When I started grad school five years ago, just back from a year of teaching English in Europe, I had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t even visited my university before accepting the offer. I’d never been to the city where it’s located. I chose it because it’s in a major metropolitan area and has an excellent reputation. And it offered me more money than any of the other schools that accepted me. I didn’t know anything about my department except what was on the website. I had no idea what I wanted to research, or even that I had to pick something more specific than my field of study. All I knew to expect were classes and, eventually, a dissertation. I had talked to the grad chair on the phone a couple of times, but since I didn’t know anything about what I was or wasn’t supposed to discuss, the conversations were pretty short.
My school automatically gave us five-year funding packages, but the summer before I started I found out that no one in my department actually finishes that fast. Six years was the absolute minimum, and taking seven or eight was perfectly respectable. We could just make up the difference with outside funding, or, as a last resort, teaching. This was billed as a strength of the department: outside funding looks great on a CV, so it’s actually for your own good that the department’s [unusually onerous] requirements all but guarantee your need for funding beyond the fifth year. I was told that everyone figures something out and I shouldn’t worry about it. So I didn’t.
Sometime early in my first semester I picked up on the fact that the reason I was there was to become a professor. And just in case any other career track started to appeal to me, I was warned never to tell any faculty member, since they would be less likely to help me finish my degree. At the time I wrote my application essays, I’d thought that I wanted to be the director of a study-abroad program, living in a charming European city and guiding college students in their life-changing intercultural experiences. (Lucky for me that I’d come up with that idea, since it accidentally satisfied the admissions committee.) But another year abroad had cured me of any desire to become a permanent expat, so I was back to not knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up. Now I found out that I had unwittingly already selected my career path. So I went along with it, thinking that it didn’t sound like such a bad gig, and this was what I was supposed to be doing anyway, so I might as well take the path of least resistance.
Fast-forward two years to one day when I’m sitting in class, learning the grammatical intricacies of one of the dead languages essential to my research. It suddenly occurred to me that I would never achieve enough fluency in it to be able to teach its cases and tenses to my own grad students. Not because I wouldn’t be capable of it, but because I wasn’t willing to devote that much time to it. In the days and weeks that followed, I was gradually able to admit to myself, with an unexpected sense of relief, that I am not cut out to be a professor. The things I like about academia aren’t nearly enough to outweigh the things I don’t like.
So now I’m back in a place similar to where I was when I started grad school: I have no idea what to expect next. But I have grown up a lot, and learned some things along the way, and I hope to be able to share them here and maybe enter into a conversation with others asking the same questions and finding their own answers.