Dealing w/ being an Average Jane engaged to a brilliant genius?
October 2, 2015 4:54 PM   Subscribe

So I screwed up undergrad, pretty much eliminating the possibility of an academic career for myself, and got engaged to a guy who is in the most academic of careers. I'm envious and embarrassed about my lack of career path compared to his glittering academic future, and my current job is really not long-term sustainable. Hopeless, miserable, and alternating between feeling bitterly envious and then tortured by guilt for being such an unfair jerk, I'm being a bad partner, and I really don't know how to navigate all this.

This isn't the first time I've vomited into the ether-void about my career woes, but I'm feeling increasingly despairing about my options and future. Sorry this is so hideously long, but I have exactly 0 friends and also exactly 1 useless therapist so I'm going pretty insane looping through this stuff over and over on my own. I'm sorry this ventures so far into sob-story or snowflakey territory; if I'm breaking any rules, please let me know!

I had a full ride (my parents live in poverty) to a "pretty good" school for undergrad where I majored in philosophy. The first few years of undergrad were bad, just totally squandered. I was, unbeknownst to me at the time, dealing with an extremely serious illness that killed me slowly at first, but started snowballing spring of my sophomore year. Like, actually dying. I put way too much of what little energy I had into my then-new relationship. Senior year was a grueling recovery process but I refused to take a year off. Currently in remission.

Because of all this, my grades my first two years were awful, but not uniformly. I had As mostly in philosophy and my highest-level classes, but one failed class and a handful of Cs in gen-ed requirement classes I didn't put enough effort into.
Junior and senior year my grades were paradoxically better as my health spiraled out of control, but still pretty bad—Dean's List but not enough to save me. About a 3.6 for those two years, I think, with my final cumulative gpa being a fucking 3.0 because of that bloody failed class freshman year, etc. Yuck. Every time I think about this I want to tear my eyes out.

I graduated in 2013 and all I want is to be learning full-time again and to have concrete academic goals, instead of aimlessly picking at things in my free time. My fiance is getting his PhD at one of the most prestigious universities in the world (not in philosophy but a related field) and being in that environment with him all the time makes this situation 1000x more crushing. It's also majorly disillusioned me in regards to my own intelligence/uh lack thereof: I could never do or produce the kinds of things he does. The guy speaks like 15 languages and is constantly, constantly generating genius ideas. I've never had an idea in my life.

The upside of dealing with my bodily vessel betraying me was that I learned a lot about human physiology, spent/spend lots of time reading medical journals and compiling research, and have a few things to say, maybe???, on philosophy of medicine, cultural models of health, medical/health ontology, etc. Maybe not. I would love to do something more formal with this, but am completely at a loss about what to actually do and really don't have the intellectual gifts or talent to be able to do whatever it is properly.

Currently, I tutor rich kids in English/grammar, mostly SAT-oriented. 99% of my students are going for pre-med, with a number of them going right into 7-year programs. This is completely horrifying, because many of these kids are a unique brand of awful. Zero empathy, vitriolic hatred of poor people and the working classes, and no actual desire to learn about medicine beyond appeasing their parents. I Do Not Want these kids to become doctors, and rant about it a lot to my fiance. One day he stopped me and asked whether I'd consider going to med school myself. It's important to note that he has a much higher opinion of my abilities than I do, but given some of my background it wouldn't not make sense, I guess: wanted to be a doctor as a kid, did intense remote-area medicine volunteering in high-school, took a lot of open med school “mini-courses” at the university hospital where I grew up. But I never took any real science courses in college, don't have any clinical or research experience, and am also Pretty Dumb. My only option would be doing some kind of post-bacc, which would be crazy expensive and seems like a huge risk. Plus, I'm already 23—that's at least three years of catch-up, four of med, three or more of residency. Plus plus, there's a very real possibility I will just turn out to be shit at science.

Being around hyper-intellectual geniuses all the time, I absolutely crumple with shame at the thought of being a high-school English teacher or something, which is within my reach but feels like a huge failure in comparison with what my soon-to-be-husband and literally everyone else we will know for the rest of our lives will be doing. But that's just the narcissism talking, I guess. (Just to clarify! I do not at all think there is anything inherently embarrassing or bad about being a teacher. Teachers are saints whose hard work rarely gets the recognition it deserves. My own high school teachers were brilliant, wonderful people who still loom very large in my mental landscape. It's the imminent comparisons that are shame-inducing, being perceived as “less successful” and “less intelligent” than my husband because people are idiots. Obviously I am also an idiot.) It feels like if I were smart enough to be doing Smart People Jobs with my life, I would be doing them already. I would have been smart enough not to fuck up undergrad so badly and I would be the one getting to do relatively fun and exciting academic work all the time.

These days, the options I cycle through are:

a.) the above high-school teacher (or something similar). Pros: intellectually pretty easy so I definitely could do it, not too much debt involved (?). Cons: little pay for often pretty thankless work, being viewed as an academic failure. Tutoring three kids at a time is okay but I don't want to be around teenagers for the rest of my life. I don't want to do this.

b.) trying to do a philosophy post-bacc or take a few classes for credit at the (major) university here, then aim for a terminal MA in philosophy (of medicine or at least science), maybe one day a PhD. Pros: getting to do the stuff I enjoy full-time, feeling like I was keeping up with my partner in some sense. Cons: major long-shot i.e. probably not even possible given my grades/potential/brain, would incur some debt at least at the beginning, horrible job market (unless I got out of academia somehow) made even riskier by having two people in the same household looking for TT jobs, am completely terrified of academics/profs. I wish I could do this but that doesn't mean I get to or should.

c.) trying to go to med school. Pros: again, doing stuff I am passionate about full time with the added bonus of doing some good and preempting some evil, I know I could be a good doctor, med school doesn't feel beyond my reach either (?) re: good memory/good test-taker/love learning about the human body, definite job with a definitely great paycheck at the end of it all. Cons: huge amounts of debt no matter what, could end up investing in a post-bacc without ever getting in anywhere, longass time before a real career, don't handle stress super-well and it could cause a relapse of my original illness. Huge potential for failure. I would love to be able to do this but see above.

At this point things just feel ultra-fucked. I experience periods of venomous envy towards my fiance and his amazing life/career: he spends summers/breaks traveling all over the world, doing research, getting paid a good deal to do what he loves, while I trudge in and out of near-identical days at my pointless, unethical job. He can only take so much of my weeping and bitching—I've been a really bad partner (which should probably be its own post entirely), and I really don't want to cause him any more distress or waste more of his time and emotional energy. My entire life feels like it's on hold. It seems like the sensible thing to do would be to suck it up and just find some boring doable job but, I don't know, I'd kind of rather die?

I'm not afraid of hard work: I've worked 80-hour weeks before, had jobs where I worked Monday through Sunday for 45 days straight. But I'm painfully average, intellect-wise. It's not that I want to be special or even so much attain eternal life or whatever; it's just gutting to think about being sentenced to doing the stuff I don't enjoy every day for the rest of my life, with academic pursuits being just “hobbies,” at best.

I think about this William James bit a lot: “But there is a third class of persons who are genuinely, and in the most pathetic sense, the institution’s victims. For this type of character the academic life may become, after a certain point, a virulent poison. Men without marked originality or native force, but fond of truth and especially of books and study, ambitious of reward and recognition, poor often, and needing a degree to get a teaching position… There are individuals of this sort for whom to pass one degree after another seems the limit of earthly aspiration. Your private advice does not discourage them. They will fail, and go away to recuperate, and then present themselves for another ordeal, and sometimes prolong the process into middle life. Or else, if they are less heroic morally they will accept the failure as a sentence of doom that they are not fit, and are broken-spirited men thereafter.”

This all seems super futile and hopeless and painful—that feels pathetic and babyish to say, but once I start running through scenarios and getting bogged-down by despair it's pretty difficult to see beyond the ugly grey Now. And before anyone cries impostor syndrome, like folks can be quick to do whenever a woman has academic anxieties, remember that there have to be actual impostors somewhere. Even now I feel like I've spun this story in such a way that it looks like I'm just “smart and have potential but lack confidence” or something. This is not the case.

I realize there's a lot of shit to be waded through here: dissatisfaction with my “career” path, torturing myself over screwing up undergrad, the effect this is all having on my otherwise-great relationship, navigating my fiance's life and social circles with him while being/feeling woefully intellectually inadequate, the whole lot. It's a mess. Basically, what can I do about my shitty non-career path/life, and what can I do in the meantime to deal with a.) envy re:my fiance's life and b.) the gaping intellectual disparity between us? I am very grateful and appreciative if you've read this entire thing, and would love any advice about any of the above. Please help me, hivemind.
posted by bugperson to Work & Money (63 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. I feel overwhelmed reading this; this feels absolutely crushing right now, I can tell. A few things jump out to me.

1) You are still young! You have time to figure out what you want to do with yourself. See if you can do some informational interviews of people in fields you are thinking are interesting now and see if they have ideas about ways you could apply your skill set. Like I'm reading this and thinking a Master's in Public Health might be up your alley. Or a degree in medical philosophy or medical ethics or medical history. Or what about a research librarian who specializes in medical resources? They're worth their weight in gold to me as a researcher. Get out there and ask a few questions and see where it leads you. There are a million people out there who have gone back to school or who have had a career and then had a different one when the first didn't fit. It's ok! You'll find something that feels right.

2) Your fiancee loves you for who you are. He doesn't see you as an uninteresting lump who contributes nothing to his life. If he did he would be foolish to want to marry you. On the flip side, you would be foolish to get married if you believe he thinks this about you. I know it's an overblown recommendation here, but I think couples counseling would be a great help here. You have to have a working partnership before you get married or you're headed for disaster. There may be nothing either of you is doing "wrong" but if you are misreading him, it would help to have an objective party who could help sort that out.

3) You are extraordinarily hard on yourself and it sounds like you don't have much of a community to lean on. If your therapist is worthless, get a different one! You are paying for a service and if you are not getting any benefit, seek that service elsewhere. Then, find other places to get support. Your fiancee can't be the only other person in your life. Volunteer, go to meetups that sound interesting, attend neighborhood meetings, go to lectures, take a class for fun. Whatever it is, find some kindred spirits out there. I think you'll see that academia isn't the end all be all. Lots of us academics are kind of odd or are kind of misfits in our own way. I much, much, much prefer to spend my time with people who are involved in totally different things to the stuff that bangs around in my brain during the work day. I'm totally inspired by people across a broad spectrum of experiences and education levels and just about anything else you can think of. One thing I've found? Education and even raw IQ doesn't equal wisdom, and it certainly doesn't represent the value you bring to the world. I've learned at least as much from people who are "less educated" than I am, and truthfully, many many of them are a lot smarter than I am. The more diversity in my life, the healthier my brain is. I feel pretty confident you'll find the same.
posted by goggie at 5:17 PM on October 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

Well, I would stop with the name calling. You communicate in writing very well so calling yourself dumb, is dumb. A GPA of 3.00 is not bad. I kept waiting to hear the 1.8 GPA which is bad.
What should you do career wise? I don't really know. But you will have better luck sorting it all out if you stop picking on yourself and stop comparing yourself to others. You are 23 not 53. Follow your passion.
posted by cairnoflore at 5:22 PM on October 2, 2015 [12 favorites]

Basically, what can I do about my shitty non-career path/life

A Ph.D. in philosophy is almost a categorically bad idea.

