On not suffering (much) in graduate school: Part 3

Oprime aquí para leer la versión en español. Oprime aquí para encontrar la parte Uno y acá la parte Dos.

Todo tiene su final, nada dura para siempre. Tenemos que recordar que no existe eternidad… («Everything has its end, nothing lasts forever. We have to remember that there is no eternity…») I failed to include that Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón’s song in my virtual thesis presentation (or defense). How nervous I was that day! I even forgot to record myself. So, I guess that could consider it an exclusive event. The nice thing was that I presented from my room in our house in Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico; the place where I have lived for more than 20 years. The not so nice thing was that I did it a few weeks after the passing of grandma, who was so excited for my graduation. There have been many other not-so-nice moments since I started that quasi-limbo called, «graduate school». I have navigated many of them in a way that has reduced hurtful feelings. Others I have not, but such experiences have given me tools to handle intrusive thoughts and negative feelings in a better way. In parts one and two of this low-budget trilogy of essays, I’ve written about those tools and other strategies that have helped me get through grad school. This last installment compiles the other perspectives that, looking back, I understand have helped me complete my goal: to finish my PhD and return to Puerto Rico.

Finishing my presentation, dedicating it to Grandma.

            I reaffirm everything I have written in those two pieces. Every tool or recommendation I have shared is still with me. Nevertheless, one thing I want to emphasize is, well, is this, the importance of writing about our experiences. These essays have allowed me to clarify and reflect on what helps me and what doesn’t. They have helped me to connect with great people, to have conversations that have expanded my understanding of other experiences and perspectives, as well as to become aware of issues and realities that I often ignore because of my privileges. Having this site has been an excellent platform to share them, as well as other work.

True, not all of us can speak freely about our experiences. But, if we can do it, we should do it because in this way we can generate visibility on many dynamics that are alienated to other people, and that perhaps can let others know that they are not alone. At the same time, we help ourselves. Beyond writing, we can talk with friends or therapists, with our deities (if we have them) and with a notebook. Not everything has to be published. And it may bring about a change that is beneficial to us, as well as to others. For example, my cohort and I denounced troubling dynamics of our program and generated changes that have benefited the new student body. In addition, doing so helps build a self-confidence that, even if we feel fear or shame, helps us not to keep our mouths shut when we witness wrongdoings.

At the end of my thesis exam, I had an awkward exchange with a close mentor. My first-year self would have been broken by that or perhaps mistreated himself. However, that didn’t happen. I stood my ground, defended my work and so-so, that story is over. We must set boundaries and also leverage our positions. Self-confidence is not only built on experiences, but also in solidarity and love. It is also built by knowing why you do something. I know the whys and wherefores of my thesis, of doing my PhD and of the work I do: to generate knowledge, understanding and visibility of social-ecological dynamics related to our food systems. Knowing how to answer the “why” has helped me to clarify what things I want to do or what routes to follow. Knowing it helped me not to get entangled in an email discussion or to prolong the process of completing the degree. If there was one thing I should have done early on in that PhD it was to tell people turn it down a notch (or more). NOT accepting truths that I have always known, such as wanting to stay in Puerto Rico or simply not wanting to do something that is optional, has been the cause of much discomfort. Many people don’t have the space to do that freely. Forging new mentoring relationships, going to therapy and participating in experiences outside of the university were among the many things that helped me get here. One can’t take shit from people.

If graduate school helped me reinforce anything, it was the importance of cultivating and protecting genuine relationships of love and friendship that go beyond transactional bonds. Sometimes, in order to take care of a position or reputation, we neglect what is important: taking care of ourselves and others. If I could go back in time, I would not change my decision to study in Vermont. I really liked my program and I managed to accomplish more than the goals I set for myself. I would change the times when I saw something wrong and kept quiet, the times when I was disrespected and didn’t stand up for myself, I would change the way I did my research, and many other things. But the past does not come back. What I am left with is not to confront those kinds of situations the same way I did before. Now in my transition to a non-academic job, I can say that I am in a moment where I feel close to myself and better prepared emotionally. I finished essay two by writing: «I am now in Puerto Rico, where I plan to complete my dissertation and my last year of my PhD». And this one I want to end it by saying, «I completed my PhD and I am still in Puerto Rico!» Let’s continue telling our stories, facilitating spaces for people to access opportunities, recourses, and tell their own stories. Let’s learn in solidarity and love.

Left and right: with my family at Grandma’s house after presenting in October 2021; in the middle with my advisor, Meredith T. Niles and my mom on April 2022.

Some specific things:

  • Make an effort to create community and emotional bonds: we are social and spiritual beings. Not much can be achieved in solitude. And when we are in other people’s places, it is beautiful to be able to make friends.
  • Open your own page: You will never say NO to your publications. It is a good platform to make yourself known and connect with other people. Many of them are free. If you have extra money, get a domain with your name on it.
  • Do an internship if you can: Identify where you would like to work or what jobs you would like to do. Look for places where that is done and throw yourself on your chest. If there is no paid position, try volunteering for a little while if you are able. It will also help you figure out if you like it or not. Saying you like chocolate cake is NOT the same as saying you like making cupcakes.
  • Try to get outside funding: Anything that keeps you from being TA or RA will make you happier (unless you like that).
  • Go to therapy, exercise and try to make time to do nothing: Emotional hygiene is a set of practices and attitudes that provide us with tools to navigate difficult situations and emotions.

For more, check out parts One and Two of this trilogy of essays on not suffering (much) in grad school.

Note: This is a direct and unprofessional translation using Deep L, from the original Spanish version. There can be errors in grammar, syntaxes, and others.

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