Sunday, January 29, 2012

What's ice-skating gotta do with grad school?

I've often referred to the metaphor of competitive ice-skating to describe the PhD journey. Michelle Kwan was mentioned in my PhD personal statement.
"Michelle Kwan, one of my favorite figure-skating athletes, has always said that "Life is not a triple lutz." She was a world-class competitor, but even when competing, she knew it was temporary, and not her final destination. Skating to her was about the journey, not the destination, hence her ability to forgo the pursuit of the Olympic gold medal that eluded her. Doctoral studies, like world-class figure skating with its punishing training, can become a daily grind of coursework, writing, conference presentations, and everything these entail."
Watching the  Prudential US Figure Skating Men's Final on TV today affirmed the aptness of this metaphor. Skaters were falling all over the place. A junior skater who just moved up the senior rank ruined his program with persistent splats, whatever choreography there was to the program, I couldn't make out. True, I didn't watch the entire competition. I was preoccupied with testing a new "oat-soy-wheat-flour" muffin recipe. Walking by, this flashed on the TV screen in a little box while the rambling went on:

"Stay vertical. Finish everything. Own it."

That's it! As Scott Hamilton (an Olympian) and the female commentator discussed these elements and how Jeremy Abbott and Adam Rippon (skaters) were battling personal demons, my mind clicked. I saw so clearly the connection to graduate school. I laughed and turned to my husband, "I need to skate again."

I love ice-skating. It's truly inspiring. But isolated in your writing and/or studying bubble, all you may  perceive is ugliness and frustration with all that intensity in the academy. What you need to do is get out and nourish your soul. Find something beautiful you can do to help banish those ugly thoughts. Here's what watching an ice-skating show taught me:

1. Stay vertical. Falls, stumbles, and bruises will happen, often, surely. When they show up, worrying won't help pay the bills or finish that article you hope will get published somewhere. Resolution will come somehow, even though they may not come in the way you expect.  When you are left in a heap, what will you do? Sanity in his comfort zone screams, "Run away."  The Dreamer whispers, "Stand up and get moving one more time." Muster strength and courage to stand up and spin around the arena, again.

At every stage of the PhD journey, I had to learn a lot of things, about people, resources, and cultures. Who can you turn to while still staying true to your values? Where can you  find the resources to implement the study? Does this faculty member collaborate with that one? Don't forget the hangers-on. We have those too, not just celebrities. They want a piece of you: your aura, your skills or status; an "emerging scholar" can pull some weight too.

Getting a PhD is about learning to do and manage many things, while simultaneously playing many other roles in your life. At an older age, many subsystems in life can work against you -- there are demands from the professional, the personal, and the physical facets. Add to the mix, the mental and the emotional challenges that come with doing a PhD program. A potent concoction for someone to implode. Manage all these subsystems dynamically. Some days, it takes all that little bit left to email to prospective participants or to make a trip to the library to get books. Do it anyway.

2. Finish everything. Unlike Michelle Kwan, when you embark on a PhD, you want to finish it. The journey is precious but you don't want to use all that lifeblood for nothing. For many young PhD students, they spend the prime 5 to 7 years of their life working hard for that final goal. For nontraditional students, the time we spend away from our family gnaws at our spirit. All the more you want to finish the journey as expeditiously as you can. If you've reached that point where maybe doing a PhD is just not necessary for a career, finish up the coursework, take the exams, and get a Certificate of Advanced Study if you can. Don't.waste.your.time.

3. Own it. This might come across as  the hardest to apply. I've been asked by several junior students how to arrive at a dissertation topic. Is it possible to have ownership if you are working on a senior scholar's research project? Yes, from my personal experience. We remain ourselves; over the years, forging our unique identity over the events of life. I'm obviously writing as a social science student who is encouraged to have her own voice. Our identity will shine through our doings and our writing, if you allow yourself to surface -- through the PhD trials. Stamp your writing with your uniqueness. Michelle Kwan has her unique spiral; what is yours?

As you get ready for prime-time performance, your ownership of your writing will give you confidence and grow an audience. Are you ready for some performance sport to feed your spirit?

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