I fucked up undergrad, after a long time and a lot of work Im at a top Ivy PhD program. Its all-consuming. Do you want your job to consume you? Theres a lot of benefits to not doing it.

Anyway, you need to work on how you view yourself. You're pretty down on yourself. Doing a PhD will only exacerbate those feelings.

How about nursing? or a PA?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:22 PM on October 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have a feeling that you're going to get a lot of responses like this, but feeling mixed up and unprepared and generally out of your depth is a very typical response during the just-out-of-college years. I don't say this to diminish your feelings, which I understand are intense, but to hopefully make you realize that you are far from alone. This kind of wrenching worry about your place in the world is entirely normal when you are 23. The kind of people who seem like they have it together may very well go to sleep at night feeling exactly the same way that you do, and those who don't feel that way may discover five or ten years into a career path that they are unhappy and need to go in another direction, and that's fine too.

I would suggest that you look into talking to someone to help you process the intensity of these feelings, and help you get some perspective on your situation, which is far from dire, though I understand why you might feel this way. I also came from a family somewhere between the lower and middle classes, grew up in a poor, rural area, and ended up at a private elite university where I felt completely out of my depth. Straddling these two worlds can cause some very difficult ruptures in identity. It's only years later that I'm starting to realize the profound effect it had on me.

There are lots of different ways to be happy, and you will find brilliant, kind, talented, fulfilled and lovely people in every walk of life. Anyone who thinks otherwise is painfully lacking in experience. I completely get that academia may feel like your one option (I certainly felt that way at 22) but it's far from the only right life path for you. I did it more out of not knowing what else to do than anything else, and ended up abandoning it because it made me miserable, and now I work at a nonprofit and am happier than I've ever been.

If the path you're on is clear, it's someone else's path. Finding your own path is hard and stressful work, but you are young and smart and you'll work it out.

I know you won't be able to believe me right now, but I'll say it anyways: you are doing fine.
posted by duvatney at 5:25 PM on October 2, 2015 [18 favorites]

You absolutely need to get a better therapist. I know everything you are writing sounds rational to you right now, but believe me when I say there is a huge amount of catastrophizing going on and your assessment of your abilities and your future is not accurate. And, believe me, I know from experience: I flunked out of college and torpedoed my future worse than anything you describe here, and I am now in my 30s, think of myself as successful in the ways that matter to me, and wouldn't want to change my past even if I could. There is more out there than you can possibly imagine right now, but you're not going to get there by overanalyzing this in your head. Please, reframe your focus to your mental health right now. The career planning stuff can wait and will seem very different when your head is in a better place.
posted by thetortoise at 5:26 PM on October 2, 2015 [36 favorites]

small observation: two academics in one family is a recipe for pain. for us, it's been very useful that one of us (me!) can work anywhere - it means that we can move to take advantage of academic job offers, wherever they may be. you do get to see quite a few couple where eventually one or the other ends up unemployable local to the other. so being in your position (ie non-academic) can be seen as an advantage.

also, frankly, academic life isn't all it's painted to be. but i realise that is little consolation if the choice to leave is not one you made yourself.
posted by andrewcooke at 5:29 PM on October 2, 2015 [20 favorites]

Just something to consider: I'm a public high school teacher who graduated undergrad summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, among other accolades. I'm also a Fulbright scholar with a MA in a foreign literature. Being a schoolteacher is rewarding and incredibly intellectually challenging; in fact, the practical application of theories and philosophies in the classroom has been way more challenging than any college course I've taken. It's also incredibly rewarding and, I realize now, my true calling. That said, I have equal respect for teachers who graduated with just-OK GPAs from colleges that aren't considered prestigious. It's fine if you don't respect teaching as an intellectual profession, but please don't even start to consider it if you feel it's beneath you. Your contempt for yourself and your colleagues will guarantee your failure at the job. Students want teachers who genuinely like and respect them and the work they're doing.

I wish you luck on your journey because you clearly have a lot of awesome things going for you. You can't help how you've felt and experienced life in the past but with guidance and effort, I believe you can have a future where you feel positive about yourself and what you're doing. You certainly deserve it!
posted by smorgasbord at 5:30 PM on October 2, 2015 [31 favorites]

I am you, later. Except I had more self-hatred and less insight in my twenties. I'm a secretary and I do some teaching on the side. It's....okay. In the past couple of years I've gotten back into more scholarship and found more satisfaction there. And some of my friends - even tenure track ones - have had rather shit careers, and at least I get to live where I like.

Here's what I think you should do:

1. Take a year to do talk therapy. Get your head right. You obviously have problems with intellectual shit, self esteem and probably men (given what I know about philosophy).

2. And then pursue that academic dream. It probably won't make you especially happy or especially well off, but if you're that type of person and you can't shake it, well, you may as well be miserable and teaching.

If I had done this, my life would be 100% different, and I wish it hadn't taken me well into my thirties to address all my emotional stuff, depression, self-hatred, etc.

Also, though: some of these people who seem like such towering geniuses now - yea verily even the ones with fellowships - will just look like prating dudely idiots when you get to be forty, and you'll wonder why you put them up on such tall pedestals and made sure to stand in such deep holes through your twenties. It's astonishing - I thought I was dumb and never had any ideas and all my [male] friends were such well-read geniuses, and it turns out that most of them were actually just brasher than I was, and less determined to make clear that their ideas were built on the ideas of others.

Also, when I stopped being depressed and self-hating, I started having more head space for ideas. I have scholarly ideas now. It makes me sad that I'm too old for a PhD, because I could really write some goddamn good history of women's science fiction, with a focus on eras that really aren't well researched now.
posted by Frowner at 5:32 PM on October 2, 2015 [14 favorites]

1) Don't do philosophy
I spent a long time in philosophy academia at elite institutions. It would be totally awful for you on a psychological level. This isn't an intellectual weakness - it's a thing about the culture of the field. It intersects with exactly your vulnerable points, and it's a recipe for feeling like you're below worthless forever. I can't say this strongly enough. Don't do that, cross it off your list.

2) Academic blinders
You're in an academic bubble right now, which gives a distorted sense of what things are possible, valuable, etc, in life. It's not only wrong, it's dangerous, and you're seeing why. You need to snap your perspective out of this bubble, for your own sake. Your fiance's set of values and his friends' values aren't the one true picture of the world, they're just one idiosyncratic slice of it. Imagine a narrow sports league where the worth of a person is all about how good they are at, say, badminton. Imagine your question written from the perspective of a fiancee who's not a champion badminton player - and feels like she's worthless because of it. Doesn't make sense, right? Remember this - the academic world tries to make you feel like it's the whole world, but it isn't. Getting friends or social contacts outside the bubble is important for this.

3) Lying brain
You're probably depressed - go talk to your doctor and maybe get into therapy, maybe try out brain drugs, and do the good lifestyle things like exercise and getting good sleep and good food. Your brain is lying to you right now. You're not worthless, you're not lower than low, all of that is wrong. You're not limited to the things you think, you're not dumb, etc. Get the lying brain under control - to do this, get external help and commit to going to appointments, etc.

4) Job
You're fine for now, yes? You liked doing sciencey medicaly things. Great, get a plan together to work toward something in that area. You're not too old, I know many people who started post-baccs at your age and are now successful doctors and vets. Plus, you can start your plan, do the first step, and then re-evaluate as you go - so if there's some better option you can change course.

5) Coping and resilience
You're good. You can do this. You fought back from your illness, and have done lots of other things in your life that were smart, savvy, determined, resilient, capable. As you take steps remember this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:33 PM on October 2, 2015 [28 favorites]

(When I say "don't do philosophy" I mean, don't do it as your job. But by all means, take courses if you're interested in it!)
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:35 PM on October 2, 2015

Some random thoughts:
- There are more glittering-future prestigious dream-jobs outside of academia than there are in academia.
- You are young enough that you have time to find one, and in fact would be unlikely to have had a chance to find one yet.
- Being surrounded by geniuses can be a superpower when you are operating in a world mostly of people who are not surrounded by geniuses. You are working to high baseline, and that means that when you fail, you still hit a high standard. The value of this will become more apparent as your world experience widens. Additionally, it means you move in elite circles (for certain values of "elite") which can be another superpower at your side.
- Your education is an education, not a vocational training. Don't limit your career thoughts to things that relate to what you have studied or could potentially study.
posted by anonymisc at 5:39 PM on October 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Also, you are so young. I suffered from premature-foreclosure when I was in my early twenties and it really fucked me over, because I wrote off a lot of stuff and didn't have a real sense of a normal timeline.

It is perfectly normal to start your PhD work at 25 or 26. Some people, in fact, recommend this because it gives you a chance to be a human outside academia. (Which you're not getting - might want to look into doing something that doesn't require so much time with academics and pre-meds.)

If you want to go into medicine, sure, start now, but if you want a humanities PhD you're fine waiting a bit. I wish I'd understood this.

It just kills me to see a young woman suffering this way - it really brings back memories and the hard won understanding that I was completely wrong about myself and my value as a human being, and completely wrong about how intelligent I was in relation to my friends. You're sitting there thinking that you're right about yourself, and how would someone on the internet know just how stupid you really are, etc...and that's just what I thought about myself at 23, minus the internet.

Also, the more academics you meet, the more you'll realize that many of them are very smart in their field and not that smart outside it. They all think their intelligence translates, but I hear people with PhDs say fool things every day of the week, sometimes about things in which I have enough expertise to realize just how fool are the things they say. (Some of them are very smart across disciplines and interests, but by no means all.) Academics, even tenured ones at good institutions, are not gods.

