For a website named "AcademicsOnly.org," this is the least ostensibly academic post you might see.
I once saw a photo of a 35-year old man defiantly showing a tattoo on his big upper arm that read "9-11-2002 -- Never Forget." Right date; wrong year. But I don't think anyone was going to tell him that.
Today's the 20th Anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the American World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This was a defining moment for many Americans, as in "Where were you when you heard about World Trade Center being attacked?" Since it was so defining, it's curious why its 20th Anniversary seems to be slipping by so quietly.
One exception of this that's most vivid to me came in the form of a poem that a friend wrote a couple weeks ago and sent to me. It was written by Michael Antunes who is the Top 40 rock saxophonist (On the Dark Side, Tender Years) and actor (Eddie and the Cruisers). Michael said I could share it.
There are a lot of themes associated with 9-11: Heroism, innocent lives lost, reversals of fortune, resilience, and so on. There's a lot to memorialize, a lot to remember, and a lot to celebrate.
While I wish I saw more unified or institutional efforts to do so, it's also important that we take the individual initiative -- like Michael did -- to memorialize, remember, or celebrate in a way that is personally meaningful to us and to those we share it with.
Thinking back to the "Never Forget" 9-11 tattoo that had the wrong year on it, I'm no longer convinced that our deliberate, individual efforts at memorizing, remembering, or celebrating have to be on the right day or even have to have the exact year right. What's most important is that we do it in a way that's meaningful and memorable to us.
If you’re a PhD student, you are in great company. But "being in great company" has a very special meaning that's important not to overlook -- it means you are not alone. Your bumpy PhD experience is surprisingly universal across different schools and different programs. If you’re a PhD student in microbiology, you have more in common with a PhD student in history than someone in medical school. If you’re a PhD student in economics, you have more in common with a PhD student in physics than with an MBA student.
Despite this universal experience, many, many PhD students feel very alone. They feel anxious about their uncertain future, anxious about their abilities, and anxious about a personal life that seems to be passing them by.
Having been an informal confident to many PhD students in different majors or with different advisors, I’ve found that many of their real concerns are difficult for them to talk about. This further magnifies their feeling of isolation because they don’t realize how many other people have faced and often conquered a similar problem. There’s power in knowing someone else found a path out of the same woods you feel you’re in.
For about 20 years I taught an interdisciplinary PhD course at the University of Illinois and then at Cornell. Aside from the academic objectives, one of my personal objectives of this course was to help students begin to conquer these anxieties. One way we tried to tackle this was by asking students if they wanted to volunteer to write a short description about a “friend” who was facing a troubling problem. Many weeks we would discuss one of these anonymously written “case studies” for 10-15 minutes during class.
Two good things happened almost every week. First, the 8-16 students in the class all realized that they weren’t alone in some of the problems they faced. Second, they heard a wide range of rational (non-emotional) solutions and perspectives to each problem they probably wouldn’t have heard from an officemate or a partner.
There are three examples of PhD Student Case Studies in the downloadable pdf, and they can be used in a number of different ways.
There’s power in knowing there are a lot of different ways a PhD student can get out of the woods.
PhD Student Case Studies
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