November 2020

When will you be done? teaser image
I don’t think I’m alone in experiencing the rage and frustration elicited from this small, simple, well-meaning question. After all, a small part of us knows that people ask it because they genuinely have no idea what it means to write a thesis, pursue a Ph.D., or do research in a way that amounts to anything. People care about us, but many lack the context to understand what it is we actually do. To this day, my own family still asks what I do and what it all means.

And true, it’s a question that we each ask ourselves all the time. When will I be done? Will COVID-19 delay my data collection or graduation? Will this illness set me back? Will I ever accomplish this with my current mental health status? Am I smart enough to complete this? Will I be able to collect enough data, write enough words? Is this even worth it?

“When will you be done?”

My family asks. My old friends from college ask. The random, friendly girl at the gym asks. The guys I match with on dating apps ask. At the mention of grad school, an apparition of Socrates himself forms to whisper, “but like, when will you be done?” (Please tell me you imagined this in a ghost-y, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure kind of voice.) And they all mean well. They know that finishing is the end goal, and since most people are so unclear about what happens along the way, I think that’s all they know to ask. I’ve asked it, too. I do my best to answer with a smile instead of an eyeroll.

But here’s the secret. I’ve realized this year that the question has been undermining my attitude and my approach to graduate school for far too long, and I’m going to tell you how.

I’ll start with this: I’m an enneagram 7. I’m a HufflePuff. I’m Amity. One of my greatest strengths according to StrengthsQuest is “Winning Others Over.” I love meeting people, striking up conversations with strangers, and maintaining a wide network of friendships and acquaintances. It’s a part of what makes “me,” “me.” That means I talk about what I do a lot. I explain it in lay terms a lot, usually to people who have no connections to academia or research beyond their own degree, which is great. To people in the “workforce,” who ask when I’m going to take the leap into the “real world”: here’s the thing. You know it, and I know it, but I’m already in the real world, AND I have the impending doom of having to write and defend a dissertation hanging over my head.

But I get caught up in what other people say and how other people treat graduate school. They are so eager for me to be done, start making real money (me too, tho), and get out of what they can only assume is an unending stream of classes and homework. It’s affected my mindset to where I view my education as an annoyance or inconvenient hurdle to leap over, just to be admitted into the same “real world” they have been plodding through all these years. The focus on “when will you be done?” has really shifted my mindset from “eager student” to “trapped pseudo-adult,” and that is NOT the vibe I want in my life.

According to my most recent Google search, the average time that a 25-34 year old stays at a job is 3.2 years. 3.2! This is my fifth year of grad school, and not a week has gone by when someone hasn’t asked what my plans are after I’m done. Where do I want to move? I like to turn it back around and say, “What are your plans for your life in 5 years? Even in two?” How are we supposed to know what will happen in one year, much less five! It’s normal to not know exactly what’s next, or how long it will take to get there. But it’s stressful when everyone always asks. I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel like I’m behind, or that I’m missing out. As graduate students, we have committed to staying in school for a long time, but that doesn’t mean we are missing out on life. I think non-grad students were often so eager to graduate and be done with their formal education that that concept gets projected onto us, who decided that this period of long hours and low pay was worth the training and education and mentorship that we receive. Because it is!

“When will you be done?”

We have all heard the phrase, “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” I think about this often and then promptly turn to complain about my day, or wish for the weekend or the next time I can get out of town. But just this past week, I had a 16-hour day. We collected tissue and ran experiments, and just enough stuff went wrong to extend our day that began at 6:30 a.m. to a 10:30 p.m. close. It’s a long, sometimes boring process, and it’s so easy to complain about or dread. Around perhaps hour 10, something clicked for me.

My lab mate and I were deep belly laughing after quoting the same viral video all day long ( I know all are not so lucky, but me and my labmate not only get along, but are genuine friends. I realized that this won’t last forever. We get a few years to have these long days and late nights, and few years to spend every day together, laughing, crying (because science is frustrating), and living life, day in and day out. Then, the natural progression of things is to change. The program will end. I won’t get to chat with our middle-aged lab tech each day about politics or how to fix a car or why the Western blot ran wrong again. I won’t get to experience the intense stress of trying to meet academic deadlines with friends and colleagues that I respect and who push me to be a better scientist. I won’t have easy access to a myriad of professors to lean on for advice and critique.

It’s natural and good for this phase to end, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile to be fully devoted to it now. I don’t want to look back on these years in a Ph.D. program knowing I only had one foot in the ring and was too busy planning my theoretical post-graduation jaunt around the world to be fully present. I don’t want to be so ready to graduate that I forget to take full advantage of my life because I am “just” a graduate student.

This process is so challenging, demanding, and exhausting, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t also good.

I know this year has been unduly challenging, but take time this week to think about the things you’ll miss about this season of your life, knowing that it will not last forever.

-- Kalen Johnson

Kalen is a doctoral student in the Department of Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology

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