Also, also - do you have women friends? Maybe you've got loads, and if so disregard - but when I was in my early twenties I mostly had dudely philosophy and comp lit buddies, and they were (I now see) bad friends to me and bad friends to each other. (With one exception, the Guy Who Got In On The Ground Floor Of Writing About Superheroes. He was a prince of a human being and has gone on to big things.) Again, maybe this isn't your life at all, but I was around a lot of very smart, very competitive, very condescending people. They weren't monsters and I hated myself, so I didn't realize just how bad things were - I thought they were very good to be so nice to little old me. If this is you get different friends. And don't just hang around with your fiancee's friends, either.
posted by Frowner at 5:52 PM on October 2, 2015 [25 favorites]

What kind of therapy are you trying? I ask because it sounds like your brain is lying to you. Or at least distorting your way of thinking. I always recommend a REBT/CBT based approach, because I think it's practical and is a good way to work on your base assumptions.

I don't think you should try to choose any field until you can unmix your contempt for yourself with what you might want to do. If you go into a field with the idea that even a worthless person like you can do the job, then you'll really do a bad job and your cycle of despair will get worse. You seem to have it in your head that if you were at all good as a person, you would have the exact same career as your partner. See above. Your brain, she is lying to you.

The people I know who are best at their academic career aren't the smartest geniuses-- a lot of them are just really interested in what they do and willing to jump through the hoops to keep doing it. Sometimes, in contrast really really smart people do all kinds of things which you seem to think are "beneath them". Because they want to or because they care about it.

You are so young, and honestly you make me despair for kids today-- or make me think I never would survive in today's world. I got a couple of bad grades in undergrad and it never occurred to me that this was a sign I was anything except overstressed and bored. Grades do not equal destiny. Honestly, they don't mean that much at all.

Some practical thoughts:
1. Try some CBT based therapy or something similar.
2. Try a job in something entirely different. You're really young, and you have plenty of time to try new things. Go get a job in retail and do something physical. Go work on a farm for a while.
3. Exercise. Running and hiking are good ways to get out of your own head.
4. Build a social network outside of academic super geniuses. is a great way to connect to others about things that interest you.
5. Be kind to yourself. You sound like you have accomplished a lot and have an awful lot going for you. Take it from an old lady-- this smart/not smart thing is not all that critical, even if right now it feels like the biggest thing in the world.
posted by frumiousb at 5:57 PM on October 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Stop. No, really, stop. You are 23. You are nothing close to a failure. So far from it.

When I was 23, I had flunked out of two colleges. The first because I didn't try, the second because I got really sick. I'm 36 now, and when I went back to school, I made dean's list every semester and graduated magna cum laude. I owned it, because it was my time to own it. I graduated the day before my 30th birthday and now I'm in grad school.

My husband graduated from an Ivy, and I was so jealous. That's why I went to grad school, to be honest.

Don't be a teacher. You don't want to be a teacher, it shows. Take some time for yourself, sort things out in your head, and go get that med degree you want. You can do it. Trust me, your ability to do it shows in your post. Go do what you love. Just not right now. It's really, absolutely okay to take some time to pick yourself up from what you perceive as failure. It's not failure, and once you realize that, you can do you, however you want.
posted by Ruki at 6:06 PM on October 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Hi, I'm married to a professional philosopher (professor). He is very smart. And hey! He failed some classes in undergrad too! And yet, he turned it around, changed majors, spent years working through his difficulties in graduate school, and is now starting what looks to be a highly successful academic career. The thing is, he's a guy, and probably didn't have that little voice in his ear telling him that he didn't belong in philosophy, which is something lots of women encounter -- many many women quit philosophy at the undergrad level. And because we are women, we blame ourselves, because that's what we're programmed to do! For god's sake you were DYING and also in a field historically HOSTILE TO WOMEN. There is nothing wrong with you, you are clearly smart!

I also know what it's like being with someone everyone perceives as "very smart." It's not just that he's very smart; it's also that he's got the right kind of...aura? slightly antisocial nerdy intensity thing that comes easily to guys in "genius" fields like philosophy, physics, math? There are studies showing that women and people of color do worse in fields that are considered to require "innate genius" because we're PERCEIVED as less brilliant than white men, because we don't fit the genius stereotype, and because we tend to weed ourselves out because we interpret failure as unworthiness in that field. It's not true!

So I'm a composer* and about 1 in 5 emerging composers in the US are women, and even now that I'm out of school and starting my career I struggle with self-doubt. When I was in graduate school and the only woman in my program, I was convinced I was there to round out some gender-balance number, not because of any talent I possessed. It took me a way way long time (like, maybe by age 30) to be convinced of my own abilities. Plus, I didn't figure out what I wanted to do until I was 22 or 23 either! But I did figure it out, and you will too.

So don't be so hard on yourself, and don't assume that Smarty Smart Fiance is so much smarter than you. It's easier to seem smart when a) you have a singular focus for your life and b) your colleagues generally resemble you demographically. Also it's not like William James was the paragon of self-esteem and emotional stability himself, so don't go latching on to what any one person says about who should and shouldn't go on with their education. And, if you do teach high school for a while, you're not sealing your fate for all eternity; I've got a good friend who quit being a high school band director and is finishing his Ph.D in Music Education.

You are smart and valuable! You are young and have lots of time! You will figure it out!

*yes, we're a family with a professional philosopher and professional composer. We are very practical here.
posted by daisystomper at 6:19 PM on October 2, 2015 [10 favorites]

Just chiming in to say you are young and you have plenty of time. The only thing I got right in my 20s was marrying my amazing and smart partner. I graduated from a not-great state school, worked a series of relatively boring jobs, spent a lot of time being lonely and afraid and a little helpless.

I didn't even get started living the kind of life I wanted to have until I was just about into my 30s, when I decided being afraid something won't work out is a lousy rubric for choosing how to live. And now I am successful beyond my wildest dreams at the things I was always afraid to hope for before. I have fantastic kids and a promising career and I get to have extraordinary experiences on the regular. Again: I didn't start down this path until I was almost 30.

Some years ago, I wistfully told a grad student I wished I'd gone to grad school, and maybe I'd come back one day. He told me there was no point, because it wouldn't open any new doors for me. Look around at the doors open to you. Even the doors you wish were open, but you think aren't. Not the practical ones, not the attainable ones. What do you actually want? Do you WANT to be a doctor? Do you WANT to be a teacher, or a philosopher, or a filmmaker or writer or a landscaper? Screw what other people will think. Screw glamour and popular acclaim, those don't keep you warm at night or hold your hand when you're sad. Figure out what you actually want your life to look like and then start living like that, or making the changes necessary to get there.
posted by Andrhia at 6:39 PM on October 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

You know what is awesome? Being ordinary. I highly recommend it.

I hear a lot of all-or-nothing thinking in your post, like the world is divided into brilliant geniuses and "average" people.. and "average" is pretty unfortunate. You don't want to be stuck in the morass of average-ness and are starting to panic that you might not be able to swim fast enough to make it to the island where all the geniuses are.

But that's not how things really are. You probably don't think of yourself as a particularly status-conscious person but everything you are talking about is ultimately about status. Nerdy and academic status - but status. Stop. Stop being horrified the rich kids are getting into high-status med schools, stop picturing the condescending looks people might give an English teacher, stop thinking that geniuses exist, stop thinking that being a high school English teacher is easy, stop thinking that there is such a thing as Smart People Jobs.

No amount of achievement is going to make people impressed with you. The people in your life are already as impressed with you as they are going to get. That is actually good news. As soon as you grieve and accept this then you can get started working on Plan B.

Your Plan A didn't work out - you did not have a friction-free meteoric rise to the top. But most successful people don't hit a home run their first time. You said your parents live in poverty, and it's possible that is a piece of the puzzle.

My experience being around academics is that there are a lot of 2nd generation academics, people who grew up hearing their parents fuss about what kind of brie to bring to the faculty party, or who was going to be first author, write that grant, etc., etc. If you didn't grow up like that (I didn't) you kind of have to guess at what normal is. This means your expectations are kind of oversimplified, like a movie. In a movie, the bit where Einstein works as a patent clerk is glossed over in a montage. In real life, the montage covering 30 years actually TAKES 30 years. If you didn't grow up around people living that life, it is hard to know what is a small road block and what is a sign of doom.

All this to say... you are at a road block. You're not doomed. It's okay to struggle and look foolish and fail occasionally. I know that feels unnatural, because you have the movie version of success in your head. But it is okay. A feeling of confidence comes from a history of achievement, and achievement comes from trying something and working at it and having the occasional success.

Right now, your task is to grieve the fact that Plan A didn't work out. It didn't and that's ok. There are a lot of other possible plans out there. I'm 45 now and when I was in my early 20's I definitely envisioned life as being full of possibilities in your first couple decades of life, then narrowing down into a single path. I can tell you from 25 years on -- it is really quite the opposite.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:56 PM on October 2, 2015 [52 favorites]

I wonder how much of this is because you still seem very grounded in the all too familiar academia grist mill. Distance and experience in other sectors might help you see that there are lots of people who are doing all sorts of things and living fulfilling lives. It's kind of like how many kids want to be high school teachers when they go to college because it's familiar. Lots of people want to become professors/academics when they finish undergrad because they don't see other possibilities, probably because of tunnel vision and naivete.

I can kind of identify with you: I had dreams crashed through less than stellar undergrad grades, but then I turned it around when I switched majors and had dreams of grad school and being a professor, but then it didn't happen because of life and I chose love over a humanities PhD that seemed like a long shot.

When I was 23, I felt lost and it sucked. My partner was (and still is) a wicked smart PhD student and I was just bumming around in a library. I ended up going to grad school for library science, but that was after working in a library for a few years and realizing I could do some good work in a field I didn't hate. It's also nice because we don't have to worry about the very real two body problem.

Sometimes I used to feel like a settled for less because I was lazy, but really I think it's more about what I actually care about and what I actually want. I still have a supportive partner who doesn't care that I don't have a PhD. If anything, he's made it clear that his success is our success and we're a team. Your fiance's life is different, but if you're getting married you'll be a team. Many successful academics really depend on the support of their spouses/partners, and while you might not be getting the degree you probably will be helping him succeed.

So I agree with the advice above about less doom. I tell undergrads that graduation and figuring out life can be some of the most miserable time, so it's to be expected to some degree. Lots of people think they have life figured out in their early 20s, but I think more people don't. I wish it were easier, but it is a good time to explore different options.
posted by kendrak at 7:41 PM on October 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

1. Get a new therapist. You deserve better.
2. Consider nursing school and being a nurse practitioner as a career. Doesn't take the time that med school does. Requires greater levels of engagement with patients. May be a good fit for you and also has the advantage of being highly portable.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:01 PM on October 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

People in this thread have been very kind, but I have to tell you - since you asked for advice - that the part about how you have "zero friends" and the part where you would "rather die" than just have an ordinary job like the rest of us schlubs may be, ah, related. And the fact that you apparently have zero friends to provide you with perspective is probably why you have this weird tunnel vision about academia.

