Disclosure: I finished my Ph.D, in English in 2011. Since then I’ve worked as a freelance editor, writing consultant and adjunct.
There have been a number of articles lately in Slate and The Chronicle (and elsewhere) expressing regret for the time spent getting a Ph.D., feelings of failure, warnings to others not to go and generally expressing what, to me, reads like a great deal of
entitled exhausted (?) angst. In response, Emory Ph.D. student Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote an excellent blog post on reasons why students of color should look at getting a Ph.D. and the power said degree has in helping one make their way through a white world.
Yes, finishing my dissertation and getting my Ph.D. were the hardest things I’ve ever done. Yes, there were bad times, including moments when I was sick, out of money and (the worst) faced with racism on the part of my fellow graduate students who openly expressed their suspicions that I hadn’t gotten where I was on merit but was a product of affirmative action (which, whatever my merits, I am). But getting to work on my Ph.D., becoming the first in my family to be called “doctor” was and is the greatest privilege of my fortunate life. I got to spend a decade studying literature, mostly Chicana/o literature, which continues to inspire me to tears at its beauty. Along the way I got to teach, advise and edit undergraduate and graduate students. I got to do all this while my sister worked cleaning houses, serving food, doing retail and generally working at whatever she could to get by without health insurance or any security, asking me to recommend books she could read for thirty minutes or so before she goes asleep.
At the same time, I also found a community of Latina scholars, including my dissertation advisor, who have heard and understood my pain, especially the pain of feeling alienated from my mostly all white department, who have told me I’m good enough, who have supported my scholarship whatever my affiliation or lack thereof. There is a history in Chicana/o scholarship of research being done be people in a variety of positions — there aren’t generations of Chicana full professors at research universities. We’ve always struggled from the margins. Important work is and has been done by librarians, grammar and high school teachers, administrative support people and community activists. I’m not ashamed I’m not in a tenure line position — those before me weren’t necessarily either.
Yes, part of me reads these articles and understands. The job market / adjunct situation is bad. Rejection sucks. Uncertainty is hard. But nothing is ever certain. My family is proud of the adjuncting work I do, proud of the editing work I do, proud of me. They wouldn’t understand (or care) about the difference between a tenured and untenured position. To them all employment is uncertain, all work has dignity.
I wonder if some of what gives me strength and makes me see struggle for the beauty and gift that it is, are the very writings I study. Whether it’s the passion and life-long activism of Betita Martinez or the raw celebration of life and pain of Gloria Anzáldua, Chicana writing is about feeding one’s soul in order to then go out and do what can and should be done.
As Ella Diaz remarked when I expressed surprise at the number and tone of the articles out there, perhaps we should create a reading list of the works that keep us sane, that sustain our souls and share them with those who feel their degree wasn’t worthwhile. I think what it comes down to for me is I believe the work I do on the literature I work on is important and valuable. I will do it however I can for as long as I can as hard as I can.
Because when I see Latina/o scholars I think we’re beautiful.