When my PhD and I broke up


I thought it was the work of my life. I tried to make it stick. I changed, and it changed, and we played mental games against each other until years of relationship snapped in half like a twig.

We met, as it so often happens,  through well-meaning friends.

"I think you two would hit it off."

“You’d make a great match.”

“Everybody wants this.”

I didn’t have much going on in terms of a traditionally conceived future, but I did have a keenness to write and a bunch of ideas, so I thought, yes. Yes, I want to do this. And then I parsed it around to This is what I want to do, which sounds the same but is absolutely not, by way of its absoluteness.

We got engaged right away. A long-distance race that should end up with me changing my name (Dr Starts with G!). Its friends were nice, mostly. There was a visiting professor who smelled moldy and wouldn’t look me in the eye and chewed on his own beard like it was made of sugar cane, but that was fine. I worked hard and did well on my coursework. Things were fine for a while.

I got some form of life purpose out of it. I don't know what my PhD got from me in return. No, I do know — it got my weekends. My evenings. My holidays. When you’re doing a PhD, you can’t really not think about it, even when you’re not thinking about it. There’s no natural end to it — maybe you run out of funding and you have to push a thesis out of whatever your brain’s equivalent of a uterus is, or you reach the point where you have absolutely nothing else to say, or your spouse and friends organize an intervention, and then you’re done.

But until then, you chip away at this thing and you’re never really not chipping away at it.

I defended it when people talked trash about it, calling it things like useless or pointless or demented, and reacted with self-righteousness when other former PhD students in recovery told me it would never last. "Just you wait", they'd say. "What the fuck do you know about my relationship", I'd think.

And all along I'd look at even the happiest PhD/student pairings, and feel not even a smidgen of thrill or anticipation of jealousy. Is that who I am? Who I want to be?  Teaching, writing, doing research, lather, rinse, repeat?

The teaching was my favorite. I have always loved teaching, since back in the days when I was a high school student in Norway and they plonked me in front of a group of leirskule children and told me to teach them salsa (I couldn't dance salsa but it didn't matter — I have a Spanish name and anyway we spent the entire time trying and failing to get the  boys to stand next to the girls). I loved teaching so much that I took twice the teaching credit requirements.

And I also loved the writing — no, the writing was my favorite. Let's face it, some of us don't write a packing checklist without the hope that someone will read it and think it's a fresh and daring take. So what if I had to write papers on Gayatri Spivak's 'material predication of the subject'*.

* I warn you, this is a real thing but it's best not to ask any more questions if you value your sanity.

But these things, which I enjoyed so much on their own, turned out to be terrible together — like a big gob of mayonnaise splattered onto a bowl of lentil soup.

When I searched for some inner voice to tell me what to do, all I could hear, whispered softly with the conviction of a lifetime, was Not this. Not this.

When I looked in the mirror and tried to figure out who this tired-looking, confused, gray person was staring back at me, all I could see reflected in those pupils were the words Not you. Not you.

But I felt guilty about my full fellowship, the spot I had taken from someone else who would have really wanted it. I felt useless and rudderless without it, my only skill being able to argue successfully for one thing and its exact opposite. How much does that pay? So I chipped away at it some more.

By the third year of fieldwork, I had figured out the answer to the question I was asking — that the true source of people's political power is the stories that they tell themselves. And then it hit me that I didn’t have a language to tell that story. I had to throw out my script about political opportunity or resource mobilization or institutional veto points. I couldn't compare anything to anything else anymore. I could have started again, I could have made it work, I could have gotten excited.

But I wasn't excited. I was tired. So I didn't.

We separated way before the divorce was official. I started seeing other occupations. I cheated on my PhD very publicly with a full-time administrative job for a while – it wasn't passion (my new lover was most unhot, and all it ever talked about was proper invoicing) but it was against the rules, and new, and different. Taking a job in billing made me feel alive and independent again. It was an act of defiance. It hardly matters that the sex was awful.

Eventually, I left the country and moved across the Atlantic ocean for a while. By the time I got back to Europe, I was done.

It was my fault. It was nobody’s fault. It felt for a while like a cataclysmic personal failure. It felt also wonderful, truly wonderful, to be free of it. Because that’s what happens when you leave home every morning with your good-on-paper clothes on. They feel scratchy and accentuate your lower back fat and they’re wrong, even if they’re what you’ve been told to wear, and they’re trendy and you’ve spent a fortune on them.

One day, I tossed them in the trash and left home naked. And I was cold, and scared, and vulnerable and free.

And I never, ever looked back.

8 thoughts on “When my PhD and I broke up”

  1. Wow, that is a beautiful and brave post! And even I did not break up I can fully understand you. This relationship is very tough. And cheating opportunities are everywhere around. I am looking forward to reading what happened after! Was that break recently? (I am your new follower! ;). Good luck! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Beautiful, compelling little story! I have a very dear friend who struggled to finish his PhD for many years and then, with great relief, finally gave it up. He has been a happier person ever since. I should somehow find a way to connect him to this post of yours (though I am pretty new to WordPress and not tech. savvy at all). I’m sure he would relate to it deeply.


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