Graduate school, anhedonia and relationships

Disclaimer: This post involves personal details (nothing graphic or NSFW) that aren’t necessarily related to the whole “Science communication, feminism, and travel” themes. However, everything happens in a context, and this blog post is intended provide such a context.

Two years ago, I was bored out of my mind such that enjoying life seemed like insurmountable task. I longed for discussion, analysis and various kinds of envelope-pushing environments. That’s how today, I find myself in graduate school – I’m thrilled to be here and I’m happier than I have been in a long time but that does not mean that I should not and cannot fight for better conditions.

It’s Friday night, and my spirit is weary. Not exactly from academic stress, but from isolation. I know the *ahem* location that I have chosen to live in during graduate school is far from optimal, however, I’m not sure how much of a difference that would make, since my peers and friends downtown in graduate school complain about similar struggles.

The grapevine has also taught me to that there are a bunch of other things I need to worry about: the desolate job market for academic jobs, the two-body problem, decreasing rates of marriage, declining birth rates, increasing property prices, climate change, food insecurity…just to name a few.

These worries, although far from insignificant, suggest a teleology that not everyone is interested in. I’m supposed to want an academic job. I’m supposed to want to maybe find a long term partner around now to settle down with. I’m supposed to want children. I’m supposed to want to buy property — all while ensuring it doesn’t exacerbate a host of global problems.

Thing is, I am not sure how these ‘wants’ would ever improve my life, one that is already entrenched in anhedonia given the current conditions I face. Many things sound great in theory but given the circumstances, don’t mean much. What use is an academic job if you don’t enjoy it or if it doesn’t give you enough time to live your life? What use is a long-term partner if you don’t have enough energy to enjoy each other’s company while not entrenched in whatever is paying the bills?

The female academic has a particularly precarious experience, especially as of late. Rebecca Schuman has chronicled her life in and outside of academia widely, and I’ve often looked to her writing to give me a bit of a guide map to help me find my way, as a person living my life, not as an academic. The female academic is scrutinized by the academy and society alike for being both too interested and not interested enough in family, and our words and sentiments about our lifestyle is held up much higher level of examination than that of our male peers. A female academic is supposed to pretend as if she is devoid of a personal life, as if the discussion of its contents automatically renders her some sort of a moral or professional failure or both. There are also contention about what kind of ‘personal life’ is appropriate to discuss so that it does not tarnish your professional image. Queer women, within and outside of the academy continue to face immense pressures regardless of strides in marriage equality, and things aren’t too rosy for those in traditional heterosexual marriages.

Part of the problem is perhaps academia and modern workplaces is that women are not encouraged to be their whole selves on the job. Of course, this can be done without crossing boundaries, and I do think it is healthy to have a non-judgemental group of peers in one’s life and work where some aspect of their identity is not stigmatized.

I sense a certain sense of irony in all this, especially given the fact that as a straight-identified woman, I should be able to just be myself in grad school, but it’s not necessarily just about me being comfortable with myself. Since graduate schools function like high schools to certain extent and is incestuous in its own ways, it makes navigating identity politics challenging for especially women and people from gender and sexual minorities. I’m not sure how this can be addressed outside of equity-seeking groups, however, it is certainly something to keep in mind, while instituting reform.

In the meantime, female academics can take comfort in the fact that a glass of bourbon often puts these worries to rest…at least on Friday nights.