Yesterday, a professor from my department retired. He is an eminent scholar in the field of cultural studies. There was a zoom meeting to celebrate his career over the years. Several experienced professors, intellectuals, ex-PhD students and academicians attended the meeting. I wasn’t prepared for the sense of doom that rushed through my body at the site of all these successful scholars. I felt tiny and insignificant among them. I felt hopeless and anxious that I’m never going to match up.
To make matters worse, a group of his students had made a website to honour all his work over the years. In it were all the papers, lectures and books he had published. I felt a sickening sense of uselessness along with a rushing anxiety of not having done anything with my life so far. The anxiety also made me question if I will ever be able to become someone like that.
Fortunately, I’m not new to this feeling. I’ve always felt like a trickster among my academic peers.I felt like I hadn’t done anything worthy to be one among other researchers. I was waiting for the day I would be exposed, humiliated and kicked out of academia. This is a feeling I am very well used to, so it didn’t take me by surprise when I felt it during the farewell meeting.
However, this time the feeling didn’t linger. I paid close attention to the professor’s speech. He joined the university almost two decades ago. Before that he was a professor is several different departments that weren’t really related to his current field. He slowly developed his academic career and became part of the cultural studies department – something that wasn’t very popular in his days. The rest is history.
This got me thinking. “Why am I comparing myself to a man whose teaching career itself exceeds the entire time I’ve spent on earth?” “I’m just 24, why do I feel like my life is going to end tomorrow, fruitlessly?” and more importantly, “What is making me want to conform to all these standards?” These questions helped me reassess my reasons for being in academia. It made me get connected to that inner self that that wanted to be here, not to publish papers or do presentations, but to experience the sheer joy of learning. Also didn’t the the professor himself say that when he started, his area wasn’t popular? How could a human commit to something that he wasn’t sure would turn out successful? What was it that makes one stick to one’s endeavours? Then it hit me. It was passion and blind faith.
As a PhD student, I see a forked path in front of me. One road leads to absolute success. I simply need to read, write and immerse myself in the intellectual culture that has already been established. This road scares me because I feel like I’m never going to match up. I might spend several years on this road and still not feel like I’ve made up for all the things I lack. The second road is a dark, long one that I cannot make out where it leads to. All that I can feel is that it is new. I’m confused