To PhD or Not

“Do it!” Eirik and Miranda said unequivocally.

AJS asked, “What if there is another route towards being a public intellectual?”

Pepe said that PhD programs are not nearly as fun as MFA programs. That the writing you do is “boilerplate.” He told me that PhD students have a lot of dental issues resultant from stress, but said it still beats any job.

JR said universities aren’t so much sites of active learning as they are “scholarship factories.” (We talked about speed reading.)

Mustafa said the academe will always try to reinforce disciplinary boundaries, which isn’t separate from the ways that universities are historically colonial institutions.

Katherine said the question of whether to pursue my curiosities in a PhD was related to the questions I have about how to be in service to others.

Cathy said I first need to formulate questions that are academically intelligible.

Irene said she supported my journey.

Peter (via Ethan) cautioned against PhDs in departments which rely on graduate students to do all the “grunt labor,” and spit you out with a degree after five or six extractive years. And I was like, Yeah, I already know about that.

I talked to Nina about making a YouTube channel instead of going to school, as if those two were interchangeable: methods of actualizing an audience, some incentive to research and articulate that research. We also talked about how making a YouTube channel could be a part of whatever happens next.

In an email to Miranda, I wrote, I’m currently swarming in the mild chaos of drafting my personal statement and trying to pin down a working set of research questions that’s academically intelligible, but I think I’m getting there. Broadly speaking I hope to study the circulation of knowledge about the body and care practices outside of scientifically legitimated channels–especially how the connections between mind, body, and context might be differently understood on radically different terms than biomedicine. And in what ways that difference requires a negotiation with spirituality, or an attempt to identify the forms it takes in this neoliberal context. This would be my academic way of trying to think about why institutional medicine isn’t more medicinal, and also the potentialities and risks or losses in the separation of autonomous care-taking practices (like herbalism etc) and biomedicine (particularly psychiatry). 

Miranda wrote back, This is a great time to be embarked on these studies–anytime would be a great time–yet particularly now of course with this public health crisis the etiology of which is inextricably politically, socially, economically, ontologically, metaphysically, historically, culturally, and ecologically meshed. 

Ethan said the more he thinks about it the more sense it makes to go to school. He thinks I should apply, even though it’s geographically inconvenient (among other things).

I often go to bed thinking it all sounds like a great idea, and then wake up hung over from that confidence. But the more I think about it the more sense it makes, like I’ve been circling around these questions for years, and now that they’ve almost come into view as “academically intelligible” it feels wasteful not to go for it. Or like there’s something I could offer by doing so, which made me think about Katherine’s identification of the questions I have to ask myself: what does it mean to me to be in service? And what kind of service are we talking here?

Writing prompts for healthcare workers (and anyone else who needs writing prompts right now)

Experiences of illness and its treatment are emotional and complex in a way isn’t usually accounted for in the rapid pace of healthcare treatment itself–it’s a lot of complexity to hold in. This was the case before the pandemic but the volume of pain and loss which healthcare workers are being exposed to right now seems truly, deeply hellish; the risk of burn-out is severe. Expressive/reflective writing is a therapeutic tool for releasing difficult/trying/impossible/traumatic/galvanizing/ambiguous events, a practice which rests upon the belief that writing is a form of physical processing that can’t just happen in the abstract space of your brain. I know that expressive writing won’t remedy the actual experiences which healthcare workers are going through, the fact that they are putting their lives on the line with insufficient PPE, or their physical exhaustion. It won’t resolve the fact that EMS workers in New York City are being denied hazard pay. But it’s possible that having an outlet to process the miseries of the recent past will release some of the physical burden of those experiences, and provide an opportunity to draw back into yourself. (It’s also okay to not be ready to process and to stay disassociated in order to survive.) If you want a space to do some processing, setting a timer for 10-15 minutes and writing can be a small, low-stakes way to build that. You can also keep writing after that point if you get on a roll. Here are some first aid writing prompts for healthcare workers, essential workers in the line of fire, or anyone who feels like writing about right now:

  1. Write about what you feel in your body right now: what does it feel like in your face, hands, chest, stomach, hips, thighs, calves, ankles, feet, ears, fingers, eyes, forehead, mouth? Describe pressure, motion, weight, touch, smells, sounds, and sensations of all kinds.
  2. What is something you’ve seen/experienced that felt impossible? What image comes into your head? Describe the image (colors, characters, scenes), and if you want, the story of the image.
  3. Write a letter to yourself, from yourself, in third person: “Dear you…” Tell yourself about some things you know but which have been hard to admit to yourself. Give yourself advice about how to make it through this. Be kind.
  4. What questions do you have about right now? What questions can you answer for yourself, and what questions are unanswerable?

It’s going to take a long time to understand, and to unspool, the damages and experiences of the present. Writing for a little while might not expose all that is unknown, but hopefully it will provide some relief.