Confessions of an Overachiever (II)

Part I and Part III

It was 2009. I was conducting a study, analyzing data and giving job talks in a few states. The interview process itself was an unexpected stress. One interview lasted three full days. After talking with search committees in five states, I secured a position at a liberal arts college in Georgia. It seemed perfectly aligned with my vow to avoid stress.

There were a few challenges, though.

The institution promised to support my husband in finding a job. They never did. We still had our Florida house to sell. The girls lived with me; Dwight stayed in Florida. It was a three and a half hour drive. So while my job wasn’t stressful, the weekend commutes to have some semblance of normalcy was. For me, this meant packing up the kids and dog, and then trekking up and down I-75 every other weekend. We did this for two years. The cycle was relentless and taxing. I went back on the professor market.

To say I was desperate to move back to Florida is an understatement. My pre-teen daughters were well-behaved, but with the absence of a father, they had gotten a little lippy. We were also sustaining two households. But I didn’t feel as stressed as I had before. I mean there was no chair of a doctoral committee determining the balance of my life. As a matter of fact, I had lost weight and felt more energetic. Still, the situation wasn’t ideal and we needed to move back together, under one roof.

When the next prestigious university called me in 2012 and offered me a visiting professor line, I was overjoyed. However, I had no intentions of moving to Tallahassee. The point was for our family to reunite. I chose to commute.

“Tallahassee is a long way,” Dwight warned.

“I know. I can do it,” I said.

As I type these words, it feels arrogant. I know. I can do it. I can drive 320 miles twice a week. To be fair, droves of people I knew and didn’t know called me crazy. The truth is I really did think I could do it. It’s an innate part of my personality. I truly believe I can do anything I set my mind to. Or am I just an overachiever? The line is fine and sometimes the two collide to blur my judgment. Either way, I did it.

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The job was supposed to last only one year. It was visiting. Instead, they were soooooo impressed with me that they found a way to offer a tenure-track line. One year turned into three. Teaching classes, mentoring graduate students, advising a couple of doc students, serving on two committees, running into unexpected microagressions, conducting research, presenting at national conferences, writing, getting published in the “wrong” place, seeking grant funding, and getting rejected publications from the “right” place made for a stressful job. The out of town commute twice a week was just bonus stress. Some days I would cry all the way to the university’s parking lot. Other days I would pray all the way home for answers. In between, I looked for jobs. Nothing surfaced.

It was six years of doctoral work all over again. There was no chalazion or sleep paralysis. But I was ignoring other signs. Although I worked out whenever I wasn’t on the road, it didn’t matter.

“You run with your fists clenched,” a trainer observed. “Are you angry about something? You have to calm down and then work out. Open your fists.”

I hadn’t noticed it before. But now things made more sense. I had run a 5k, consistently practiced yoga and maintained a restricted diet, but gained 20 pounds in three years.

I made time for my family and me: movies, vacations, cookie baking, you name it. Life looked balanced, but it wasn’t. Not really. This was the most imbalanced life I’d ever lived.

But I ignored it.

Only thing about disregarding things is that they don’t really go away. My body had had enough. It was overstressed.

How to Talk to a Doc Student During the Holidays

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Do you have a doc student or candidate that’s visiting for the holidays? If so, then trust me on this one. They probably won’t tell you, but I will. Don’t ask them these three questions.

 When are you graduating?

This seems super harmless, right? It’s not. Refrain from asking any doc student, no matter where they are in the program, when she is graduating. She doesn’t know. Traditional full-time undergraduate students could probably answer this question. May, 2017, they might proudly announce. A full-time student pursuing a master’s degree might also be able to tell you. But a doc student? Unless she has successfully defended her dissertation and submitted it for university publishing and approval, then the likelihood of her knowing an actual graduation date is pretty slim.

What is your research about again?

What’s wrong with this question, you might be wondering. Well, the problem is the doc student has already spent countless hours revising and refining two or three questions that explain this very thing. She has probably been asked by nice and not-so nice committee members to consider the time of year, re-word the sentence after the comma, change the participants, or re-think the study altogether. She might even have a handy three-minute explanation of her work. But she probably doesn’t want to talk about it while scarfing down her mac-n-cheese.

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What’s taking you so long?

This question is not easy to answer. The response could be any number of reasons. She could’ve lost a committee member, or maybe her proposal wasn’t accepted. Just those two reasons alone could average a one or two semester delay. Most institutions, colleges and programs are totally different. Some doc students finish in three years because of the prof’s personal mantra; whereas, others finish well beyond five years because of the same reason. Does the doc student have a spouse? Kids? Other responsibilities? Reasons why it is “taking so long” are plentiful.

Maybe this holiday season you can ask the person a simple question, like how’s it going? Or how are you? If she wants to discuss her graduate studies, then she’ll probably slip in a success story or gripe, but if not, then just let her enjoy her eggnog and your company. The reduced stress will be a welcomed change.