Academia is... not really all that great. It's a lot less glamorous than many, many industry jobs. And many industry jobs are done by people who make greater contributions to humanity - maybe, dare I say it, are SMARTER - than philosophy professors.

You're 23. You don't know a lot about the options that are out there yet. Trust me, there's no reason to think that the world outside of academia is less worthwhile than inside it. If you're going to be with your guy long term, then think about what profession you can develop that will be entirely portable - because he is going to be at the mercy of a very tight academic job market when he graduates, and you'll likely need to move wherever he gets a teaching job - and make excelling at that profession your goal.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:06 PM on October 2, 2015 [15 favorites]

I bet you would be an amazing nurse or administrator at a facility for chronic patients.

But first, talk to your therapist about how to stop comparing yourself to - and judging- others. Really stop it now. If you can't with that therapist, look for another one. Nothing will make you happy till you stop that. You won;t even be able to guess what will make you happy because you're focusing on everyone else.
posted by TenaciousB at 8:09 PM on October 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Ok, so, first things first, please, please, be kind. How many times you called yourself dumb in this post! Why? Look - you can write. You are making me feel things and have ideas with your writing. You aren't dumb.

You aren't dumb.

Ok, so, that's established. Every time you catch yourself calling yourself dumb, I want you to say, ha ha, there I go again, now, that's not really true and even if it were true it certainly wouldn't be useful. I just feel dumb right now. This is just a feeling. It is not true.

One more thing: you don't have to be smart to be an academic. Trust me. In fact, your perseverance and your determination matter so so so so so so much more. You could do it and you would probably be good at it because from your question it is entirely obvious to me that you are not only determined, but you are, in fact, also smart. Not that that is a required characteristic for being an academic.

I know this because I am an academic, and I spend my life with academics, and really, a lot of them are not geniuses, and some of them actually aren't that smart, and it's totally and completely fine. And this brings me to a related point: academia is huge. There are other options in that world available to you that have a higher chance at leading you to a tenure track academic job in a great school if that is your ultimate desire. There is money in academic health research. There is no money in philosophy. To that end, have you ever thought about, say, social sciences in a health-related field? This paragraph right here: The upside of dealing with my bodily vessel betraying me was that I learned a lot about human physiology, spent/spend lots of time reading medical journals and compiling research, and have a few things to say, maybe???, on philosophy of medicine, cultural models of health, medical/health ontology, etc. ... this opens up a huge door of opportunity in multiple academic disciplines. Look into research-intensive master's and PhD programs in public health, nursing, history of medicine, sociology (with schools that have faculty doing research in health specifically), etc. And look at schools with good faculty members who do research that is of interest to you and matches your own interests, not schools with "brand names." This is not because you "can't get in" to a school with a brand name because "you're dumb" (you're not) but because this is solid advice for anyone pursuing higher education in this day and age: do something that actually has potential career options both in and out of academia, and do it at a school where you'll work with someone who really understands what you are doing so that you have a true mentor.

Finally, I'm worried about you. You sound like you are really not being nice to yourself and I know from personal experience that when I treat myself the way that you seem to be treating yourself, when I talk to myself like that, well... I need to get on my own team and take care of myself when I catch myself being so brutal. Would I talk to anyone else in the world like that? Would you?

Don't beat yourself up for this, but when you catch yourself doing it, say to yourself, now, no need to be so cruel.

Because really there is no need to be so cruel to yourself. Take care.
posted by sockermom at 8:18 PM on October 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

Sorry, but how you talk about yourself and your circumstances in this post made me irrationally angry. I say "irrationally" because it's apparent you're suffering, so yelling at you about how inaccurate your fatalistic worldview is right now wouldn't be constructive or fair. But it is inaccurate. Dumb, even.

Listen to me: DO WHATEVER THE FUCK YOU WANT. Being afraid to fail or take chances will ensure you live a very small life.

Btw, take it from someone who understands depression on both an academic and visceral level: you are likely dealing with serious depression and/or anxiety. It does not have to be like this.
posted by jessca84 at 8:21 PM on October 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

You don't have to be smart to get an advanced degree, even a Ph.D. What you have to be is hard working, fond of pain, addicted to the academic way of thinking, and often a little emotionally insensitive. The dumbest people in my program were the ones who got through the program the quickest, because they didn't second-guess themselves nearly as much.

I have a Ph.D., a Master's, a husband who dropped out of college, and a job that I love that drives me crazy, but I could have gotten the job without the Ph.D. and the degree doesn't do me any good money-wise. I'm very happy I don't compare myself to my husband. He kind of takes pride in my Ph.D., in a "trophy" kind of way, but it otherwise doesn't interest him much. I like that about him.

For an awful lot of women I know, myself included, advanced degrees are what we get when we want to feel better about ourselves or we want to feel qualified for things. What they often do instead is make us feel worse and postpone the job search. Instead, you should find something you like doing and do that, and if you get the urge to study something later on, go do that.
posted by Peach at 8:25 PM on October 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

The upside of dealing with my bodily vessel betraying me was that I learned a lot about human physiology, spent/spend lots of time reading medical journals and compiling research, and have a few things to say, maybe???, on philosophy of medicine, cultural models of health, medical/health ontology, etc. Maybe not. I would love to do something more formal with this, but am completely at a loss about what to actually do and really don't have the intellectual gifts or talent to be able to do whatever it is properly.

Firstly, you could do science communications/journalism, history of science, etc.

Secondly, stop selling yourself short about intellectual gifts, talent, 'dumb', etc. Graduating while being sick is like finishing a marathon with a twisted ankle. Graduating on the dean's list is like getting a good time.

Every time you use the word 'dumb' it's toxic self-talk. Pay attention and identify it as toxic self-talk.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:30 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had a significantly lower college GPA and had no trouble getting accepted to graduate school. So you certainly haven't disqualified yourself on that front, in terms of your grades.

But the key here, as has been pointed out, is the extreme way you are down on yourself, and the unrealistic comparisons to other people. I'd be willing to bet lots of money that the people you are calling geniuses actually aren't, any more than you are actually dumb. As long as you believe this, though, you aren't going to solve the other questions.

Get a better therapist and work on the self-image and happiness stuff, and let the career/academic stuff follow naturally after.

It makes me sad that I'm too old for a PhD, because I could really write some goddamn good history of women's science fiction, with a focus on eras that really aren't well researched now.

I went to graduate schools at a very elite, fancy-pants university. A significant number of the graduate students (across the school, not just my department) were older. Most of them kicked ass and were doing super interesting work, because they knew something about the world and were making a serious, considered choice to be in school, rather than just drifting along an easy path.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:45 PM on October 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

It seems like you are in this closed loop where getting a PhD in a humanities field is the pinnacle of intellectual achievement and anything else is awful and average and for dummies. Have you considered, even briefly, that this is only true for academics in the humanities and people closely connected to them? That you are perhaps, in an unhealthy environment?

I mean, I work at an aerospace research/dev facility where almost everyone has a STEM background, and I can guarantee you that not one single person at my 5000+ workplace considers the humanities academic world the seat of all genius in our world. Here, hard science is king, no doubt about that, but there is also an overwhelming sense of appreciation for people who have a skill and execute it with real competence. So there is a true respect for the non-scientists and non-engineers—the welders and fabricators and electricians who build the things, the graphic artists and web site developers and social media people who manage our public outreach, the finance people who wrangle budgets and reports and keep the funding flowing. This is what I would consider a healthy environment.

An above poster probably put it better with her badminton example. You have taken one really obscure career path and elevated success in it to The Thing That Proves You Are Super Smart.

You really need to break out of this way of thinking. If your therapist sucks, get another one. The way you talk about yourself stinks, and is cruel. A competent therapist can also help you figure out why you don’t have any friends and help you develop the skills to make friends. Hopefully friends from all different walks of life.

You are so very very young. You could truly do anything with your life. Please don’t let this extreme, narrow, and naive idea of success, as defined by your finance’s career, continue to limit you.
posted by aviatrix at 8:58 PM on October 2, 2015 [11 favorites]

Agreed on the toxic self-talk. So much of this has nothing to do with your partner's attributes and everything to do with how much you're beating yourself up for things that weren't even your fault.

Secondly, most couples find balance not because they are exactly alike but because they complement each other in some way. I am an opera singing Jeopardy and spelling bee champion who took the ACT in 8th grade for shits and giggles (and did very well). My husband worked overnight shifts at a gas station before starting college at age 30; it took him 10 years to get through.

He is the kindest, most loving person I have ever known. He gives me the space and respect that none of my intellectual family or friends have ever given me. That gives me the confidence to be better at life all around. I wouldn't call him intellectual at all, but he's certainly not dumb; he's the only person I know who keeps up with my logical leaps.

Because he was the son of a single mom who worked a factory job, he had constantly been told that he wasn't "college material." He found it very easy to just accept no for an answer and leave it at that.

So I may be more intellectual or "smarter" than he is in some areas, but he can do so many other things that I can't, and -- most importantly -- he supports me in a way that is essential to my way of life. It makes him feel useful in the relationship, and I thank him (and the universe) every day.

This is all up to you. You control how and what you contribute to a relationship. If your partner doesn't appreciate you, that's one thing. But if they do, for god's sake, run with it! Intellect is by far not the only quality that matters in a relationship, nor shared interests.

The other thing, of many, is that a 3.0 is nothing to worry about. I know someone -- okay, he's my ex-husband, who exemplifies the point that being an intellectual couple ain't what it's cracked up to be -- who went to grad school with a 2.8. And if your grades were clearly attributable to illness, which you've learned to deal with, you'll be perfectly fine. Maybe need to do some prereqs for programs like med school, but maybe not.

Your life is what you make of it, and how you let other people see and treat you. You deserve to be respected and cared for -- especially by yourself.
posted by St. Hubbins at 9:00 PM on October 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

Oh, and I am currently living the is-this-all-there-is suburban life with house and kid, and let me tell you: it is SO much easier to not give a fuck when you're 36 than it is to try and figure out life at age 23. At 23, you may not even know that your dream job exists and someone can get paid for it. If you had told me when I was that age that I would have a master's degree in journalism and be lauded for writing obituaries, I would have laughed my ass off.

Learn to cultivate your curious and detail-appreciative side. Take pleasure in small things. It will make the harder parts of life easier to take, and the easier parts that much sweeter.
posted by St. Hubbins at 9:06 PM on October 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

At 23, you may not even know that your dream job exists and someone can get paid for it. If you had told me when I was that age that I would have a master's degree in journalism and be lauded for writing obituaries, I would have laughed my ass off.

