Liars & PhDs

I am attached to the lie about why I didn’t get my PhD. It’s a pet lie. In my head it looks something like this:

And it’s more comfortable than the truth, which stings a little and is, well, embarrassing–as truths can sometimes be.

The lie goes like this: I’d reached a point in my life where I just wasn’t willing to go to the ends of the earth to chase the tenure track job.

It sounds reasonable. I mean, who can refute that?

Then I throw in the whole gay thing: And, you know, as a lesbian who wanted a family, I couldn’t just up and move to Middle America or somewhere. I couldn’t do that to my (future, unborn) kid. Who knows if we even would have been safe there?

So reasonable.

So much bullshit.

I didn’t get my PhD because I simply could not stand not being (anywhere close to) the smartest person in the room. My ego had taken a hit, and I wasn’t woman enough to pull myself together and carry on.

And, so, I quit.

I’ve regretted it since.

Occasionally, I am able to make myself feel better when someone that actually has a PhD reminds me about the shitty job market. Or how often women are still discriminated against for tenure track positions. Or the host of (very real) problems with academia.

But every time a full-grown adult tells me they are going back to school, I feel a flare of envy between my belly and my heart. And a flash of shame that I didn’t do what I most wanted to do because I was scared.

I had what Brené Brown identifies as life paralysis:

‘Life paralysis’ refers to all of the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect. It’s also all of the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing, making mistakes, and disappointing others.

Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart

Well, shit.

As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve learned to cozy up to the idea that I don’t know everything. And that there’s literally only one person in the world who can be the best at something. The rest of us just do the best we can. And that leaves room for a lot more honesty and curiosity.

Curiosity and feasibility are really linked for me. I often have flights of fancy where I think about all the things I may want to do or be, places I want to see, endeavors I might want to undertake. My partner, Simon, refers to this as the feasibility stage.

A list of things (in no specific order) that have been in the feasibility stage in the last 6 months:

  1. Buying a mountain house
  2. Becoming a forest ranger
  3. Hiking the Appalachian Trail
  4. Becoming an Ultra Runner
  5. Retiring to Mexico
  6. Going on a writers’ retreat
  7. Buying acreage in the mountains and creating a camping destination
  8. Starting a non-profit that nurtures and supports women entrepreneurs
  9. Buying a commercial building
  10. Owning a writers’ retreat
  11. Living in a tiny house
  12. Driving an RV around the South
  13. Getting my PhD (in a wide variety of fields)
  14. Publishing my middle grades novel
  15. Dedicating myself to being a writer (which, in my head, has to involve mountain views. But that’s likely negotiable)

It was in this spirit of feasibility that I mentioned to a friend that I still want (sometimes even long for) my damned PhD. And then I did something surprising: I actually admitted (out loud) that my pet lie was just a lie–and that fear & self-doubt (and perfectionism) are really what kept me from getting my PhD.

Here’s the thing about friends: they’re nice and all. But they tend to err toward holding me accountable for my own destiny and pushing me to live my best, most fulfilling version life and whatnot.


And then (as if to really light a fire under my ass) the Universe piles on, like it’s trying to send me a message or something, with various people showing up to say versions of the same damn thing: What have you been writing?! Oh. But you mean nothing… like not at all? Well, why not? What’s that about? How can I help?

But this friend took it a step further: she wanted to know what we were going to do about my not writing and my longing for some good old intellectual sparring.

Oh my GOD, she’s trying to move me out of the feasibility stage.

She gave me this whole rundown about how what I want from a PhD program sounds like folks to be intellectually curious with. And sometimes that’s what you get in a program–and sometime it’s not. Or maybe I need a French Salon… but barring time travel, maybe the best solution was for she and I to get together with the express purpose of reading and discussing academic-based ideas that interest us.

Well, shit. Now I’m going to have to do something.

I promptly, obsessively, looked through course syllabi until I found lecture notes, readings, and assignments for a course on Feminist Thought on the MitOpenCourseware site. I scoured library listings and used book sellers to find the required texts. And now, I need to report back what I’m going to do with all these texts & lecture notes, what am I going to write, and how my friend can help hold me accountable.

That is way beyond my feasibility comfort zone.

But I suppose the end goal, in reality, is to write pieces that are engaging, academically sound, accessible, and applicable here and now, that make people’s lives better. And that push us toward revolution.

That’s going to require some discipline.

Maybe moving out of the feasibility stage is part of my own personal revolution.

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