Notes from Postdoctoral Purgatory: A Recent PhD Reports

In what follows, Tiffany Tsao, who received her PhD in English this past Spring, reports on her life as a postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Tech.  She begins with an epigraph from Dante which, she feels, encapsulates her experience so far.

…what I sing will be that second kingdom,

in which the human soul is cleansed of sin,

becoming worthy of ascent to Heaven.

(Purgatorio, Canto I.4-6)

Earlier this year, I passed out of life as a Berkeley graduate student.  At 11am in the morning, I plodded up the steps of Sproul Hall, clutching my two dissertation manuscripts to my chest, and sat in the hallway outside the Graduate Division office for half-an-hour, waiting to be called in.  Inside the office, I witnessed a brief inspection of my manuscript for correct formatting, and afterwards, was briskly congratulated for finishing my Ph.D.  Then I was turned out into the wide world, dazed and not quite sure what to do with myself for the rest of the day.

I did, however, know what I was going to do for the next academic year: my search for a tenure-track faculty position—the sweetish tart plums of the academic job market—had produced a handful of job interviews, a couple of campus-visits, and a nervous euphoria at having attracted any interest at all.  In the end, no tenure-track positions were offered, but I was fortunate enough to procure a position at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the Marion L. Brittain postdoctoral program specializing in digital pedagogy.  And that’s where I am even as I type these words: living in the city of Atlanta, teaching freshman writing classes three times a week, learning more about multimedia and teaching than I ever thought possible, and of course, gathering my strength to trot back to market in the near future.

If there are, according to Wallace Stevens, thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, there are at least two ways of looking at a postdoc.  You could view it as a sort of consolation-prize: someone else ate the plums in the ice-box, “delicious/so sweet/and so cold”, leaving a perfectly serviceable apple to tide you over in the meantime.  Or to take metaphors to a grander level, you could see your tenure as a postdoc as life in Purgatory: at least it’s not Hell, but it’s a temporary existence spent sighing, yearning, waiting, working towards the Heavens of tenure-track facultydom.

There’s a second way of looking at a postdoc—a perspective which more fully embraces the postdoctoral present, rather than resenting it as an impediment standing between the self and the glorious future.  To be honest, the transition from teaching seventeen students for three hours a week at Berkeley, to teaching a total of seventy-five students (albeit bright and eager, a pleasure to teach) for nine hours a week at Georgia Tech initially came as quite the shock to the system.  My own private research which I often considered groanworthy labour as a graduate student has now become a luxury in which I revel in and for which I purposefully set aside time.   In short, I was initially overwhelmed.  However, I’ve realized that working as a teaching postdoctoral fellow is merely a foretaste of further responsibilities which may come: balancing teaching and research, serving on departmental and even campus-wide committees—such is the life of an English academic.  And more often than not, the workload of a full-time faculty member will be even greater: more committee work, more classes to design and conduct (I currently teach three sections but only one class), more pressure to churn out original research and publications.  In many ways, my current position is training me in skills I really thought I had down pat: researching and writing in concentrated bursts; effectively engaging my students’ curiosity and equipping them with the tools to learn; savoring meaningful exchanges with my peers—all within the constraints of a reasonable work-day, if such a thing exists in academia.  And there’s a certain precarious joy in finding my balance.

In Canto 26 of Purgatorio, Dante meets a shade for whom suffering and joy comingle in the refining fire of Purgatory: “I am Arnaut, who, going, weep/and sing; with grief, I see my former folly; with joy, I see the hoped-for day draw near” (lines 142-144).  In a sense, the entirety of professional academic life is a purgatory.  And although we academics may disagree on whether the experience is about cleansing our “former follies”, I think we can agree that our profession causes us to both weep and sing, to groan and grin.  Of course, whether one can find satisfaction in such a conflicted professional existence is a matter each aspiring academic must carefully consider for him or herself.