This is so true. You know, OP, I'm going to tell my story here because it might help you in an incremental way to hear it.

When I was a whip-smart young person like you, I believed that my holy calling was to be a film professor, and I would use my feminist mind to devastate foolish arguments and change the course of critical studies. I was convinced that this was the only future out there for me, and anything less would be failure. I educated myself through as many nontraditional paths as possible, reading all the critical texts I could get my hands on and auditing every night course that looked relevant.

This came in part from a naive, idealistic view of a certain kind of lauded male genius, as some folks observe above, and the knowledge that as someone people saw as female, I would have to kick the butts of every boy in the room to gain legitimacy. (That's a losing game, by the way, rigged so that women can never access those privileges, but we'll talk about that another time.)

As I got older, I saw many of my brilliant friends pursue PhDs and academia and tell me in a tired voice that it wasn't everything it was cracked up to be. The job market sucks and doesn't mainly reward merit, it is a daily grind like everything else, and for all the important thinkers out there, there are just as many academics who grew up cocooned in privilege and expectation and don't know their ass from their elbow. Meanwhile, many smart folks, even the book-smart ones, do their best work outside that system.

My academic friends told me this: what do you want to do, in your heart? Do you need a PhD to do it? What are the barriers to doing that work as the person you are now, and can you begin to dismantle them?

I respect and admire the people who contribute to academic research, and I use their work every day. But I came to understand that rarified world is not for me, and there's a reason I could never make myself fit into it. Today the work that I do involves, in my own tiny way, trying to change the media landscape for kids and help marginalized children realize that their voices are vital and valuable. The job I have now was one I did not know existed back in my twenties, and I'm not sure brainy teenage thetortoise would have considered it good enough. But adult thetortoise wouldn't change a thing.

I hope you find your path. It probably isn't the one you think, and that's okay. The world is big. Spend less time stuck in your head and more time exploring.
posted by thetortoise at 9:40 PM on October 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

There is something incredibly compelling about post-undergrad panic, isn't there? I thought I might still be "in it" at the ripe age of 30... until I read this post. Nope!

I don't say that to rub it in your face how established I am; but rather to explain that getting out of a rut like this is a very gradual process. There isn't a moment that you've Officially Made It in a career. It's a series of small choices that you make over and over -- just like this negative mode is something you have clearly been practicing for a while.

You are absolutely undervaluing non-academic pursuits. It's easy to think academia is the only worthy or ethical aim to have - but try and take a more cynical view. Education is an industry just like every other and its self-promotion is largely based on money. It's not the only way you can do worthy work.

Get to know people in different walks of life. Right now your vision for your future is just 17 different flavours of education. You can learn PLENTY in industry or government. Cast a wider net.
posted by cranberrymonger at 9:41 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Your post is so full of contradictions. I don't mean that as a criticism. It seems like the natural result of the way you are tearing yourself apart.

It's a huge accomplishment to graduate from college. It's *amazing* to do with a critical illness and a decent GPA. I consider that more impressive than knowing how ever many languages or going on whatever trips. I think you fiancee probably thinks you are impressive too, and he's super smart, right? But getting through all that may have roughed you up more than you realize. And it may take you a few more years to fully heal. You don't talk about your fiancee's background, but I wonder if it's not his intellect and prospects that you really envy, but the relative ease of his life. That wouldn't make you a bad person, just a genuine human being.

I'm sorry you are going through this. It is absolutely not true that if you could get a "smart person" job, you would have it by now. It took me over a decade after graduating college to get to my smartypants job (and I'm seen as young in it). And it's not a perfect job by a long shot. There is no perfect job. There is no best career. I think you have a lot more options than you are giving yourself.

What do you like to do for fun? Please give yourself room in your life to have fun. Do you actually like hanging out with your fiancee's colleagues? You probably can't avoid them entirely, but they do not have to be (and probably shouldn't be) your entire social life. Is there an art class you've always wanted to try? A cooking class? Do you like spending time in nature? You seem so locked in to this one way of thinking about yourself and your life. But there is more to life than academics and careers. Be kind to yourself and spend your time on things that make you feel like the real you.
posted by ewok_academy at 10:06 PM on October 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Your question reminded me a lot of the question asked here. It's about web journalism instead of academia, but I suspect you could get something out of the answer anyway.
posted by kelseyq at 10:06 PM on October 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think you should focus on your more altruistic impulses (like the reasons you would become a doctor--not that you necessarily need to become a doctor). I've struggled with problems almost identical to your post for years re: intellectual status-consciousness except I am actually proper dumb and you don't seem to be. Regardless, I've found the more I look at career paths that directly help people the less appealing the circle-jerkiness of academia is. That sort of intelligence really isn't the only thing in life, or even the most important thing in life. I also think you should find a better therapist and start taking up some light, social hobbies. Both of these things will help with your pretty obvious depression and help you care less about this stuff.
posted by hejrat at 11:02 PM on October 2, 2015

BTW you don't need to do a formal post-bacc to go to medical school! You can take ala carte non-degree classes at your local uni, it's much cheaper that way and produces exactly the same result.
posted by hejrat at 11:05 PM on October 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm a tenured philosophy prof. I know some really brilliant people. Like scary smart. In no way do I regard teaching HS as failing. Indeed, I teach where I do in part because I value teaching and not just doing research. Teaching is noble and thrilling and empowering of both parties in the relationship. (While I'm at it, I don't teach the sorts of kids you're tutoring. I don't think I could. So I understand your reaction.)

A MA in philosophy might be a good idea if a) you're rich or b) you can get it funded. It would let you see how you do academically (and, don't trust your own judgment; ask your profs), and it could be of use if you become a teacher. And it couldn't hurt for med school.

As others have noted, you show a remarkable sense of self awareness for someone of middling intellect. I suspect you're smarter than you give yourself credit for. I think you should think about therapy in the medium term to learn to be kinder to yourself.

I remember for years how frustrated I was at my own mind. My professors could pick up a dense piece of philosophy and take it in quickly. I couldn't make heads or tails of it for hours, sometimes at all. And it wasn't that this was pomo obscurantism. This was just densely-written stuff that I was struggling with. Now, years later, sometimes I'll look back at the same texts I couldn't parse as I'm teaching them, and quickly take them in. Just as I couldn't before. And it stays in my head. But for years I wanted to bang my head against a wall because I just couldn't get it to do what I wanted. But I worked hard, and I tried to be kind to myself (which isn't easy), and eventually I got it. None of my students can believe any of my colleagues or I ever had to struggle as they do. But we did!
posted by persona au gratin at 2:29 AM on October 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

You are showing a ton of judgment about yourself and others. I get it. It can be really hard to be kind to ourselves. The most effective treatment for me for depression and anxiety when I was having career woes, along with feelings of not measuring up/not being good enough/lots of self-loathing, etc., was cbt using the book Feeling Good plus talk therapy with two great therapists plus an ssri. It took a few months, but this combination helped me like myself again and stop being so incredibly hard on myself, which it seems like is where you are right now.
posted by bookworm4125 at 3:03 AM on October 3, 2015

I am finding it hard to answer this question empathetically, not because I can't identify with it, but because I over-identify with it. And I have spent years (probably decades) hauling myself out of this toxic way of thinking.

First off, if you were an academic like your fiancé, this question would read "one of us has to give up our dream job , and it's probably going to be me, because the academic two-body problem rarely favors the female partner, statistically speaking." So. There you go. Your dream is actually even more impossible than you think it is, so let it the fuck go. I guarantee you will be happier.

Two, speaking from experience as someone who was in several relationships with scary-smart people I thought of as geniuses: seriously evaluate your relationship. People who are obsessed with intellectual status sometimes latch on to geniuses because Clearly They Are the Superior Mate Because Reasons, and while working your way through both a failing career and failing relationship with a Genius(TM) is certainly a more efficient way to cure yourself of these toxic thought patterns, it's also more brutal.

Third, my god, get yourself a better therapist. In fact, though I rarely say this so unequivocally to other people, get yourself a psychiatrist and get some meds. And if you can't do that, get yourself a copy of The Artist's Way and start writing morning pages. (In fact, do that anyway. It's hard to stay locked into a failure-spiral when you start to get the poison out on paper-- the point of morning pages is to bore you with your own misery until you start to bootstrap yourself out of it.) And while I know this isn't appropriate to everyone out there, think about taking a yoga class or Buddhist meditation series. Or investigate DBT, which I think might do you more good than CBT. Put your inquiring, philosophical mind to use and Socratic Method yourself out of your false beliefs about intelligence and status.
posted by instamatic at 5:22 AM on October 3, 2015 [16 favorites]

Hello. I couldn't read your entire post or half the responses because they were overwhelming.

At 23, I had a "real job" while my entire group of friends was in academia. Mr. Meat was in grad school, all his friends AND their SOs were in grad school, and the friends I'd had from undergrad and lived near us were ALSO in grad school.

Heck, they all thought I was super interesting because I was out in the "real world" instead of the bubble. I worked in a regular office job the whole time they were in academia.

Now I'm 31, a stay at home housewife, and an assistant high school debate coach. It's AWESOME. This morning, I took the dog on a lovely walk, fed all the animals, and now I'm hanging out with a purring kitty on my lap, waiting for Mr. Meat to wake up so we can have a family breakfast.

I am average. That's ok.

You might be average, too. That's ok, I promise.

I wish you luck.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 6:35 AM on October 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was in a similar place after college, philosophy degree and everything. Here are some things that helped me.

1. Read a lot of feminist texts and philosophers and realized I was in love with men because I wanted to be like them, and I ultimately felt better when I took steps to do what I wanted instead of "working on the relationship."

2. Kept a crappy job while applying to top phd programs. Also spent a ton of energy feeling out other career paths even if I didn't instantly like them as much. Wound up doing one one of these and being quite happy 7 years later, with iterations. Didn't pressure myself to get something perfect, just to make each change better than the last. Realized I only need a moderate interest in a particular field as long as the job duties fit what I like to do (strategy, writing).

Cut myself slack for several years on the physical pain of being in an office for 8 hours a day doing boring shit. It can get better, and you can adjust it to work for you.

