GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Publishing Through the Pain: Personal Trauma and the Ph.D.

In Gwendolyn's Posts on 2012/04/14 at 23:04

Gwendolyn Beetham, writing from Brooklyn, New York in the US.

‘You really should publish something from your Ph.D.’ The refrain is one with which all doctoral students are well-aware. In the past year, I’ve heard the words often: from mentors, my Ph.D. supervisor, colleagues, friends, even mentees. What they don’t know is that even looking across the room at the thick, bound copy of my Ph.D. fills me with dread. To go back to my Ph.D. is to return to a very painful period in my life.

While the completion of a Ph.D. brings relief, even excitement, to many, for me it is a marker of deep personal trauma. At the beginning of last year, a month from my Ph.D. submission date, my partner with whom I thought I would spend my life told me that she wanted to end our relationship. The decision was one-sided and unexpected, and it left me in shock. Over the next month we spent an hour a week in couple’s therapy and the rest of my time was spent desperately trying to focus long enough to revise my final chapters and write my conclusion.  One week after I submitted, my partner officially decided to leave the relationship.

Instead of excitement and sense of accomplishment at the completion of my Ph.D., I felt ashamed of my tenacity – how could I possibly have finished this piece of work while the future that I had imagined was crumbling around me? Although friends, colleagues, and my supervisor continually proclaimed their admiration that I was able to complete my Ph.D. and pass my defense under such conditions, I couldn’t reconcile this ‘success’ with the ‘failure’ of my relationship. The combination of the timing of the separation and the fact that my partner, also a doctoral student, had been perpetually stalled with her Ph.D., bolstered the feeling that I was being penalized. The quality that I had previously valued in myself – my ambitious work ethic (a quality which makes the completion of a Ph.D. possible, as articulated in this recent University of Venus article ) – was something which I now felt to be a source of pain. Since then, any attempt at going back to my Ph.D. has taken me back to those emotions; at first even thinking about the Ph.D. brought traumatic flash-backs.

It’s not that I haven’t published anything in the past year – in fact, I’ve kept busy writing book reviews, chapters for books, and articles for blogs; though none have been directly related to my Ph.D. topic.  I’ve removed myself far away from the PhD in other ways, completing a yoga teacher’s training course, traveling, taking a lesbian history class for fun. Yoga, particularly the core concept of simultaneously experiencing strength and softness, has been especially useful to my healing process.

While talking through this trauma and its ramifications with my therapist (I’m a New Yorker after all!), she proposed that I take my first stab at publishing work from my Ph.D. by writing through the pain that surrounded its completion. She suggested that the relationship between what is happening in our lives and our work is more complex than many academics might admit. Like one of my mentors, she also mentioned that separations during particularly poignant times in our lives – not only Ph.D. completion, but after one partner achieves tenure, a family member dies, or terminal illness – are not uncommon; if this was true, perhaps my story would resonate with others’ experiences.

Writing about my resistance to publish has helped me to remember a few things – including why I started working on a Ph.D. in the first place. As a feminist activist and scholar, I’ve always valued the connection between academia and the ‘real world,’ and I never wanted my work to be stuck in an ivory tower; I do think that I managed to make some potentially useful insights! While I don’t think that I will ever look back on the completion of my Ph.D. with a sense of happy accomplishment, I do know that, eventually, I will publish. In the meantime I’ll continue to heal, write, and, of course, practice yoga.

Gwendolyn Beetham received her Ph.D. from the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics. She lives in Brooklyn, where she does freelance work for gender justice organizations, edits the column, The Academic Feminist, at Feministing.com, and participates in feminist, queer, and food justice activism. Contact her at gbeetham@gmail.com or on twitter @gwendolynb.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

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