My dissertation was my first baby

I was a graduate student attending an informal academic gathering. The topic of conversation: childbearing. I mentioned wanting to have kids. An older male professor responds, “Well, your dissertation is your first baby.”

He intended the comment to be humorous and delivered it like the common wisdom it once was in academia. I was offended but swallowed my protest.

I regret not calling him out on it because I’ve come to discover in the years since that the “academia first, personal life second” attitude harms both academics who intend to become parents and those who don’t. Can we agree on these things: (1) a university landscape populated purely by single-minded academics with similar reproductive trajectories is less rich than one that allows members to draw fulfillment both within and outside of academia; (2) everyone has a right to a personal life regardless of stage of academic career or family status; and following from these, (3) obstacles that keep graduate students from having children when they want to should be addressed.

Despite my aversion to the implications of the professor’s statement, the idea of a dissertation baby appealed to me, and I decided to co-opt the term.

Now, I’m not going to suggest writing a dissertation is on the same order of magnitude as having a child. Creating a human being, raising that person to adulthood, being accountable 24/7 seems a much more onerous task and a level of responsibility I’m not sure I’ll ever be willing to engage. But there are parts of writing a dissertation I think must be like childbearing: the thrill of finding a research question and witnessing the dissertation develop into something more than you’d imagined.

I first felt I’d stumbled upon something that could become my dissertation on the same day the tree-sitters were removed from the oak grove across from my department at UC Berkeley. For close to two years, they’d been protesting the university’s decision to cut down the oaks and build an athletic facility. On this day, there was only one tree left standing, and contractors were building scaffolding around it to assist with the removal of four protestors gathered at the top.

A few of us from the department watched from a balcony across the street. The construction proceeded slowly, and while we were waiting, I showed a professor some graphs I’d made about gender differences in variability in life span.

“Interesting, I’ve never seen this before,” he said.

This is something every graduate student longs to hear. Finding a research question that pushes the edge of human knowledge is a major obstacle to writing a dissertation.

The scaffolding was built, the tree-sitters removed, the seed of my dissertation planted. It was the beginning of my fourth year, and over the next two years, I broadened my research question, reviewed the literature, made a lot more graphs, and wrote everything up. There were days where I had major breakthroughs, but for the most part, writing a dissertation is a slow plod toward the finish line. I PhinisheD in May of 2010.

I stopped by my old department last month when I was visiting the Bay Area. I chatted with a couple people and then went up to the attic. The library there houses the only print copy of my dissertation. I felt compelled to hold it.

Partly, I wanted to make amends because at times I’ve felt like a neglectful mother for not having tried harder to publish my dissertation results in an academic journal. I know my unwillingness was a sign academia was not the right fit for me, but I still feel guilty. And this guilt makes me feel unworthy of taking on new projects like the novel. I have difficulty trusting myself because I haven’t taken every project I’ve started to completion.

Holding my dissertation in the attic, I didn’t feel guilty. I felt reassured. I produced a dissertation baby, and if I work hard at it, I can make a novel baby too. And if the urge strikes me to have a human baby, I can try to do that as well, whenever it feels right.


Reconnect with things you love and find yourself

It’s hard to become not something when you’ve been that something for a long time. It’s hard to break up with your first career. For the record, it wasn’t demography, it was me, and I hope someday we can be friends.

But for now, like the fallout after my first serious romantic relationship, I’m left wondering what went wrong and whether I can ever commit myself to something again. Can I say with conviction that I’m a something like I stated I was a demographer?

I’m not not a demographer now. I still know a lot about demography and am intrigued by demographic questions, but I’m not practicing. Thus, the label chafes a bit.

The process of redefining myself started months prior to my departure from academia. It was during the crying time that I began to search for something that I could become. I looked back to what made me happy before I started down the road to academia and pinpointed college as a time when I shut down my creative endeavors and lost touch with a fundamental part of myself.

Writing was the first way I reconnected. In the spring of 2012, I started attending one of Atlanta’s storytelling shows, Carapace. I wrote stories about my life and performed them. I shared my failures, my triumphs, my insecurities. I’d always seen the past as a fixed thing, but storytelling taught me that the past was much more fluid. I could choose how to tell my story. I’m choosing how to reveal it to you now. I’m empowered. I’m a storyteller. I’m a writer.

I’m an improviser. I asked for improv lessons for Christmas in 2012. I felt stupid putting it on my list, scared of revealing this desire to my family. Fear has held me back from a lot of things. In college, I would practice sometimes with Ohio Wesleyan’s improv troupe, the Babbling Bishops, but I was too afraid of rejection to audition to be a member. In my first improv class at Dad’s Garage, the instructor asked whether any of us hoped to perform improv on stage someday. I didn’t raise my hand because I didn’t want to admit I had that goal. I didn’t want to fail. Luckily, improv is a great way to learn to accept failure, celebrate it even. I failed, I learned.

