Nerves: or, why I fail so hard at competitive academics
February 27, 2011 § 9 Comments
Even though I can carry a tune, I was never the girl who fought hard for the solo in elementary school chorus.
Even though I know I could have tuned the rest of the orchestra with my awesome “A,” I never challenged another violinist for the prime spot in first chair.
Even though my grades had always supported my claim that I can write, I never voluntarily entered into an essay contest.
Even though I loved dancing and practiced at all hours, I never auditioned for better stage placement.
I am not competitive. I never played competitive sports. I never earned any accolades that come from nominating myself. I never luxuriated in the thrill of being called “the best.”
In fact, all achievement certificates I earned found their places buried deep in my school folders, forgotten almost immediately and rarely mentioned to my parents (who would have been so proud). No blue ribbons or gold medals from mandatory orchestral all-state competitions decorated my walls. No plaques declaring me the absolute best literature student in college hung above my desk. Oh yes, I had these things. I still have them…somewhere. I’ve always shied away from pride and boasting, even when it’s actually just celebrating. My own birthday actually brushes against my comfort boundary for self-celebration (much to Robert’s eternal chagrin). The only reason my Master’s degree adorns my home office wall is because Robert encouraged me to hang it there…and because my granddaddy framed it. If those two points of fact had not been true, I would have been happy enough to leave it rolled up somewhere in a tube. My Bachelor’s degree, although framed, is not hanging–it still waits for its moment of glory in the framer’s box, stuffed behind my dresser at my parents’ home.
Why am I so wary of competition and even more weary of celebrating my victories?
Because they seem wasteful and petty.
I don’t relish another person’s loss or failure. In fact, when a classmate of mine recently challenged me in regards to our dissertation completion dates, boasting that she would finish in four years and not in the five and a half that I took, I could merely smile at her and wish her well. I felt sorry for her. I wanted to say to her, “How sad that you think your academic progress has anything to do at all with my academic progress. I will forget about you in a couple of years, and your cruelty will mean absolutely nothing to me.” How is her progress going these days? I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to her in at least a year, and I frankly don’t care about her progress. Her progress or lack of progress has nothing to do with me or my progress.
But now…now all of a sudden, I’m meant to care about everyone else’s progress. Because there’s a substantial fellowship up for grabs now. Being awarded this fellowship means competing against my colleagues (and even my best dissertation writing buddy, V! Sob! But…really…if she gets it, I will be super-duper thrilled because she totally deserves it!). Receiving the fellowship also means the freedom to write, write, write absolutely uninterrupted for the entire summer semester–no teaching!! Recipients of the fellowship are funded so that tuition is not painful, so that they do not miss paying bills because they are not teaching.
I am going to apply for this fellowship more out of necessity than the desire for prestige.
This could very well be my final semester teaching because my department may choose not to offer me a teaching assistantship for the summer semester. Typically, our department funds doctoral candidates through their fifth year. Summer will mark my fifth year and a half. My department may choose not to fund me, but I will still require one last credit hour to be considered a student in order to graduate in summer–and the tuition is not cheap.
If I don’t get the teaching assistantship, it will be okay. If I don’t get the fellowship, it will hurt…but it will be okay. It will be okay because my husband is taking on so many extra courses this summer, and we will miraculously make it. (Well, no…not miraculously. We will make it because Robert is a hard-worker and an excellent provider.)
But despite knowing that we will be okay, I still want the fellowship. And my nerves hit me square in the gut when, on Friday morning, I received an e-mail from our graduate studies coordinator who sent the message along to all advanced PhD students (from my best calculations, people who are at least in their fourth year) and announced the details for applying. I was nervous when I saw the sheer number of names on that e-mail. I felt sick to my stomach when I read the requirements for qualifying. I need a letter of support from my dissertation director. I need to be able to show that I am making progress on the dissertation. I need to be able to say that I will defend and graduate within the term of receiving the fellowship.
I believe in my plan. I believe I will defend and graduate in the summer.
My fear, the only thing that would actually deter me from applying in the first place, centers entirely on the one reality: because I have never cared a whit about my colleagues’ academic progress, I don’t know where my competition is. I don’t know my likelihood for receiving the fellowship. V came up with some really good, educated guesses, and I do feel better now about our chances than I had felt initially. But, despite all of V’s wonderful uplifting words, my nerves still grip my heart…and my stomach.
In what might be my last moment in academia, I face near-mandatory competition. I wonder if I have it in me.