There are greater tragedies in the world than this, obviously; losing one’s laptop and parts of one’s dissertation are the worst thing that can happen to a graduate student, but I’ve been joking to people that being a graduate student is already one of the worst things that can happen to a person, so the glass is half-empty either way. There’s a certain amount of truth to that: this experience has forced me to think about ways I can interface with the world not through a computer screen, and that’s important; I’m going to make this experience into something healthy, a way to re-focus my intellectual energies. But it’s also kind of a bitter joke. Being a graduate student is much more stressful and anxious than people often realize. The psychic and physical toll you pay is significant there are those costs again!, and the end when you face the seemingly non-existent employment prospects can be rough. I tell people starting out that they should expect to fuck up their backs, to maybe need or go on some kind of anti-anxiety medication, and to spend their twenties intimately aware of the price of peanut butter. Your ability to be a graduate student for the next 7-10 years will be totally contingent on finding new strategies to keep yourself healthy.
One of my favorite blogger-commentator-mandolin playing-manic-superheroes is drastically re-focusing his life after getting his computer stolen in the midst of writing his dissertation. But his explanation for his hiatus gives an excellent picture of the sorts of scars and troubles that one can expect from “the life of the mind”—at least the part where the mind is in grad school. My strategy (if one can call it that) of late has been more or less resignation. There are lots of kinds of “work” in the world, and I’ve chosen a good path with its own unique challenges. Graduate school—and academia more generally—has changed me in many ways, and many of them not for the better. But it’s good work, I’m at least reasonably proficient at it, and anything else I could do would likely only carry a different set of scars and neuroses. There is a kind of existential tyranny that can be overcome by thinking about a “job” rather than a “career.”
Postscript: If you’ve appreciated Aaron’s writings, you can pitch in to buy him a new laptop.