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

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

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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.

scream

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.?”

exist crisis

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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The Toenail Birthday, AKA the Worst Pain I’ve Ever Experienced

To take a break from the “oh my god my job sucks and my soul is dying every day” posts, I thought I’d share one of the many awkward and downright painful (on multiple levels) stories from my life. I usually reserve it for first or second dates to make the person run screaming. But today I will share it with the internet. Enjoy. 

On my twenty-fifth birthday, the guy I was dating at the time (we’ll call him Curt) decided to throw me a surprise birthday shindig. No one had ever thrown me a party, much less a surprise one for my birthday and I thought it was super sweet. (Except that my friends know they can’t keep secrets from me so they stopped talking to me after they received the invites to not spoil the surprise and I thought everyone was mad at me for some unknown reason). 

Dating

We meet everyone for dinner (where I was surprised at the restaurant). I had also never gone out drinking for my birthday (I know, I was quite sheltered) so Curt and his friends made it their mission to get me hot mess white girl wasted. They succeeded. I drank a lot at the restaurant (I love fruity drinks) and then we went to a club where I was fed shot after shot. 

Normally when I drink, I handle my alcohol quite well but I usually know how much I can drink and aren’t being handed shots every two seconds. 

Anyways, I remember walking into the bathroom of the club. That door served as the end of my consciousness. I remember nothing after that…

white girl wasted

Fast forward to the next morning. I wake up, not remembering anything of the night before except walking into the bathroom. I’m hungover for the first time in my life-my brain is seriously trying to escape through my face. I move to get up to go to the bathroom and feel a stabbing pain in my big toe. I move the blanket to see that it’s wrapped…in toilet paper. 

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I think nothing of it, maybe I just stubbed it on the nightstand again and drunkenly wrapped it for no apparent reason. I go to the bathroom (and my toe is a raging pain) and see blood and a pair of needle nose pliers on the floor…

My first thought, ‘oh my god, I pulled a tooth out.’ I check my mouth, all teeth are accounted for and still attached. Then in a sudden flash of memory (though I wish I didn’t remember it) I remember what happened when we got home the night before. 

At the club I was wearing strappy sandals. Someone had dropped a beer bottle that shattered on my foot and filled my sandal with glass. On top of that someone had done a Mexican hat dance on my toe, causing the nail to slightly detach. Emphasis on slightly-it was still attached to me. 

We get home and my genius (heavy sarcasm here) Curt thought for some reason that unless he removed the toenail I was going to just instantly die. He could have just wrapped it (I asked the doctor what he should have done later). 

So, Curt, being a genius, chases my drunk ass around our apartment with a pair of pliers. He gets me cornered in the bathroom, because, really, there’s only so many places to run in an apartment. I’m sitting in the bathtub and he has my foot in one hand, pliers in the other. I punch him in the face but being only a foot apart didn’t get enough oomph behind it to deter him from his bloody mission. 

He swiftly grabs the toenail and rips. I was blackout drunk and can still vividly remember the pain and screaming. (Why didn’t our neighbors call the cops? I’m pretty sure it sounded like I was being ax murdered). I’m also sure that this is a form of torture recognized in the Geneva Conventions. 

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He then proceeds to “doctor” my wound but instead of Neosporin he puts steroid ointment meant for allergic skin reactions on the toe and wraps it in toilet paper. This means the next morning I have to wash this stuff off the toe and pick pieces of the toilet paper out of the wound. I also have to use the pliers still handy on the floor to pull out the shards of glass embedded in the bottom of my foot from the broken beer bottle. 

Thankfully no permanent physical damage is done-my toenail grows back in six months. However, I won’t wear open toe shoes in public anymore nor can I stand anyone to touch or get close to my feet. I used to really enjoy pedicures but some of the tools look too much like pliers to be close to my toes. 

My friends and I now refer to this incident as “the toenail birthday.” But I learned. I will never again get that drunk nor date anyone that completely stupid. Or wear open toe shoes to a club.

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Self High Five: My Filter Broke at Work

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I’ve posted before about my soul-sucking time as an assistant here. To give you a better verbal portrait of my boss before sharing my triumphant yet gutsy (rare for me) comeback, I’ll give you a little context. He is a narcissist that feels most important when putting others down, specifically by calling them ignorant or indirectly implying it. He also doesn’t articulate what he wants very well. I have followed him from room to room in the office asking him five times in a row which exact file he had asked for because he had simply said “get me the file.” Considering we have four rooms with files from floor to ceiling, that’s pretty f$%^ing broad. Sometimes (ok, maybe more often) if you ask him a question or to clarify his instant reaction is god%$#^ it. 

Now, armed with that information, you are ready for the split second my filter from brain to mouth broke. I think I got a little piece of my soul back in the process. 

The Story

He calls me into his office to say, “Call [name of person] and tell him the attachment to the email didn’t work.”

Me “Ok, that person has sent several emails today and the attachments aren’t labeled so what document specifically do I need to ask him for?”

Boss “The god*&$% document.”

Me, in a complete deadpan voice and expression “You want me to tell him we need the god%$^& document?” 

I realize I’ve said this aloud, even though completely unintentional. But hey, it’s already out of my mouth and I can’t take it back, so I just continue my dead faced stare. He is actually speechless for a few moments, which in itself is an accomplishment. 

My awesome coworker tries to somewhat fix the situation and not laugh “You did tell her to tell him that.”

Boss, quieter “You’re being sarcastic” [Nooo, I’m really going to ask someone that, jeez.]

Boss “Tell him we need the [document name]”

It sounds like a little, insignificant thing but I feel it was a minor victory on multiple levels:

-He got a small taste of what it was like to have profanity coming from someone other than himself. 

-He heard what he sounds like because I just repeated exactly what he had said to me. I honestly think he has no clue how he speaks to us. 

-I made him speechless and was doing a little inner badass happy dance.

-I made my coworker laugh, which in that place we are all grateful to any piece of joy we can glean from each other. 

This is what my happy dance looks like. It's not pretty.

This is what my happy dance looks like. It’s not pretty.

New and Away

The week has left me broken and sore

I can’t smell you on my pillows any more.

Time to get back and make me forget

The mess I was before we met. 

It’s more than a simple addiction

But I wouldn’t call it a bad kind of affliction.

No longer any kind of productive

Because just the memory of you is seductive. 

It’s easy to see that I’ve got it bad

After this short time you’re the best I’ve ever had.

But you can trust me not to say a word

Until when you come forward with what needs to be heard.

A pro when emotions need to be hidden

Maybe some day for this I can be forgiven.

Instead I’ll tell you how I feel with my slow blinks

And random thoughts that slip out when we drink. 

I normally write bad poetry only when in the angsty phase of getting over a breakup. I made the best grades in my English and music classes after being dumped. (Some semesters I just needed someone I cared about to dump me). I woke up this morning with this rattling in my head and it’s the first, non-angry thing I’ve ever written that wasn’t forced. I wonder if that’s a good sign for my situation…

I'm a realist.

I’m a realist.

 

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

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. 

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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. 

sad

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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