I perform with two improv troupes now: Shark Party and !mprov (pronounced Bangprov). I’m writing a mathematical romance novel. I’ve performed at many of Atlanta’s great live lit and storytelling events including CarapaceNaked City, Stories on the Square, The Iceberg, and Write Club Atlanta.

I’m an improvisor, a storyteller, a writer, but it’s difficult for me to define myself by activities that don’t pay. I’ve long judged art as an impractical pursuit while secretly wanting to be an artist.

After I started writing my novel last July, I would get depressed whenever I went to a bookstore. Shelves full of books that inspire wonder in my reader self spell doom in my writer self. There are already so many books! (And loads more that never got published.) Why would mine matter? What contribution could I possibly make?

I’ve always been more comfortable as a big fish in a small pond.

Approaching the problem from a demographic angle helped to quell my despair. Yes, book writing is a risky endeavor. The numerator, the number of people who are super successful, is small. The denominator, the number of people who pursue it, is large. I may never get published. I may never make money.

But there is something to be said for being part of the denominator even if I never make it into the numerator. Writing a book is hard – plugging away at it every day, trying to keep the story consistent, wondering if I will ever finish. So while shelves stocked full of books intimidate me, they also give me hope. If millions of people have chosen to do this despite the difficulty and succeeded,* then maybe I have made a good choice – not necessarily because my book will have a big impact but because it brings me joy. I’m part of the community of writers, storytellers, and improvisers who pursue these often monetarily unprofitable endeavors because they enjoy it and because they can entertain others by doing it.

I’m an improviser. I do this for myself. I do this to make people laugh and make people feel things, sometimes things that scare them.

I’m a storyteller. I do this for myself. I do this in hopes that sharing my burden lessens the weight others carry. I do this so we all fell less alone.

I’m a writer. I do this for myself. I do this because I think falling in love is one of the best things in life and romance novels allow the reader to experience these emotions vicariously. I do this because I think love and sexuality should be celebrated.

I’m an artist. I create things. I do this because it makes me happy.

*Google estimates from 2010 indicate close to 130 million books exist. Regarding my use of the word chosen, presumably a small number of authors did not choose to write books but were forced to. Some might take this footnote as evidence that I’m still a demographer. I probably am.

Worth the investment: therapy

I have a pet peeve. I hate it when people characterize an activity that provides an emotional release or comfort as “cheaper than therapy.”

This bugs me because I avoided going to therapy for a couple of years in my mid-twenties when I needed it because I thought it would be too expensive. It bothers me because going to a therapist was the single most important thing I did when I was trying to decide whether to leave academia.

I was fortunate to have mental health benefits as a graduate student and as a postdoc that covered most of the expense of seeing a therapist (co-pay of $20-25 per session). I went weekly for about a year and a half leading up to my departure from academia. It wasn’t cheap, but my therapist helped me to reframe the way I think about things. While I would have once characterized my internal panic as a raging river, it’s now more like a bubbling brook.

In terms of deciding to leave academia, my therapist helped me to distinguish my “shoulds” from my “wants.” Given the investment I’d made in my career and the prestige of the position, I felt a strong compulsion to keep going with it. However, I didn’t enjoy engaging highly emotional issues (death and violence) from an objective, analytical viewpoint. Although I felt like I should do it, I didn’t want to pursue my own research agenda. Before I accepted that truth about myself, though, I had to confront my feelings of failure and make sure I wasn’t motivated by impostor syndrome. My therapist helped me work through all of this.

If you’re considering going to therapy, many student and employee health plans provide mental health benefits. For those who don’t have coverage, there are other low-cost treatment options. Remember that therapy is both a short and long term investment. It provides relief for the issues you are experiencing today and gives you a set of tools to maintain your mental health in the future. Like a 401(k), I wish I would have started investing sooner.


On leaving academia

I’ve been thinking about writing on this topic for some time. It was a hard thing to do, leaving academia, and I know others face the same difficult decision. I fear my efforts may come across as self-indulgent, I don’t want to burden you with my pain. I’m not willing to share the whole story.

But I can tell you some things: how I arrived at my decision, the process of leaving, what I’ve done to try to find myself in the aftermath. Because I’m still floundering to achieve some sense of identity…to arrive at some understanding of who I am since I’m not an academic anymore. I’m a writer. I’m David’s wife. I’m a person who really likes dinner.

I’m a person who no longer cries every day. And this is a recent development. Up until last May, I was a person who cried every morning when I swiped my parking pass at work, a person who closed the door to my office so I could cry at my desk, and a person who came home and cried against my husband’s chest.

David and I talk about that sometimes – how nice it is that I don’t cry all the time anymore. It’s nice, and I didn’t know whether it would be possible. I wasn’t depressed, but I was unhappy.

When I left my job last May, I had only one goal: to stop crying every day. And I’ve achieved that.