Post-PhD Growth: This Is Where I Stop Apologizing For Who I Am

"Not Sorry" by Alex Guerrero

“Not Sorry” by Alex Guerrero

I am embarrassed to state this… again.

My graduate training traumatized me. Yes, let me give the obligatory qualifier: I mean “little t” trauma, not “big T” trauma like sexual violence, natural disasters, or war. I continue to work through that special kind of trauma that is not even listed in the DSMcomplex trauma. No one has accused me of being overly dramatic, or playing the victim, or being unfairly critical of my grad program — at least not to my face. But, I feel self-conscious about it — not enough to keep it between my therapist and me, obviously, but just enough to downplay something that has plagued my heart, spirit, mind, identity, and career for a few years now.

But, enough about that. I am tired of telling that story, even though I feel compelled to do so again as though I need to convince others how bad grad school was for me. I am tired of hearing myself tell that story. I am sure at least a few others who have heard me talk about it are tired of hearing it, too, though no one has ever said so. But, that’s trauma for you. I have gotten better about recognizing trauma’s impact on others’ lives; they tell the same story, less for informing others, and more for validating their own hurt (though it’s never enough to heal deep wounds).

Though I no longer have meaningful ties to my graduate program or any of my graduate school professors, their influence has lingered in my life. The little voice that tells me what I should be doing with my career was deeply implanted into my head. Even as I intentionally and actively pursue opportunities that defy the expectations of a normative career typical of professors at Research I universities, my efforts often involve negotiation with the should voice. I have found myself justifying why doing something other than should makes sense for me and/or my career. I sometimes compromise with should by doing what it demands to compensate for doing things it cautions against. (“Yes, I’m running this blog, but I’ve got two papers under review!”) On occasion, I have apologized for doing things that should says I shouldn’t be doing. Half-joking, yet half-serious, I have complained to my partner, “why couldn’t I just be a normative, elitist, apolitical and ‘objective’ status-obsessed researcher?”

I don’t know that I believe in destiny or fate, for I have never given it much thought. But, working through the trauma of grad school has helped me to see the inevitability of some events in my life. I gave grad school a good try. But, structurally and culturally, it was bound to traumatize me, even if I totally caved to the pressures to forgo research on my own communities and advocacy with those communities. I knew too little as an undergraduate student to be able to assess the extent to which a given graduate program would support me in developing a career as a scholar-activist. I can no longer blame myself for the choices and compromises that I made, the parts of my soul I sold for job prospects, or for the things I did or didn’t say. This Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist could never come out of a program like the one I attended with both a job and full sanity — I had to pick one or the other.

But, I graduated three years ago. I am now halfway to tenure at the University of Richmond, and many (all?) of the signs point to a smooth, favorable tenure decision. I have found in UR a place that supports my career as a scholar-activist. I no longer have contact with my grad school. I am long overdue for cutting grad school’s influence in my career and my life.

The primary reason for moving on — forgiving them and forgiving myself — is that I landed exactly where I said that I would. I intended to end up at a liberal arts college so that I could teach and do research, but leave myself ample time for advocacy and community service. Though with a regrettable detour (i.e., grad school’s push away from marginal research), I am doing research on my communities. Grad school was nothing more than the means to this desired end. That’s all getting the degree should be for anyone, no matter their background or career goals.

And, though I was naïve about what graduate training in mainstream sociology entailed, I was completely honest about who I was when I entered the program. In my personal statement, I noted my experience with activism as an undergrad, and that this work influenced my scholarship. And, I even stated a desire to make the academy more inclusive and hospitable for marginalized folks like myself. To quote the phenomenal Maya Angelou, “[w]hen someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” I showed the program who I was and who I wanted to become — it was their opportunity to embrace or waste to support me in developing that self-defined career.

I am done apologizing for who I am and the career that I have designed for myself. I will never be a traditional academic, no matter how hard I try. It was never in the cards for me. I am sure I am not alone in being seduced into the highly-valued Research I career path, but it just doesn’t suit me. That is fine for those who are genuinely interested in such a career — no shade to those people.

There is more than one way to be a successful academic. I have finally found mine.

4 thoughts on “Post-PhD Growth: This Is Where I Stop Apologizing For Who I Am

  1. “why couldn’t I just be a normative, elitist, apolitical and ‘objective’ status-obsessed researcher?”–I want to make this into a button to wear everyday.

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  2. I’d like to thank you for this blog and your writing. Reading about your experiences in grad school, especially your experience resisting the pressure to ‘fit’ [struggling to resist] at the expense of your own self-constructed identity and your passions that brought you there in the first place has resonated with me. Today’s post read like an echo chamber of my life and speaks truth to my power giving me all the feels.

    I am not finished with my degree yet; I’m in the dissertation process. It’s been difficult. I’m on my second and 1/2 design, but that’s a story for another reply with complex trauma that arose from working in an institutionally sanctioned hostile environment. One that occurred as my employment transitioned from TRiO program leadership to the University’s leadership. Once they pushed the program’s creator and director out, I, her hired employee and graduate student was next. So they created an environment I couldn’t survive anymore and pushed me out, away from the students I had been working 1-on-1 with for over a year, away from much much more. This graduate appointment was more than a grad school job. It breathed life into me and served as the space for my activism, advocacy, praxis, and scholarship. It was the place where I could live out and give back what brought me to graduate school since I was not supported or sanctioned to do this in my graduate studies.

    Anway, maybe I’ll start to write through these experiences in a blog of my own. Your posts are helping to encourage me to do this, but I have some questions. Is the process of writing through and sharing all of this cathartic for you? What do you feel you receive in return from your blog? I have been teetering on creating one of my own, even before I found your amazing blog, but the anxiety of sharing my experiences with potential costs has deterred me thus far. Do you feel it would have been safe or beneficial for you to write through these experiences while you were finishing up your dissertation and still somewhat connected to your graduate program?

    [On this note, I am not in the same state as my program anymore. I crafted a dissertation that aligned as much with my interests as allowed and that required me to relocate to the site of my study. I was intentional about it, I knew I would not be able to survive my graduate school much longer if I had stayed in that state and in that climate. I had already seen friends who experienced similar treatment– who were pushed out and forgotten and more junior colleagues who were being targeted and mistreated by admin and faculty without respite. I often spoke out with them in mind and spent a lot of time supporting them, but this only burned the target on my back deeper into my skin. In order to heal and enable myself to finish the degree, I left to complete my dissertation research elsewhere. I wasn’t the only one that decided to complete the dissertation remotely, but my reasons were in direct relation to the graduate school, its faculty’s complicity, admin’s abuse and neglect, and the group of ‘peers’ that were given power and permission to police and make it unwelcome for any students who did not ‘fit’.]

    I’m going to keep my writing here as a reply, but I’d like to communicate with you via email, if you welcome communication? Again, it seems we may have many similarities in our experiences and among the multiplicity of our identities. I find that building with like-minded people in scholarship and praxis is fulfilling and important to the legacy of the work. Thank you, Eric.

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  3. Stand strong! Keep fighting the good fights, my friend!

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  4. This white Jewish lesbian PhD married Californian (could go on…) appreciates and admires you–your thinking, reflections, insights, writing, and feelings. Keep on keepin on…

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