If, like me, you hate failing at anything, academia is a tough place to be.
When I got accepted for a PhD in comics research, I genuinely envisioned a three-year nerd party where I could enthuse about overanalyzing comics to my heart’s content. The research process would be challenging but rewarding. My amazing skills would carry me through.
Turns out I was wrong about almost all of that.
(The nerd party bit came true in an unexpected way–but more on that later.)
First: research. There were moments when I discovered a single quote that unlocks a new and useful angle of analysis, and those moments really were rewarding. What I’d gotten wrong was the ratio of challenge to reward.
I cannot overstate the amount of articles, chapters, entire books that I went through only to find nothing of relevance. Quotes that did prove relevant were sometimes at the very end of books. And the frequency with which literature recommended to me was in fact out of print felt downright discouraging.
One book that my supervisor recommended as being particularly helpful wasn’t even available from secondhand online retailers, even though its last printing was in 2012. In the high-pressure world of academia, a politely-worded “We’re sorry. This book is no longer available” reads as “HA HA HA, SUCKER”.
Second: there is no party, not within the field. I’ve had great times with other comics scholars at academic conferences, and get along well with the tiny handful of Masters and PhD comics researchers at my own university. However, what could otherwise be a festive atmosphere is dampened by the constant threat of competition.
At first I wondered if it was just me. Longtime WWAC readers may recall that I hate feeling overshadowed by anyone ever, so perhaps I was misreading what were supposed to be friendly interactions.
Not at all. A painful dearth of university job openings in the humanities, plus the disintegration of tenure-track jobs on this side of the Greenwich Meridian, plus the lack of general recognition of our academic field add up to a lot of things, but party times aren’t among them. It’s not that we want our colleagues to fail; we all have friends in the field, and if someone who bills themselves as a comics scholar puts out a terrible piece of research, then they bring down the curve for comics scholarship as a whole. But each opportunity that someone else gets is an opportunity that is no longer open to anyone else, and everyone knows it.
On the bright side, I did have the consolation of being right.
Third: skills? What skills?
A PhD aims to develop your body of knowledge and streamline your research process, which in theory sounds great. In practice, turns out said development and streamlining entails being continually reminded of all the things in your field you don’t know, which is much less great.
Unlike my previous educational experiences, the ongoing research required by a PhD doesn’t provide reassuring markers of progress along the way. Just corrections, corrections, corrections, corrections — oh, and did I mention corrections?
The corrections are necessary, of course; without them, the culmination of my three years here would be a *shudder* substandard piece of work. That doesn’t make it any easier.
What has made it easier is the network of amazing women (and a few guys) I’ve found through the university. They’re full-on intersectional feminists, always ready to share and learn and connect and make jokes that have given me laughter cramps on many occasions. We commiserate about mansplaining dudebros in certain sectors of the humanities. We talk about wandering wombs and poison. We create masterpieces like this:
Initially conceptualized by me; developed and drawn by my friend Faye, with input from the No More Crap Dudes collective (it’s what we call ourselves).
I have found my nerd party, and I hope it lasts for much longer than these three years.