able to talk about it publicly anymore. My current quietness is a direct consequence of committing to the academic job market—how can I talk, when I can’t know how the people who hold my career in their hands will respond to what I say and how I say it? This costs me more than I’d realized, because writing is usually how I come to terms with these experiences. I also know that writing about these experiences previously has gained me credibility on the job market, which now sometimes cares about how future professors will make academia more inclusive. I have benefitted and I have suffered, and I’m lucky that I have not yet suffered irrecoverably, from fighting against injustice. I know it’s a privilege to be able to fight at all. Does it suck to be a postdoc in this world? I can’t say.

So do I get to complain about grad school, about being a postdoc? All I know is that you can’t tell me whether or not I get to complain—things are too complicated for that. And that means I don’t get to tell you whether or not you get to complain—there are resonances, but no straight lines, between your experiences and mine. And that means I don’t get to be surprised when you say “this sucks.” There is no room for surprise when our existence breaks what is normal. We can grow forward from here only by really listening, so let’s talk.


3 thoughts on “Best and Worst Times

  1. I like to try and remember that just because we call certain periods of life “Grad School” or “Postdoc” doesn’t mean it is a uniform experience. Two marathon runners can run the same course with vastly differing experiences of the marathon. Grad students and postdocs aren’t even ‘running on the same course’.

  2. Pretty balanced piece-thank you. I do think the pile-on to Andrew Kern was excessive, though. It is indicative of this strain running through social media to assume bad intentions on the part of certain posters.

    I like how you said that you are successful “thus far”. It reflects a mature awareness of how fortunes can change, sometimes quite quickly. I will also add that self-perception is also a bit part of this. I would also describe myself as a successful academic, but I can point to several places in my over thirty year journey from grad school to this current moment where neither I nor anyone else would describe my career as successful. It really is about playing the long game, and getting up when you get knocked won, but ONLY if you want to keep playing. It is often a sane and rational decision to leave academic and do something else after surviving a few of the gut-punches that define everyday life in academia.

    My rambling point is that success in academia, especially long term success, is sometimes, but not always, in fact probably not mostly, a matter of luck or of having had an easy time. It is often a matter of resilience, or at least of hard-headed stubbornness. The former is a virtue the latter, I’m not so sure. But it bugs me when it is assumed that anyone still standing hasn’t been through the ringer.

  3. I agree with much of what you say, but I don’t think the pile-on was excessive. It was and is a bad tweet. It centered Kern’s lack of understanding, not his empathy for those whose experiences he (upon clarification) seems to be concerned about. He had the option of deleting and rephrasing to indicate his better intentions, which wouldn’t have left time for a “pile-on” on the original tweet. He didn’t take this option. The assumption here isn’t that anyone still standing hasn’t been through the ringer–it’s that if you are still standing and then say you don’t understand, then you probably haven’t been through the ringer and haven’t been truly listening enough to those who have.

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