3. Realized that guys I respected were actually just full of blather and self-aggrandizement to a large degree.

4. Worked on my physical health.

5. Got female friends.

6. I also advise reading everything by Ask Polly on The Cut. YOU MUST DO THIS I think it's exactly what your inner voice needs to hear.
posted by hyperion at 6:54 AM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think most of your post has been well covered at this point, but I'd like to address this:

trying to go to med school. Pros: again, doing stuff I am passionate about full time with the added bonus of doing some good and preempting some evil, I know I could be a good doctor, med school doesn't feel beyond my reach either (?) re: good memory/good test-taker/love learning about the human body, definite job with a definitely great paycheck at the end of it all. Cons: huge amounts of debt no matter what, could end up investing in a post-bacc without ever getting in anywhere, longass time before a real career, don't handle stress super-well and it could cause a relapse of my original illness. Huge potential for failure. I would love to be able to do this but see above.

You are absolutely 100% beyond a doubt not too old to start the process of becoming a doctor. I was quite a bit older than you when I began the process and I'm a medical student who is a) older than you, and b) not the oldest person in my class (by a long shot). I was also starting from a 'disadvantage' in terms of an undergraduate record that was not typical of a successful medical school applicant, but my post-bacc GPA opened a lot of doors for me (not all -- some schools will never allow you to forget your past, but many schools reward reinvention).

That said, I think your attraction to medicine right now is probably driven (more than you'd like to admit?) by the fact that it is a ready made career with a lot of ready made prestige. As much as the path to becoming a physician is a long one, it is also an extraordinarily well defined one. There are few, if any, other career paths I can think of where simply by taking the first step (starting medical school) you know exactly what you will be doing for the next 7+ years and that you will have one of the most prestigious jobs at the end of it. When put like that, it sounds an awful lot like doing a PhD, doesn't it?

Medical education is grueling and mentally, emotionally, and physically difficult. I don't know you, and you sound like a very intelligent person, but if you choose to pursue this path, please make sure you 'get your mind right' first. Becoming a doctor is not a cure for a poor self image. Becoming a doctor is not a solution to thinking you are less than your fiance. If there is one unexpected side effect of medical school for most people, it is that it takes people who enter feeling on top of the world and makes them feel, at one time or another, like impostors and failures.

To sum up: 1) it is definitely still possible for you to go to medical school if that is the right path for you, but 2) I do not think you are ready to make that decision.
posted by telegraph at 6:58 AM on October 3, 2015 [10 favorites]

Some of this has been addressed already but let me just comment on the bit where you mentioned your partner's glittering academic future. It might not be that glittering when he finishes his Phd - the job situation in academia is really dire and even the brightest and the best struggle. And the other thing - a Phd indicates you're capable of undertaking an independent , original piece of research and are able to write it up. It's not a measure of intelligence or self-worth. I speak from personal experience of getting one in sociology and then fighting really hard to carve a post-academic future for myself because of the no academic jobs thing. It's just a degree and if it makes sense for you career wise then you can get one later but tread carefully and don't label yourself by the level of education you or others (don't) have.
posted by coffee_monster at 7:09 AM on October 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think you are mythologising PhDs. I do not have one, but I know several people with math PhDs and theology PhDs and engineering PhDs and economics PhDs and other hard science PhDs. These people are mot noticeably geniuses, it's just that in effect their first job after completing undergrad involved scholarly research and they got a qualification out of it.

Find an ordinary straightforward job that you can leave in the office when you go home and that you'd enjoy more than tutoring rich kids. Do that for a few months while doing all the other work on yourself that people have suggested. Then start on a path that you want to do for the next few years.
posted by plonkee at 8:54 AM on October 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

I started my PhD in Psychology at an ancient 32. Life is long, and sometimes it takes a while to figure out your path. I decided against med school because I , too, have a cruddy disease that would like to quietly kill me (but isn't going to...what what!). I in part chose psych because I didn't want to be saddled with a crazy amount of debt and knew that I don't have the physical stamina to make it through a medical residency.

The road I took is one of many that adds some net good to this world, which it sounds like you want to do. The thing that I like about psychology is that, although it's grounded in helping others with concrete problems (substance abuse, health concerns, neuro issues, grief, etc.), there's freedom to flex your philosophical muscle when developing your therapeutic orientation.

There are lots of ways to work in medical-ish settings helping others. Chances are, those people will be a lot less hateful then a bunch of cruddy kids that look down their nose at the poors. I have friends that went to PA school as a stop gap before deciding on med school. They loved working as PAs and received a lot of respect. Don't cross nursing off the list, either. At my school, which is a R1 university, a lot of great medical research comes out of the nursing department.

I failed a lot more epically than you in my 20's. I ended the decade living in a homeless shelter. You're already ahead of where I was at your age. Your 3.0 GPA is not a hole that you can't climb out of. Currently, I love what I do and have been honored to work with some amazing clients. I have a spiffy CV full of cool pubs and presentations. I don't think that I would have been able to be half the therapist that I'm working towards being had I not spent my 40 days in the desert. You can make meaning out of this dark time. I promise. Others have been there, myself included.
posted by batbat at 10:38 AM on October 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

i think you need to take the above answers seriously and find a way to make peace with this or you'll end up proving yourself not ready for a relationship. My academic background is the same as yours, I flirted with academia but wasn't "good enough"
So I quit my masters and didn't join the phd I'd been admitted to... Fast forward 5 years I'm married to a super super smart man and I'm smart enough for us to enjoy convo and laugh... But jeeeezus Christ I am so happy to just be an ordinary wife. He doesn't need me to be on his level, I have a lot to bring to the table that is just what he needs... Definitely get a new therapist. You need to get confident about being just normal and ordinary (or become just normal and ordinary) being normal and ordinary is awesome- believe me!
posted by flink at 2:38 PM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh girl, it gets better. Like many others in this thread, I feel you and I am happy to report from my 30s that it gets so much better even if you stay in an average job. That killer brain turns kinder, that spiral isn't so deathly, you have more context and more skills to ride that terror out.

You survived and you have my permission to do jack shit with your life. It's not what you're going to do because you are a great writer and clearly whip smart (we see you, we recognize you, you are us) and you will get bored and you will push and your coworkers will be like "wow you get a lot done in a day!" BUT if you don't, that is fine. It's all good. You owe us nothing. There is no judgement day. There is just your life to fill as you like, for yourself.

Now here is your homework in no particular order:

Listen to Milton Glaser on the fear of failure. Repeat as needed.

Get to know people outside of academia. There is a big interesting world out there that is so much more healthy for you.

Yes, learn to draw. That was great advice. It will help you redirect that spinning brain.

When your brain spins up like this, lay on the floor, turn the stereo up, and listen to a song that you love. The whole thing. Really concentrate on it. You need to give your brain a full task with no strategy. I like The Beta Band's She's The One because the lyrics are fun nonsense.

Read women. Read Audre Lorde. Catherine Blackledge. Frida Kahlo. Alana Massey. Mallory Ortberg. Read furious smart outsider women. Read the women they read. They will light a fire in you. They will sustain you.

Read Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong for an intro to ACT, a kind of therapy that I have found so much more compatible with this judgemental restless brain we share than CBT. Learn to be kind to yourself. Learn to dare to fail in pursuit of your goals. Learn how your anxiety is making you choose the small safe option and how you can do more than that.

And fire those asshole kids as soon as you can. You have contempt for them and you know why they are damaging as doctors because you have lived experience as a patient and a) this makes you so qualified to do great things for other patients and b) ain't nobody got time for that. Find another job or set of clients when you can. They are costing you more than time.

It gets so much better. <3
posted by sadmadglad at 6:30 PM on October 3, 2015 [8 favorites]

1. You could get into grad school easy. My undergrad record was not entirely unlike yours, and I didn't have a massive health emergency for a legitimate excuse, and I did it. I can't say you'd get a Ph.D. easy, you might never stop having this crisis and panic midway through and quit. But you could do it. Your personal and academic history shows proven intelligence (those good grades your last two years) and immense tenacity and persistence in the face of external misery (finishing the degree.) That's really all you need for grad school, you can write it up into compelling application materials. Don't - but don't imagine it's beyond you.

(I even think maybe you ought to disregard that Don't, just because you can't really get academic disillusionment at second hand. You shouldn't stay for a Ph.D. as long as you're with this guy, because if you keep the view of him you have now, you're guaranteed to put your applications and career second to his when you both get to the professor stage. But maybe you should throw away a year or two at some respectable mid-tier university getting over your awe of people who don't deserve to be there any more than you do. You do learn important things in grad school, even if you don't end up an academic, and that's one of them.)

You are dead right about impostor syndrome and the way people will close their ears to difficult questions - all people need to see is that you're a woman with academic hang-ups, and they give advice to the Type, not the individual. But I really was an imposter: I was not prepared, I had no work ethic, I didn't belong. This was all true. None of that brought me down and none of it was the reason I failed; it was the moods and the existential crises that did that. Get really into being an imposter; imposters can go anywhere and do anything. It's our gift. Stop worrying about being smart, you're smart enough; work on being bold and devious. It helps so much more. As it is, your contempt for your own intelligence and obsessive self-doubt are the perfect feedstock for the grad school machine -- it's not that confidence is all you need; self-hatred will do you just fine in that environment; it's that confidence is just much more pleasant to feel, for you.

2. I get you all the way on the hatred for all the people who will look at your job, whatever it ends up being, and decide based on it that you aren't as smart as your husband, the professor. The very last thing you need to hear is that it's totally fine to be mediocre and besides, men don't need their wives to be their intellectual equals, anyway. Decent men and smart men do need that, and they get it, too. Either your boyfriend is not as good and smart as you think he is, or you're not his intellectual inferior.

Also, I know this is advice you probably won't take, but leave him. Here is why: Suppose it's true, and he's smarter than you. I already proved this false through Logic, but let's suppose. Think about why he would pick a partner who's not as smart as him, one who makes him feel brilliant, instead of one far above him, who makes him feel the way he makes you feel. You're focused so hard on wanting what he has in his career; maybe you should want what he has in his personal life: a partner who looks up to you, thinks you are a genius, and wants to be like you. You could have that. It's a different world.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:38 PM on October 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

But 3. here is my actual advice: quit your terrible tutoring work and don't step back into this miserable half-life (of tutoring -- or teaching, or copyediting work that you wish you were writing instead, or working as a department secretary when you wish you were a professor.) If you must get a terrible job to live, make it one that doesn't feel like the third-rate dregs of the life you really want. And learn more of the stuff you'd have to learn to go to med school. You might be right that the stress of med school, specifically, would be incompatible with your health, but I think you sound really well-suited to something in health policy or medicine-adjacent. I know fuck-all about specific jobs but I think it's the area you should explore; I don't think it holds the promise of despair that philosophy grad school does.

