Entirely by accident, today I realized it’s been exactly thirteen years since I defended my PhD dissertation. My life seems radically different now: in the thirteen years since Then and Now, I’ve divorced, changed my last name, remarried, moved to Massachusetts, left my job at Keene State, and started teaching at Framingham State. April 5, 2004 was the first and only time in my life I wore a pantsuit: the inexpensive one I bought specifically for my defense popped a button then left me with an itchy rash, so I’ve stuck with skirts ever since. This photo of me the morning before I defended, with exhaustion-baggy eyes and still-wet-from-the-shower hair, feels like an artifact from another lifetime, another person, another existence.
In the thirteen years since I defended, I haven’t published the dissertation I spent a decade of my life writing; in the thirteen years since I defended, I haven’t published much of anything apart from the blog posts I cobble together from the tag ends of days. In the thirteen years since I defended, I haven’t secured a tenure-track job; in the thirteen years since I defended, I haven’t “secured” much of anything, my career continuing to be a crazy-quilt of part-time, temporary, and “visiting” positions.
Before I defended, people warned me about the post-dissertation blues: after spending so many years pursuing a single goal, many people look around them and wonder “What’s next?” In many ways, I feel like I’ve never answered that question. The teaching I’ve done after finishing my PhD is pretty much the same as the teaching I’d done before, and after printing my completed dissertation, I put it in a box atop my bookcase and haven’t touched it since.
This isn’t, of course, the way such a story is supposed to end: a PhD is supposed to lead to something, as is a life. My inability or refusal to settle into a Life Work runs counter to the inspirational stories we grow up hearing, where each and every one of us is supposed to find and pursue their passion. It’s been 30 years–three decades!–since I graduated from high school, and I’m still not sure What I Want To Be when I grow up, or what sort of things I want to write and publish. I’ve made a living from teaching, to be sure, but I’m not sure I’ve made a career, and I’ve always felt I’m too much an underachiever to live up to my senior superlative of “Most Likely to Succeed.”
I have, I think, a problem with success: success seems too big, too daunting, and too much requiring of a plan. I wrote a dissertation because my advisor and then-husband pushed, nudged, and cajoled me; left to my own devices, I squander my time with little projects in disparate directions. Both my brain and my attention span, it seems, are constitutionally fitted toward blogging, the kind of occasional scratching that satisfies an intermittent itch. But thirteen years after defending my Magnum Opus, I still wonder what place or purpose it had in my life, or where and why my attention should be directed now.