Protecting My Energy
By Bennie Niles
This past academic year, the third year of my PhD program, was probably one of the toughest years of my life. Yeah, the work was challenging. I had to pass my qualifying exams, and then pass my dissertation proposal defense to move on to the next step: writing my dissertation. But that’s not even what I mean when I say that the year was “tough.” That’s just a shorter way of saying “the year was traumatic and mentally taxing as fuck.”
Between one of my friends dropping out of grad school entirely, my ongoing battles with anxiety, and the hypercompetitive environment at my institution, I knew that I wasn’t going to finish my program if I remained in Chicago. So I booked a one-way flight home to Florida. Before I left, some of my colleagues warned me about the “dangers” of being home while working on your dissertation. “You won’t get any work done!” “Make sure that you’re reading and writing!” “What about your intellectual community?!”
The way I saw it, my options were either stay in a toxic situation, lose myself, and possibly drop out, or get loved on by family, heal, and maybe lose a little bit productivity. The decision was easy. Having those conversations, and receiving all kinds of unsolicited advice, also made it painfully clear to me that I needed to be around people who cared about me, the person, not me, the scholar. What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that being home would force me to also reevaluate my career opportunities.
As soon as the spring quarter ended, I left. I arrived at Tampa International Airport with a backpack hugging my shoulders and a duffel bag in hand. And as soon as I walked outside, and saw my mom’s smile, I knew that I made the right decision.
I found myself adjusting to a lot over the next few months. My new normal was now mixed with the old. I woke up early, working on my dissertation and driving my little brother to school. I stayed up late, reading scholarly texts and lounging around in my childhood room. Yeah, I lacked a little privacy a times. But I no longer had to worry about paying “privacy” rent, so it was all good! And honestly, it was just good to finally be around good energy and people who didn’t ask me about my research interests as a way of initiating conversation.
During this time, I also spent a lot of time reflecting on my grad school journey. In thinking about my first few years, I realized that there was an inverse relationship between my scholarly productivity and my mental health. In other words, the years when I won a bunch of grants and presented at a bunch of conferences were also the years when I was at my lowest spiritually and psychologically. Was it because I was forcing myself to do, and become, something that I really didn’t want to? I’m still not quite sure what to do with this epiphany. But I do remember that, on that day, I made a promise to myself. I would no longer present at conferences and no longer apply for grants and fellowships. My only focus would be my dissertation research.
This shift in my focus forced me to see myself beyond the professoriate, and critically imagine what it would mean live the remainder of my grad school life on my own terms. What would it mean to no longer stress myself out about academic publishing because I didn’t have a “sufficient” record for the job market? What would it mean to no longer care about “lacking oral dexterity” (a phrase that a professor used to describe me) when discussing complex, jargonistic scholarship with my peers? At the time, I had no clue. But I owed it to myself to find out.
I spent the next few weeks visiting the beach, being with family, and learning about how I could use the skills that I gained from my PhD in other career fields. I scheduled informal interviews with professionals in real estate, management consulting, and law. And I met with career advisors at my school. I was committed to figuring out my next steps, and finding a path that nurtured my passion.
Honestly, I’m still figuring everything out. But today, I’m in a mental space where I could care less about competing with my colleagues for academic resources, or burning myself out to become something that I’m not. Returning home was the first step in healing and returning to myself, the step that I needed to take in order to begin protecting my energy.
About the Author
Bennie Niles, IV is a PhD Candidate in the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern University, and the founder of Just Tryna’ Graduate—a digital community dedicated to helping Black students get to and through grad school.