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Educated Woman: Chapter 47--The End is Nearer

Happy New Year! Hello all.

I did a good thing for myself over the holidays. I took no work home and actually had a vacation. Rather than obsessively checking my e-mail or keeping up with journal articles, I laid around and read bad fiction, hung out with my family, caught up with friends from high school, and marveled at how much everything had changed since I started graduate school. You may wonder what brought on this new-found calm. It’s simple: My advisor and I had talked about me finishing sometime “soon,” and I received a job offer or two. I decided I needed a decent break before the last push for home, and I took it.

I enjoyed what I believed would be my last Festivus-Christmas-Hanukkah-Kwanzaa-Winter Solstice-New Year as a graduate student, but the good news didn’t really sink in until I was on the way to the airport, preparing to return to school. I realized I was grinding my teeth, and then I thought: this is the last time I’m going to return to school.

I smiled.

This is the last time I’m going to feel like I must weigh myself down with armor as I prepare for battle (with equipment, advisor, co-workers, roommates, pets, significant others, and so on). This is the last time I go back to an utterly maddening place without a degree in my hot little hand. I know the end is coming, maybe not this spring, but soon.

Something has shifted in my psyche.

I have a job offer--maybe two--and my research is actually working. This has been miraculously calming, a nice contrast from the madness of exiting friends and the usual laboratory chaos.

I’m perky. It’s scary.

My perkiness does not fill every fiber of my being. I still have to feign happiness in the morning as I bravely leave my apartment to face another day in the lab. But there’s a small, glowing ember somewhere inside of me, reminding me that, yes, Micella, there is an end.

It's near. And it's getting nearer.

I’ll admit there is a little panic. When you’ve been in graduate school for 5 years (as in my case) or more (as in many other cases) you can fall into a rut, staying in the same mode day in and day out, wondering if things will ever change (translation, if you will ever graduate). This lethargy can be especially acute when things are going wrong (and something is always going wrong).

The problem is you get used to it. You get used to dealing with dysfunctional people. The slog gets less oppressive and you get better at duking it out. You get better at knowing which experiments will work (and which ones won't). You become a master juggler/multitasker, keeping your responsibilities (lab, teaching, and personal), expectations (your own and everyone else’s), and sanity in precarious balance. Your life may suck, but you get used to it sucking and you get pretty good at living this sucky life.

Then, just as you've grown accustomed to your sucky life--maybe even learned to like it a teeny bit in a masochistic sort of way (okay, that’s pushing it)--it all changes in a half-hour meeting with your committee. Suddenly, there’s a sense of urgency on their part because they have schedules to adhere to, sabbaticals to take, tenure tours to go on, grants to write. “We know you’ve done a lot of work, we think it’s enough, so maybe, just maybe, we can free you from our clutches,” they say, then cackle their evil laugh as they stir the cauldron, anxiously awaiting the last ingredient--your pulverized bones.

Panic. Shock. Awe. Unbridled Joy. Dancing. Fear. More panic. Change is a little scary. My cheese has moved. I HAVE SO MUCH TO DO! But, the survivor in me says, “Throw another few balls in the air, juggle away, and let the changes begin.”

It's not just the committee that's ready to see me go, soon-ish. It's also a (potential) employer. I have a job on my side.A job that I did not accept without discussing it with my advisor. We might not be best friends but there’s no need to make a decision in haste ignoring outside council, and besides, I prefer not to piss him off. This job tips the scales toward letting me go out into the big wide world to make a name for myself.

Having heard horror stories from others, I took note of a few things when dealing with my advisor and committee after receiving the offer.

  • I demanded nothing.

  • I did not use the job as a threat.

  • I did not say to my committee, “I have a job, so you have to let me go.”

  • I did not gloat about the offer (Okay, that’s a lie. I did gloat with my friends a little bit, and with my parents a lot. That’s all I’ll admit to.)

  • I did inform my committee members of the offer as we were discussing things in general.

  • I did think carefully about the offer and its implications for my life and aspirations.

  • And, when the time came, I was able to articulate why this would be a good move for me and how it relates to my professional goals.

A note for everyone thinking about finishing within the next year or so: Starting my job search early was definitely one of the best things I could have done for myself (see chapter 44). Doing some serious self-assessment didn’t hurt either (see chapters 38-40). Because I started early, I was able to eliminate the possibility of things that made me queasy like doing the traditional postdoc in a famous PI’s lab or working for a highly competitive company.

Instead, I focused on positions that I found interesting (alternative careers, industry, government labs) and gathered as much information--about myself, my needs, and my potential employers--as possible. I eliminated things that I knew would frustrate me (i.e. living in the middle of nowhere as a single woman) and made note of what was important for me (a wide network of people with diverse ideas, and some place my friends actually might want to visit).

I still have plenty of work to do. I have no illusions of smooth sailing; there will be more all-nighters and early morning trysts with lab equipment. I have experiments to complete, but they should be more interpretable now that I’ve had so much experience, as opposed to, say, my first year in the lab when I was trying to figure out which end was up and how to make things work. The end IS near, probably nearer, even, than even I can comprehend.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines--it’s time to begin the (l-o-o-o-ng) homestretch of this marathon they call graduate school.

Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym.