Dispatches from Graduate School–Part 21

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University and 2007 graduate of the Messiah College History Department.  For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF
I had my first official PhD meltdown on Thursday night. My family requested to take Quinn and I out for dinner on Thursday night. We settled on The Mission, a Latin restaurant situated in the bustle of Old Town Scottsdale, and within walking distance from our condo. My parents and brother were seated when we arrived, so Quinn and I took the empty seats across the table. I was about to dig a hot corn chip into the made-to-order guacamole when my brother nudged his head to his left, my right. Barry Zito and five friends were seated directly next to our table. The tables were positioned rather close, so it felt a little like we were actually sitting with their party. So basically, I had dinner with a Cy Young Award-winning Major League Baseball pitcher. Kind of. Anyway, on to the meltdown.
We finished our meals as we discussed our upcoming family cruise to the eastern Caribbean—what to pack, what not to pack, etc. The waitress brought the check to our table and my mom, in typically fashion, proceeded to leave a 30% tip—roughly $40. Then I thought to myself, Barry Zito will likely leave an equally, if not more, generous tip for our energetic, cute waitress.  Then I started to do a little math. We were two of her three or four tables. And we were a 7:00 reservation. So if you figure she does about 3 tables per 2 hours in three successive waves making on average $50/hour, she walks with at least $300 at the end of the night. I make a little more than $300 in a week. One full week. 7 days. She makes $300 in six hours.
All of this went through my head in a matter of moments, and I interrupted whatever conversation was going on with my rather upsetting epiphany. This lament led to another, and to another, and to another, until tears were streaming down my cheeks. I felt a little embarrassed that this was happening in front of a major league baseball player, but then I remembered that Zito and I both have reason to cry—he might not make the rotation this year. That offered consolation for but a minute before I started on a rambling list of the difficulties of graduate school.
We closed our bill and walked outside to avoid further embarrassment for my younger brother. My mom gave me a kiss, told me I was her hero, and we parted ways. As soon as I got home I opened Indeed.com in my web browser and searched for jobs. Even after six years of college education under my belt, there is little for which I am qualified. That led to further depression and to a lengthy yellow notepad cost-benefit analysis. It makes no sense and isn’t the least bit helpful to try and conduct a cost-benefit analysis for a PhD program, because frankly, time, money, and security cannot and should not be factors in pursuing such a path. That’s not what this is about.
On Friday I had lunch with one of my classmates (who has become a dear friend). I shared with her my meltdown experience and she lauded me for making it this far before my first lapse into weepiness and irrational thoughts. I told her that it had happened before, but only in my mind and never led to an actual public hullabaloo. We decided that because we’re at a Research 1 university, we have few examples of what a balanced academic life might look like. The faculty are largely single, or on multiple marriages, and have moved from place to place to place, all consequences of climbing their way up the ivory tower. Feeling as if I had to conform to that image (and the realization that I will subsist on rice and beans for many years to come) caused me a great amount of distress (e.g., crying like a baby in front of Barry Zito).
Neither my classmate nor I aspire to such a lifestyle, but when that is modeled for us, it’s hard to imagine anything different. So we resolved to not live that life, to always seek to find balance, and to think about what is best for our families before we think about what is best for our careers. I doubt that Thursday night’s meltdown will be my last. But hopefully each time I will gain a new perspective on this journey.
My takeaway(s) this time around: 1. It’s not about the money. I’m doing this because I love to learn and I want to share that passion with others. 2. I need to forge my own way.  I cannot always look to others to define my experience—this is not a value judgment, just a realization that my life doesn’t need to look like anyone’s but mine own. I’m sure there will be many more lessons acquired. I just hope that next time I grapple with them in the privacy of my own home!

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