Sort of. A testimonial, if you will. In the past I’ve run a couple of confessionals, both fairly innocuous and almost not terribly serious. This one, however, actually had a fairly profound negative impact on my life. Note that I am penning this, not out of an Oprah-esque need for attention, but because I think it might help those out there either considering grad school (in archaeology or anything else) or already in it. . . .or even just out of it.
First off, please go read my Amazon review of Neail Peart’s book Ghost Rider (drummer and lyricist for Rush) for something of a background and then come back and continue below the fold, if you wish.
The upshot is that for the last ten years or so I’ve been in something of a huge rut and am just now (hopefully) coming out of it. By “rut” I mean probably something resembling depression, although I’m certainly not going to call it that for a number of reasons. Basically it amounted to feeling very self-conscious, having diddly self-confidence, and being really quite scared to death of doing anything new or different. Considering I was the guy who, in 1985, packed up an old Buick and moved out to Seattle from the midwest without a job or a place to stay or knowing a soul all to attend grad school — that’s a bit of a come-down. I spent a lot of nights lying awake beating myself over every stupid little thing I’d done wrong or thought I’d done wrong or whatever. Even going back to grade school! “OMG, I forgot to water the plants today, I am the worst person in the world!”
That’s part of the reason I went job-hopping (within public health) for the last few years. Felt uncomfortable where I was working, very. . . .timid. Quiet. Etc. I mean, I wasn’t a screwup or anything (I actually did some fine work) but. . .I dunno, I didn’t like it. Finally, the grants ran out and I became unemployed a couple of years ago. That was probably the low point, although in a sense I’d hit bottom mentally some time before that and had started, slowly, to turn my head around. But it was still tough.
Now, I’ve gone around and around on what the source of all this was. Perhaps it was just age-related (I’m 50 now), or that I lost my dad in 2005 (but it had started well before that). Or that this was yer typical mid-life crisis. Lately, however, I’ve come to think it was a result of, well, finally getting my Ph.D. It did start to go downhill shortly after 2001 when I finished; I remember going to Egypt in 2003 and being utterly terrified to go, even though I’d been several times and it really wasn’t that big of a deal (although, due to unusual circumstances I’d been thrust into the role of field director). So it all really began shortly after getting that degree I’d been working at so long.
Part of it may have been that I continued working in a non-archaeology field, public health. I’d gotten into that area by accident when I needed to support myself through grad school, and always thought of it more as “a job” rather than a career. So there was that. But looking back what I was going through seemed more like precisely what I’d been like as a kid in school. In grade school, I sucked. Really. Lousy student, didn’t want to be there, etc. Then at some point around early high school I decided I wanted to go to college at UW-Madison and then I did spectacularly well in school. Same thing happened as an undergrad: fouled up until I decided I wanted to go to grad school and then did very well. And again, in grad school I kind of flalloped around until I decided on a dissertation topic and then I did fabulously well — my dissertation didn’t even get modified on the initial submission. And I truly enjoyed those times when I was doing well, I look back on those times with that sort of hazy fondness we get for certain times in our lives.
What I believe happened to me is that, after finally getting that Ph.D., I had nothing to work for. Didn’t know what to do with myself. I had no Big Goal to work toward. Think about it: from the time I was 5 years old until I was 40 I was, at least nominally most of the time, in school working at some sort of degree or other and then all of a sudden. . . . .nothing. Admittedly, “being in school” for those last ten years was something of a misnomer as I rarely even set foot on campus (except to work out at the gym facility) and was working full time. But I still had the goal of getting a degree to work for.
I have wondered if it’s not been akin to empty nest syndrome. It seems similar: You work for 18-25 or so years to raise your children and then all of a sudden they’re grown and gone. Not having had any offspring, I don’t know how that works.
As it relates to the whole grad school thing, well, treat it as a cautionary tale. I don’t regret at all having gotten it — I love having those letters after my name and being able to call myself “Dr.” — but, well, be warned that there is life after grad school. Some have argued that grad school can be an escape from reality for some, a reason to not “grow up” and stay in the warm confines of school. Eh, maybe. Remember though, I was out working a regular job for most of that time so I’m not sure that applies to my case. But I think it’s vitally important to think about what you’re going to do afterwards, once that Big Goal is gone. For many, it’s easy: they want to and planned on going on to an academic career, with the Big Goal of being a professor. I didn’t really want that after seeing how my department operated and academia generally.
How’d I pull myself out of it? Mainly I finally realized that I was in a rut and that it was in my own head. At some point I realized that what I had become wasn’t at all what I had been like. I could get myself out of it and go back to my old self (with some significant changes, of course). Partly, I went back and used “regression therapy” (my term) and immersed myself in many of the things I liked when I was younger (and wasn’t all fouled up): the old music, stereo junk, etc. I know a lot of people in the typical “mid-life crisis” go off and try to relive their childhood or whatever, but I was quite conscious of what I was doing and why. Happily, I already had an old (and very fast) car, and didn’t feel the need to dump the ArchaeoWife and snag a little trophy girlfriend or two (ha, like that was gonna happen anyway). But it helped immensely.
I have to say, doing CRM work has been incredibly helpful. It made me get out and do new things and different things, certainly very different from riding a bus every morning to the same cubicle doing the same work every day. My first construction monitoring job scared me half to death — but I did it and enjoyed it. And all of the work has been, if not particularly enjoyable all the time, very, VERY good for the soul.
I also realized I needed a new more long-term Big Goal. That’s been a bit tougher. I’ve sort of worked out a soft, fuzzy one of — now this is going to sound very corny, I admit — really serving others. I found that most people I respect are always very considerate of others and doing things for others rather selflessly, so I’m working on that. Otherwise. . . .still up in the air. I do know, however, that boring regularity in daily life is an absolute killer. Whatever I end up pursuing — no doubt some form of CRM or back to public health — will involve doing a lot of different things, not just sitting in front of a computer whacking at data and code. Public health or archaeology, I will be involved in researching both in one form or another.