Processing your PhD: on next-ness

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What’s it actually like when you finally finish a PhD? Recent PhD grad Will Mari wraps up his series on life after graduate school, Processing Your PhD. See posts on finishing here, teaching here, and further thoughts on being done here

I’m sitting in my office on a quiet, mid-summer afternoon, and my campus is silent.

Sure, I hear the clunk-clunk of apples rolling off the roof above my office (outside an ancient tree stands vigil, and is raining forth its bounty early). We have a few summer camps going on, and so you’ll hear a kid’s laugh or a counselor’s shouts every now and again, or the maintenance folks going about their mowing. The desktop hums.

But otherwise, there are no students, few other people and a general sense that this little academic universe remains paused for more than another month.

It’s great.

As many of my older and more established colleagues can attest, especially at teaching-oriented colleges and universities, summer is prime time for personal projects, reading, research, getting ahead on course preparation, and even—gasp!—taking vacation.

As a young faculty person, with all the anxieties that are part of that identity, that quiet does tend to bring in some of its own challenges, however. It might even go to waste, slipping away into the voracious demands of the calendar. There’s a refrain of next-ness, for lack of a better phrase. What’s next, indeed?

There are always papers to publish (or at least revise), articles and books to read, classes to create, emails to send and answer, chores to tackle and errands to run. Much of that is good, and necessary, and for certain seasons, cannot be avoided. I wish I could forestall all pressing deadlines and savor the stillness for weeks to come, but I can’t, not always.

Actually, there really should be a healthy amount of next-ness, especially while pursuing one’s vocation. Like gravity, it should tug you forward, and push you gently, to pursue excellence for the sake of your students, your faith, your field and yourself.

But there is also what I’d call over-next-ness, of fearing the Things to Always Do Next. That’s bad. At worst, it’s an addiction, and not the caffeinated kind.

To fight this tendency, it is good to dwell on the value of rest, a dear colleague and friend recently told me, for “in quietness and confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

And yet here I must confess immediately that exhortations to rest (not in this case from my friend) fall like mist in the mountains. Refreshing, pretty, but insubstantial, and not as important as the crashing storms of blowing snow that are much more exciting and draining—resting is great, if you can get it.

Where does this response come from?

We’ve been trained for years to prove ourselves, our scholarship, and thus our worth. Even now, it stings to find that a reviewer doesn’t like an article, or a conference doesn’t like a paper, or a student doesn’t like a class. The over-next-ness of the PhD process doesn’t wear off easily, or come naturally. You don’t just coast to a stop, hang up your cleats, and go home.

But you need to force yourself to, sometimes. If only for an evening or a weekend: for there will always be more work. You just need to eat it in more regular portions, like healthy people do. That’s hard, and for me this will remain a continual discipline, and even an area of discomfort, for years to come. Learning contentment and calibrating next-ness to a sustainable level will take time. But I don’t have to like it for it to be good.

It begins now, before the semester starts, after it ends, in the middle of it. It must be remembered when accolades arrive, or when criticisms crater around you. Your value as a person and as Christian endures when teaching is fun, and when it isn’t, when you’re published, and when you’re not.

Thanks for processing your PhD with me. It’s helped me think through the meaning of mine.

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Will Mari

Will Mari is a recent PhD graduate of the University of Washington’s Dept. of Communication. His areas of research include media history, the history of media technology, and journalism studies. He loves teaching at Northwest University in nearby Kirkland, Washington. Also, Jesus, Ruth, tea, and Hamilton in that order.

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