Many friends and family know that my wife and I are planning to spend 2016-17 in China while I do research for my dissertation. Those who have asked entirely reasonable questions, like “How long will you be there?” Or “How are your preparations coming?” have often met with altogether abbreviated, unsatisfactory, and, on at least some occasions, curt answers. It’s entirely natural to assume that someone planning such a significant trip would have a firm grasp on how it would unfold. To be fair to myself, I’m not flying totally blind. I expect we’ll be in China for 9-12 months, in Jinan (my main research focus) about two-thirds of the time and in Beijing for the rest. When exactly we will leave, when we will return, and what effect this trip will have on our personal finances are, however, details that are out of our control at this point.
They will remain that way for at least another month or two while I wait to hear back from the three fellowship competitions to which I have applied, and which would provide different amounts of support for different lengths of research. Additionally, I am also waiting for a fourth competition, the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship, to be announced. (It was supposed to be announced in January or February.) At least the application is essentially the same every year so I can start working on the essay.
What is surprising to even me is that this kind of waiting is more of a feature than an anomaly in terms of my graduate career. A friend who tweeted her relief at receiving four job rejection letters only after receiving an offer of employment (and a very good one at that) reminded me of when I was applying to graduate school. Like her, I was fortunate enough to receive my one acceptance before my four rejections. The order being reversed would certainly have led to some sleepless nights in Beijing, wondering where and why we would be moving the truck-full of things we were storing in my in-laws’ basement.
I’m also playing a long-term waiting game when it comes to employment. People ask what I want to do with my PhD or where I want to work, but given what I know about the academic job market (how competitive it is) and what I don’t know (what positions will be available in several years), it’s tempting to succumb to a mentality of waiting passively for a supreme force (a claw maybe?) to decide my fate for me. Embracing any attitude besides fatalism or pessimism feels arrogant.
To deal with this emotional conundrum, I believe there are two ways I need to grow as a graduate student and a person. First, I need to become more comfortable talking about where I am in life. I need to be honest with myself and others about the reasons for my pessimism and optimism.
So here it goes: I think I’ve got a good shot at getting at least one of the fellowships I have/will applied for, based on the odds. If I get an offer, it won’t be an accident: I put a lot of work into my applications and have spent years preparing to conduct research abroad. I am confident that my project is feasible and will make valuable contributions to the field. But, there are still areas where I can improve, and it’s possible these will prevent me from getting a fellowship. For example, I have a hard time concisely explaining my methodology and use of sources. This really frustrates me because it seems so fundamental to what I’m supposed to be doing on a day-to-day basis and because it just makes sense to me – it’s like I’ve got a methodological fly stuck inside my head. I’ll keep working on it, though, and there’s no reason my DDRA application shouldn’t be my strongest one yet.
Now that that’s off my chest, the second way I have found I need to grow is in terms of being able to imagine myself as happy within a plurality of possible futures. This ongoing thought experiment means, first of all, coming to terms with the things about my life in academia that are conducive to my happiness and the things that aren’t. Furthermore, I have been trying to recognize that the things that drive me nuts won’t just go away when I get the kind of tenure-track job I dream about. It’s also worthwhile to identify the things that I enjoy about being a graduate student and recognize that the specific things I enjoy about being a graduate student and appreciate them as such. Moreover, I need to acknowledge that these things aren’t necessarily unique to academia and that I might be able to enjoy working at different kinds of institutions or in fields outside academia. (I know this is very vague because you probably don’t know what I really like about being a graduate student. That’s something to explore in future posts.)
So yes, I’m waiting, but not like one of the green squeaky toys from Toy Story. I’ll make the best use of this time to identify how I can improve myself as a historian and better understand who I am as a person. The claw will not determine my future for me.