2.5 The high school teacher-future fear will recede as you force yourself off the lowest humiliating academic-adjacent work rung and into new worlds. because you know who is MOST terrified of that fate, with best reason, is not people like you with possibilities shining before them, it's miserable broken-down liberal arts professors who failed tenure review and don't know how regular jobs work. Your boyfriend is more likely to be backed into that corner than you are, and for sure one of his brilliant circle will end up teaching senior English to spoiled 17 year-olds at a fancy prep school instead of teaching freshman comp to the exact same confused 18 year-olds a year later. Be gentle to them, they will feel like terrible failures until they get over it.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:52 PM on October 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'm 23, and actually made the decision to not go to graduate school. This came after a few years of deeply agonizing over entering graduate school for Feminist Studies/Ethnic Studies, due to the extremely concentrated peer group that I had. Most of my friends in college were all destined to go to graduate school/medical school. It wasn't until later that I almost passed out from self-hatred, depression, anxiety, and the unbelievable pressures of convincing myself to do all of this, because everyone else thought they were trying to help me out by stating "how much potential I had," did I realize a truth.

Everyone else can only help you out, based on what you are talking about and what you want for yourself. Get away from all of that noise, go on a retreat for a week, and see what your truest desires, deep down inside, away from all the status markers and idealization looks like. See where your heart beats.

I'm currently living at home now, and I'm working on learning how to code, lose weight/get fit, pursue a writing career, and start drawing again. All of these things are things that I'm (currently) fairly mediocre at, but have great potential in if I commit and work towards it. I'm doing these based on my own terms, and communicating to others in my life, who are truly there for me, that I am trying to make a life on my own terms. These include the same brilliant friends who have 5-year fellowships to their PhD programs, or who will be going towards it. Please, get closer to your heart and state clearly what you need to yourself first, and find a therapist and a support network who honors your vulnerability and messiness. You are figuring things out, and I think we may never stop figuring things out. But it's better to figure things out than to follow a false path created by others and fitting ourselves into that box. We deserve so much better than that.

Also, yes, imposter syndrome and running with the boys, destroy that shit! DBT is good too.
posted by yueliang at 10:42 PM on October 3, 2015 [6 favorites]

Please consider stop calling yourself dumb. You absolutely are not - this question was very well-written (I normally can't stand to read these long questions, but I read the whole thing because you have a very compelling voice), and absolutely thrums with the very specific kind of self-doubt that is endemic to high intelligence, especially in young women. Also, the fact that you were able to finish your BA with a GPA above 3.0 despite having a debilitating, life-threatening illness is pretty staggering. You must have worked really hard. I had no such limitations and I barely finished with a 3.4, and all I can blame is a moderate case of undiagnosed ADHD!

Also, please allow me to quote myself from another answer I wrote to someone in their early 20s who also felt like they weren't successful enough:

"Honestly, very, very, very, very few people are actually successes in their early twenties. It's like, actors, some musicians, and Mark Zuckerberg. Everyone else is just doing well in school or internships/entry-level jobs. Which is great, but it's not success, even in the super-narrow terms our society quantifies success.

Maybe some of these people you feel inferior to will be extremely successful professionally. Many of them will have moderate success. Some will decide they don't want to pursue career success and will focus on other things. Some will come fast out of the gate and then flounder once they get some real responsibility, say in a management role. Some will decide to switch careers and go back to school in 10 years.

The truth is, if these folks are your age, you have no idea how any of them will end up. The same is true for you."

It seems to be like you need a new frame of reference. I was struck throughout your question how academic success seems to be the only measure of success you're considering. But I guess that makes sense. Right now, success looks like academia to you because that's your whole world. I think even more than focusing on career (because you seriously have a lot of time to work that out), you should focus on building a richer life for yourself. Get a better therapist, yes, but what about friends? You say you have none, but there's no reason that has to remain the case. Think about what you like to do or would like to try, and start trying it. Ideally something that has nothing to do with academia: improv classes? a casual sports league? an art class? yoga? Or maybe you could do something like get your EMT license and see if you like working in a medical environment full-time.

There's a really, really big world out there, and in a lot of that world, people will see you as intelligent and successful, or frankly not even care.
posted by lunasol at 12:17 PM on October 4, 2015

Response by poster: Jesus, thank you all so, so much. I put off checking the post for about 48 hours because I was so nervous about the responses but every single one of these was insightful and helpful. Kind of wish I could press this thread in a scrapbook or something. Also wish I could respond to each of you individually, but that is probably not a good idea. However, after a first read: hyperion, the first draft of this post was originally intended to be an Ask Polly letter, actually! But that idea quickly soured and it seemed like you guys would give better advice anyway (I was right).

queenofbithynia, your bit about impostors is brilliant.

I've probably wrung all the blood and sympathy I can out of this post, but a few general notes:

1.) I am already on a braindrug. I love it because it keeps me functional, at baseline, no more and no less.

2.) For those suggesting I get out of academia for a while: when I started having these kinds of thoughts in college, I had the same idea. I actually, uh, trained to be a chef--wrangled my way into a stagiaire with a semi-famous chef in France, then went on to run a sizeable restaurant kitchen by myself, the whole lot. I hated it. The stage was actually very relaxed, especially compared to the daily ten-hour trainwreck that is actual cheffing, but the whole time I was just thinking about how I'd rather be reading Fichte or whatever. (This wasn't out of nowhere; I'd always enjoyed and been good at cooking/patisserie. At first it felt nice to just be doing shit with my hands but got pretty miserable after a year or so. At least now I can have bomb-ass croissants whenever I want.)

3.) My fiance/bf does, for the record, think I am as smart as he is, and he doesn't believe he is a genius or even in the concept/cult of "genius" at all. He's a better feminist than I am, is fully aware of the shit academia does to women, and does nothing but encourage me. He also was not a genius when I met him. I mean, he seemed like one to me, but kind of in a Jess from Gilmore Girls way: leather jacket-wearing bad boy who cut class to smoke behind the bleachers while reading Swann's Way. When we met he got into philosophy/learning languages to impress me (he thought I was intellectually out of his league, haha) and here we are. We've been officially together for almost seven years.

3.5.) If you're trying to follow along and do the math but are finding nothing adds up, I have a late birthday plus skipped a grade in elementary school (which, in retrospect, probably contributed to this mess but at least I get an extra year of my life with which to be freely messed up)

4.) For those asking whether I have female friends: nope! I had a lot of stupid internalized misogyny as a teenager and into college, then alienated all of my male AND female friends during my illness, then made a few international moves before coming here (where I know no one, and have a hard time meeting people due to the environment and my weird working hours) with the bf for his degree. He's just starting his second year.

5.) Really want to reiterate that I don't hate "average" people, or working class people, or teachers, or anything like that. Both my and my fiance's parents are very poor, working class folks who live/have lived below the poverty line or have been homeless. I don't think regular work is below me. It's just painful to be doing regular work when your partner has an Ivy League/Oxbridge/etc pedigree and gets to live a fun and exciting life traveling around the world and chilling with famous thinkers, is all. I'm sorry if I was insensitive or callous.

6.) Someone said something about my being drawn to medicine being a status thing. I can't deny that that's part of it. When I try to see what I'm passionate about, though, medicine is definitely it or at least in there, especially medicine for the regularly devoiced and disenfranchised of the healthcare system (poor people, fat people, minorities, the ultra-rural, young women and girls, etc etc etc). I can't tell you how much my blood boils when a student talks about how his parents are making him become a doctor and he's dreading it because "obamacare is going to make me deal with poor people and take all my money." Christ.

7.) My last therapist was a Jungian. Interesting but ultimately useless. He was sort of my only choice, being the only therapist within walking distance that takes my insurance (no car, we walk everywhere). I actually just dumped him. Hopefully someone better soon.

Ugh, way too long again. Thank you for reading, responding, and giving me so much to think about already, though I'm sure I'll be back with more questions relatively soon.
posted by bugperson at 4:07 PM on October 4, 2015

Response by poster: Oh, also, because of my health shit I'm already super-sensitive to and careful about fluctuations in my physical well-being. Bf is too. Eat plenty of a wide variety of foods, cook at home almost always, walk everywhere in a town that is very pedestrian unfriendly re:no car, etc. So no worries on that front. I don't really believe in a distinction between mental and physical health but I've got the usual bases covered. Sorry to double-post!
posted by bugperson at 4:18 PM on October 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you think you could be equally passionate about healthcare as you are about academics, I really think it sounds like a better route for you. For one, you would be in a different sphere entirely from your fiance and I think that would honestly solve a huge chunk of your problem. 25-26 is a completely average age to start medical school so I wouldn't worry about that, and it has the benefit of being an extremely well-defined path. I don't think there's anything seriously wrong with wanting a bit of status in your profession, it's only bad when it takes over your life like this. So if you have a passion for medicine, don't let the fact that you'd prefer being a doctor over a nurse etc. for reasons of status deter you. I think you are definitely smart enough to get into an MD program, just try and take care of your mental and physical health as you do the prereqs if you decide that is what you want to do. Ditto goes for the humanities PhD.

That said even if you don't think medicine is right for you, I think that getting a better therapist who specifically knows how to deal with these sorts of issues and expanding your social circle (maybe through hobbies) will help tremendously! Good luck. You don't have to be a genius to succeed in even top fields.
posted by hejrat at 6:20 PM on October 4, 2015

Also I have a lot of peers with GPAs in the 2.9-3.3 range who ended up going to great law/grad schools, it can be done and I think the fact that you had an upward trend and a higher major GPA makes your GPA functionally higher than a 3.0 for adcoms, if that makes sense.
posted by hejrat at 6:22 PM on October 4, 2015

Kind of late, but about your updates.. (1) have you thought about doing something like a master's in public health? It gets you back into an academic environment and can open the doors to a number of career directions in healthcare (including being a doctor - apparently it's pretty common to go from a public health master's to medical school). (2) It's kind of funny that you mentioned Gilmore Girls because I was actually thinking about it when I read your original post. That show presents an incredibly shallow, weird, and idealized version of lots of things, including "elite" academic life. It was kind of addictive, which is why I watched it, but I seriously spent almost the whole time boggling as I watched it. It felt like a show made by people who'd heard many things about the real world but never actually stepped foot in it. This whole idea of "geniuses" and "chilling with famous thinkers" and all - it is shallow, idealized, and weird. (I apologize for the bluntness.) Especially when it turns out your fiance is at the very beginning of his academic career and frankly at the easiest part of it.

