In a scant few days, it will be a full year after the publication of “Thesis Hatement.” Most of academia is done thinking about it. Even I’m done thinking about it for most of the time. But I thought someone might be interested (by “someone” I mean “me in about 20 years”) in reading about its genesis, so this week I’ve been releasing a section a day from an essay I wrote about the experience. Here is the third installment (here are parts I and deux).

III: Schuman, All Too Schuman

Everyone finally figured out I was serious about not going back on the job market on the morning of my sister-in-law’s wedding, when Slate published the article, now called “Thesis Hatement: Getting a PhD Will Turn You Into an Emotional Trainwreck, Not A Professor.” For heart-puncturing purposes, I had channeled four years’ worth of pain and disillusionment into 1500 words, using the decorum of Karl Kraus, the reasoning of the late Nietzsche, and all the subtlety of Jeremias Gotthelf’s unintentionally hilarious novella The Black Spider (Die schwarze Spinne), in which an entire town gets a plague of devil-spiders upon it because one woman is too lazy to baptize her child. I also attempted to use the highly-obscure humor technique popular in Vienna about a hundred years ago: “double perspective,” wherein something is both patently satirical and shockingly true at the same time. The whole thing went over about how you’d expect, except with way more people reading it.

I read it over now, and although (as everyone feels about published work) I’d tweak every sentence in it, it doesn’t seem at all controversial to me. I honestly, to this day, do not understand what the big deal is. But the academic Internet very much disagreed. “Well, I know you,” explained one of the many “friends” who would soon distance themselves from me entirely, “so I can hear your voice when I read it. But it’s…possible that a lot of people think you’re being totally serious.”

That was, indeed, the case. I first checked on “Thesis Hatement” at about 6 a.m. Pacific when I awoke with my heart pounding in my face—and it already had nearly 1000 Facebook “shares” and 150 comments, most of which, it turns out, were very mean. “I can’t believe this woman would sign her name to such a bitter, entitled rant,” read the first one. “The life of the mind isn’t for everyone,” read the second, “and my guess is that this writer is simply not very good at what she does. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, write for Slate.”

By afternoon, those numbers had swollen to 20,000 and 1500, and “Thesis Hatement” was the number-one article in the entire magazine, where it would remain through the weekend with the new headline “PhDon’t.” I had spent the last four years ripping myself apart with desperation that some academic somewhere learn my name—and now it seemed like every single professor and grad student with a Facebook account was reading my heart-piercer, commenting on it, and forwarding it around.

Both of Kafka’s best-known works, The Trial and The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), begin with a hapless protagonist who wakes up one morning to a most unwelcome change: in The Trial, Josef K. gets arrested; in The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa’s been transformed into what loosely translates as a “ginormous bugety-boo” (I have no idea why no translations use that term, as it’s quite accurate). That morning, I felt like a combination of both of them: a “bitter” and “entitled” monster, and a defendant against the machinations of an entire Internet that suddenly knew all it needed to know about me.

There was also plenty of praise (that’s just easier to forget). I had completely forgotten Twitter existed, for example, but apparently I was being Tweeted about like crazy—including one by Ayelet Waldman, who proclaimed the article “beautifully-written fury for lit grads.” The emails from strangers came pouring in—mostly supportive, many sharing their own tales of academic heartbreak, a few just ranting about immigration. One new friend quipped that I was, for that day, suddenly “the most famous Germanist in the world.” Mission accomplished?

This was not how it was supposed to be, but the Internet is indeed forever. It seemed like my dumb-ass name was everywhere even slightly academia-related, connected to speculation after excoriation after smug dismissal, and I wanted to throw up and faint—but there was no time for that, because just like Josef K. has to go to work at the bank and pretend nothing has happened on the morning of his arrest, I had to help my sister-in-law celebrate the happiest goddamned day of her life. I had had delusions of fame and fortune as a kid. Now here were my fifteen minutes, and twelve of them were people talking about how horrible I was.

Want to learn more about how horrible I am? You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

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10 thoughts on “TAS of “Thesis Hatement” Vol. 3: Holy F*cking F*ck Oh F*ck

  1. Die Verwandlung really gets at what it feels like sometimes. For a few years you think that you, as a new Ph.D., carry the banner of your program’s reputation and are contributing to your discipline, but then you discover that everybody actually wishes you’d just disappear as quickly and quietly as possible so they can forget about your embarrassing failure. You think you’re holding a conversation with them, but they only hear the monstrous hissing of a creature that has no right to speak.

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  2. It is likely trite to say this… But people do not bother writing about things that do not affect them – either because they agree 175% or because (more often, since pissed off people since to like to write comments more than the agreers….) they fear that what you are saying is indeed the case. I will not spend more trite-ness suggesting that things turned out for the better for you, since, well, give me a break, going through hell is seldom ever enough to make up for anything – but we as a profession are the better for what you dared to write. You have shown that individual experience can be used to illuminate larger problems – but someone has to do the hard work of sharing an experience. Thank you. For then and for now and for later.

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  3. I’m an ABD grad student in the social sciences and I’ve been a reader of your blog and your work on Slate since “Thesis Hatement.” I’m going through a similar grieving process over giving up my academic career (fortunately without first having to suffer through multiple rounds on the job market) and transitioning into a new career, and these reflections have been really therapeutic for me–not to mention entertaining! So thank you for that.

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  4. “Die schwarze Spinne.” Oh my. I read that for a seminar over fifteen years ago and I had practically managed to forget about it. Now I’m going to have to open a bottle of wine.

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  5. I have to chime in as one of those people who read “Thesis Hatement” and adored every word of it. I had defended my dissertation in English Lit. 6 months before reading it, and could not articulate while, after finally accomplishing this thing, I felt like utter crap all the time. I’ve never gone on the market, just continued working as contract, non-TT faculty, and the frustration and desire for something more that permeated that essay really spoke to me.

    I immediately forwarded it to a friend and colleague who defended 6 months before I did, and she adored it too. We refer to it often when we are frustrated with our jobs and the culture of the university where we both work. And we are “survivors” of the process. Too many of our friends washed out completely–emotionally broken, divorced, and any number of other things, all in pursuit…of what? Emotional trainwreckage indeed.

    Thanks for the background–not to say I enjoy your misery, but I do enjoy your narration of it. I am sorry for all you had to go through, and appreciate your courage to talk about it for all of us.

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