both of my parents say that grad school was the best time of their lives. before i became a grad student myself, i would razz them for saying that — “do you mean to say that life has been all downhill since then? you got married and had children after grad school, you know.” they would rephrase their language somehow to imply that yes, marriage was a good idea and that j and i are more fun than their dissertations were, but they would still stand by their answer. in grad school, life was full of promise. they had no idea what was ahead. the endless opportunities were exciting.
now that i’m a grad student, i find their words to be incredibly ironic. my parents loved the thrill of unknown opportunities? the same parents who relished not knowing what the future held raised me to have a PLAN. i needed to know what i was doing with my life. they needed to know what i was doing with my life. they told me not to pursue professions like theater or ministry because there was no security in them. the best professions, in their minds, were the ones with very tangible career trajectories: school, residency, financial stability, large house in the suburbs with similarly-successful husband and highly achieving children. i needed to name a career that i (and they) could hang my hat on and plan my life around. so now, as a grad student, faced with the same endless possibilities that they had, i am not excited. i am uncomfortable.
granted, things are different for me. my parents came here from taiwan with nothing, so getting their phds could do nothing but help them. they were in america, the supposed meritocracy, where their big fat brains could earn them the good life. me? i was raised in the good life they earned. i can only do the same or worse, more likely the latter. i have the luxury of angsting about what i really want to do with my life, whereas they could only survey the possibilities their degrees opened up before having to commit to the best one so they could start working their way up. like so many others of my generation, my parents’ success gives me the privilege of having an existential crisis and fretting about what i really want to spend my life doing.
so here i am, almost halfway done with my phd, and i still don’t know what i want to be when i grow up. interestingly enough, the questions didn’t really arise until recently, but they came full force. is this really what i want to do with the rest of my life? is this really what i want to do with the rest of my life when i feel so dang incompetent at it much of the time? there are a number of careers i could have pursued and mastered pretty easily, i think, but this is not one of them. and not only that, but there are a number of other careers i could pursue that would make me just as happy, if not happier, and would require less education and time and money. and i’m interested in a million things, but everything else lives on the back burner these days while i invest all my time and energy into this one. and will this degree disqualify me from pursuing other things? what am i doing here, really?
and so the angst ensued. it started off pretty pessimistic, to put it mildly — “why write this paper when i even don’t know if i want to be here?” — and eventually eased into an existential come-what-may apathy. i’m still wrestling with it, but i’ve come to a number of conclusions, with the help and insight of others who are in similar boats:
– i don’t have to do just one thing full-time. this was probably not really an option in our parents’ day (and if it was, i doubt they would have considered it) — but it is for me, especially in my field, and i’m going to run with it. i will probably juggle a number of part-time gigs within the field and a few outside.
– i can still do things in other fields. it doesn’t make the most sense economically to be putting 100% of my time now into preparing for a profession i can only see myself doing 70% of the time at most, but i’m starting to see that being holistic and authentic should be higher priorities. and the degree won’t necessarily disqualify me in other areas — i’ll have a different perspective from the norm, but that could actually be helpful. (i hope, i pray.)
– regardless of which interest i committed to, i would probably feel the same way at this point in my life, wondering about all of the other interests that weren’t being pursued.
so… that’s where i am right now, 6 months after the existential crisis began. i’m still don’t really know what i want to do with my life, and i won’t know until the opportunities present themselves. i’m trying to have the same attitude that my parents had in grad school… but it’s hard, when those same parents have raised you to have it all figured out.