What Are You Waiting For?

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

Cat with glasses.

As a dedicated grad student advisor, I get multiple occasions to reflect back on my own graduate school adventure and wonder how it might have all been different. For example, what would have happened if programs like Story+ and Bass Connections had existed for grad students at my university? What organization might I have worked for, if I’d had access to internship funding as a grad student? Who would I have networked with, if I’d known what networking was and why I should be doing it?

While more opportunities and resources would have been amazing, I have few actual regrets about how I did grad school.

With one possible exception. I wish I’d had a cat.

This is not actually a post about cats (so read on, dog people), or even an excuse to post a photo of the cat I have now (taken on the day my daughter fit her with a pair of American Girl doll glasses).

This not even to encourage more grad students to have cats. Lots of you have cats, and dogs (not to mention kids). The cat, in this case, merely represents the thing I told myself I couldn’t have until I finished my PhD. And looking back, I should have had one. Especially towards the end, while I dwelt in the tiny, suffocating world of Me and My Dissertation, having a small creature to care for would have helped me maintain a healthier perspective and take myself less seriously. Perhaps, like the 18th-century poet Christopher Smart, who—while residing at St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics–had only his cat Jeoffry for companionship, I would have found both comfort and writerly inspiration at once.

What, if anything, are you putting off for later, when you’ve got your degree in hand? Likely, there are things on that list that, for one reason or another, would be difficult to do now. That might include things that require relocating, things that require a bigger income (!), and, perhaps most significantly, things that won’t interfere with timely progress towards your degree.

Of all the reasons grad students share for not doing things that might be beneficial or enjoyable (whether personally or professionally), I most often hear #3 (aka, “I don’t have time”). And this is understandable. The enormous pressures grad students face to produce complex projects on tight deadlines can engender a ruthless calculus, where everything not directly tied to advancing one’s immediate goals gets shelved for “later.”

A related chain of questionable propositions feeds this ascetic tendency:

  • The sole business of the doctoral student is to get a PhD.
  • Getting a PhD is supposed to be grueling.
  • Getting a PhD shouldn’t feel pleasant or easy. (If it does, one is probably doing it wrong, and will not be employable.)

Without discounting the many limits on grad students’ time, energy, and resources, however, my instinct is to push back on quick rationalizations for not doing things. The tendency to put off smaller goals until a larger one is reached is not, after all, unique to grad students. People might also decide to put things off until, for example, they get that next promotion, find a romantic partner, or hit that milestone birthday. It happens all the time.

Often, there are good, practical reasons for putting things off. To return to my cat story, I might have decided that I could not risk losing my no-pet lease, that cat food and vet visits were beyond my shoestring budget, or that a pet would not be happy with my frequent travel schedule.

The critical thing, however, is to recognize when you’re being practical, and when you’re simply procrastinating. Although all of the aforementioned constraints applied to me in grad school, my refusal to get a cat (as I now realize) had more to do with the three “questionable propositions” of graduate training. On some level, I think I superstitiously believed that letting a cat into my life (“losing focus”) would be tantamount to renouncing the perfect academic career I was working so hard to establish.

The thing is, after I got a PhD I still didn’t get a cat. I decided to get one after finishing my postdoc. Then it was to be after I landed a tenure-track job. Then I decided to wait until I owned my own place.

And I never even decided to get my first cat. Six years after I finished my PhD, an emaciated-looking calico (not the cat in the photo) wandered onto my front porch and made its home in an empty flowerpot. A neighbor left voice messages on my phone, imploring me adopt it. I had no choice in the matter.

At this point you may be wondering, “Why was this woman so afraid of cats?” Because putting off the cat decision allowed me to avoid challenging the underlying false assumptions about my life as a grad student and young academic. I think things may have turned out differently, if I’d substituted the following propositions:

  • Being a graduate student is just one role to inhabit (of many).
  • Getting a PhD is challenging, but shouldn’t make one miserable.
  • Rest, enjoyment, and self-care contribute to (and don’t compete with) timely progress towards the degree.

So to return to my earlier question, What are you putting off until you finish your PhD? Is there anything on that list conducive to either your professional development or (most critically) your well-being that you could plausibly do now? If so, what’s really holding you back? And what needs to be addressed before you can move forward?