I'm not saying this to be unkind. I guess what I'm trying to say is that for now, focus on what impact you'd like to have on the world, whether through your work or through other things, and figure out some ways to get started. And let yourself change your path along the way if needed. Don't worry about your own, or others', idealized versions of worlds that don't exist and the status systems thereof.
posted by egg drop at 3:42 AM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

You are 23, so you've been together with this guy since you were - sixteen or seventeen? And you moved with him now that he's doing his PhD? That seems like a challenging set of dynamics to manage, in terms of relationship experience, friendship circles, access to resources and the stresses that a PhD program can put on a relationship.

Based on your update, I still think that talk therapy - over the internet, if need be - is going to be important for you. But, god knows, not a Jungian or a Freudian or whatever; someone who has experience with women and marginalized people more than they have a powerful and pervasive system.

Are you stuck somewhere ridiculous like the wilds of Iowa or something? This itself is going to make things really hard, because it will limit your access to interesting things that aren't attached to the university. If you're in a university town, naturally everything is going to seem to revolve around academic life.


Something that helps me is to remember that working class people everywhere are intellectually marginalized. There are lots of intelligent working class people who could be brilliant scholars and philosophers and who never will be, because they are pushed aside by the same university-industrial system to which you and your boyfriend are looking for employment and status. Universities like to imagine themselves as sources of justice and enlightenment; for the most part they reinscribe and actively create inequality. This has been really difficult for me to accept, but over the years I've seen how universities treat working class students, community members of color, adjuncts, staff, contractors - virtually everyone except administrators, coaches and a tiny cadre of tenured faculty. Universities may have splendid people within them, but as institutions they perpetuate injustice.

I find it helpful to remind myself that when I look to the university for intellectual validation, I am looking to a corrupt system which is designed not to provide intellectual validation for people like me.

It took me well into my thirties to forgive myself for not becoming an academic and to understand that virtually every academic and professional-class person I know has academic/professional class parents. I know precisely one striver who's gotten a fancy though non-academic job, and she's been shut out of a lot of stuff within that profession due to her class background. My parents, though smart, could not help me with connections or help me to negotiate the academic world. I grew up believing that I would be smart enough, and that would be enough - therefore, if it wasn't enough, I wasn't smart.

You're feeling like the world will end if you don't have a high-status smart-person job. Those high-status, smart person jobs are built on the bones of working class people, many of whom could have made quite good scholars. You don't have contempt for them; why would you have contempt for yourself if social forces push you to join their ranks?

You're smart. I'm smart - god knows I've had enough intellectually respectable people tell me so at this point. We're from backgrounds where it's difficult for us to make it as scholars.

That's not to say that you can't, or shouldn't - but get your head right first, and if it doesn't work out, remember that larger forces shape your life. And I mean know that, not acknowledge it in passing while still blaming yourself.
posted by Frowner at 7:07 AM on October 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Yeah, you're idealizing academic life to a startling degree. This idea that conferences are some kind of jet setting adventure where you rub elbows and chill with awesome smart people is like maybe 10% true. Mostly going to conferences means being tired from the flight, eating bad food, feeling exhausted and obligated to do a bunch of face-showing stuff, and the conversations are mostly superficial because there isn't time to actually talk about interesting stuff. On top of that, you're away from your real work and you have no idea what your graduate students are doing but they sure as hell aren't working on your collaborative projects because you're not around and you have to figure out how to trick someone into teaching your class while you're away and goddamnit you're in Vienna for crying out loud and you might as well be in Plano or something because it's not like you have time to go see anything anyhow.

Really. Conferences are marginally better for extroverts I'm sure but all in all everyone considers them to be mostly a giant pain in the ass.

Also, if you care about the devoiced and disenfranchised academia is NOT for you because there are scant few of us who do real action research and it's REALLY hard to do.

Finally as an academic myself, the absolute last thing we need are charismatic devious imposters boldly acting like they aren't imposters as was advised above. Science and academic research are fast becoming all product, no process and we don't need more of that. THAT SAID you don't sound like a real imposter, but your reaction to that advise gives me lots of pause. Academia is already too much about prestige. Science should be about the SCIENCE, not the scientist. Don't get into this line of work for the wrong reasons, please. It's almost never prestigious anyhow and if you get in it for the prestige you're actively hurting the thing you say you hold dear.
posted by sockermom at 3:22 PM on October 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: egg drop, I know it's shallow and weird and way too black-and-white. I feel like I have a weird childmind about this stuff, but these are my intuitions. I also think--not to lean on this crutch too much--that the three years I spent being really sick are the ones in which people normally do a good deal of growth and development psycho-emotionally whatever, and I kind of...didn't. This is not important, but I have a hunch it's involved.

Frowner, I can say we're at an Ivy so somewhere in the Northeastish. Definitely not the wilds of Iowa, but it's still complicated. Yeah, we met right before I went to college; I was 17. I realize this is fucked up! Seems like people find these kinds of early-start relationships to be creepy and I really wish we hadn't met until we were in our 20s. But we've weathered a lot together, been through a lot of shit.

I know academia is like, one of the nastiest big business, the Ivies especially--built on slavery and still more or less running on it. I'm complicit! But I need to remind myself of this more, so thanks.

sockermom, I'm only speaking to my fiance's experiences. His field means he doesn't travel just for conferences (which are obviously shitty) but also just to do research, which, I don't know, that's kind of cool, right? He's probably going to live in France all next summer (without me) researching for a project. He just got back from an expedition in southeast Asia, again mostly just being there and observing cultural stuff. That's what I'm jealous of!

I know action research is hard. I don't think that's exactly what I'd do (my ideas about philosophy of med are pretty crackpotty) but I'm not afraid of hard things.

Re:the impostor comment, I meant more that it was just cute/clever and interpreted it like, "You feel fake, so the only way to not feel fake anymore is to go out and do things, even if it feels gross, and eventually you'll have tricked yourself into getting over your shit and are just doing things"? Or something? Not literally "be a shitty person and lie to everyone." I mean, I've established I think I'm an idiot, but hopefully not that kind of idiot. I'm definitely not devious or charismatic: I've actually clumsily asked profs to look over my paper a second time because I thought the grade was too high, and I meant it. I try really hard not to be an impostor.

I know scientific research is in a really bad way; in terms of phil of science that's one of the things I'm interested in! Prestige isn't my main goal, being happy and challenged and fulfilled is, but it would be nice if I didn't have to live my life with people always wondering why that guy married such a dumb girl, I think. And for reading/researching/thinking to be more than just a "spare time" thing.

I hope this doesn't count as thread-sitting; sorry if yes.
posted by bugperson at 9:23 PM on October 6, 2015

My last thoughts on this: you have to figure out some way to stop caring what other people think. Who cares if people think your fiancé married someone dumb! Really! First of all, most people are so intensely self-absorbed that they aren't thinking anything at all about you anyhow and if they do it's fleeting. Second, unless those thoughts turn into actions, you will never even know about them and they should therefore not have any meaning to you. Trying to make sure other people don't think a certain thing about you is actually a form of control. People can think whatever they want to think.

I know that there are people out there who think I am mean, or stupid, or lazy - lots of negative stuff. But I don't care because I don't have to live with them in my head. The only person in my head is me and I like myself and I can live with the choices I have made and phooey to the people who don't understand and whose perceptions of me do not match my own reality. I don't care what they think. Neither should you.
posted by sockermom at 11:48 AM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've actually clumsily asked profs to look over my paper a second time because I thought the grade was too high, and I meant it. I try really hard not to be an impostor.

Imposter syndrome is not that you ARE an imposter, but that you continually worry that you are, that you worry your work isn't really up to scratch, and that one day you will be found out (and keep trying to get people to check it, because it would be better to be ahead of the curve!), or wonder why it hasn't been found out already.

What you wrote above is an excellent (terrible?) example of it.
posted by Elysum at 7:31 AM on October 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Hey, for what it's worth those shallow and weird ideas are held by most people (not everyone has them about the same specific things, but you really do come across them everywhere). I know that I've had to do a lot of work getting past some of those for myself and I expect to keep having to do it the older I get.

It's just, you have to slowly have to let yourself believe the things you know intellectually (i.e., that real life is something different than your current ideas of it, that it's generally much messier, and that that's okay). It takes a long time for intuitions to change, but you kind of have to let them do it without seeing that as a betrayal of your dreams or of who you are. Because the best place to be is where you're working on something you really want to do regardless of the trappings it comes with - something that you'd want to do even if it came with little to no glamor or respect from others. It doesn't necessarily have to be what you do for work, either - some people prefer to work at something they find meaningful and others prefer to do meaningful things in the other parts of their lives.

Basically, be easy on yourself. Those three years are wasted for more people than you think, and most people manage to waste long periods of their lives in general, whether at this or later points. Sometimes you're behind the crowd and sometimes you'll be ahead of it. That's life, for everyone.

It seems like it's doubly difficult for you because you live with someone who has the life you've dreamt about and it's easy to feel constantly compared. I don't really know what to do about that (I guess therapy is the standard answer?) But the point about letting go of your connection to the trappings of the life you want rather than its substance is that you can find that substance in a lot of different ways, and prestige doesn't necessarily correlate with effectiveness.

Anyway, I hope this gets easier eventually. Start looking for jobs or educational programs that have the potential to be interesting, and don't worry so much about whether they're ideal right now. It's okay - sometimes it might be better - if the path you take isn't the most direct one.

And FWIW that stint in the restaurant world is impressive - not because of the prestige of France and Semi-Famous Chef but because that must have taken a lot of technical skills and people skills and guts.
posted by egg drop at 3:21 AM on October 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nthing comment by sockermom - you are idealising academic work. Even the comment in your last update:

His field means he doesn't travel just for conferences (which are obviously shitty) but also just to do research, which, I don't know, that's kind of cool, right? He's probably going to live in France all next summer (without me) researching for a project. He just got back from an expedition in southeast Asia, again mostly just being there and observing cultural stuff. That's what I'm jealous of!

yeah, well. He is still going there to work and doing fieldwork can be really hard, draining and isolating, and makes you forget very quickly that the location you're in is supposed to be attractive etc. Doing fieldwork/any kind of academic work couldn't be more removed from tourism/travelling and it's definitely not "just being there and observing cultural stuff".
posted by coffee_monster at 5:02 AM on October 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I know academia is like, one of the nastiest big business, the Ivies especially--built on slavery and still more or less running on it. I'm complicit! But I need to remind myself of this more, so thanks.

No, actually that wasn't what I meant - and while maybe I didn't write my comment super clearly, I think it's revealing that this is your interpretation.

What I meant is not that you are complicit in academia; it's that academia will fuck you hard just like it fucks other marginalized people over. You're thinking of yourself as an insider who is a failure - you think the problem is that you are both a failure and part of a bad system. What I'm trying to say is that a lot of the reason you feel like a failure is because you are an outsider struggling to make it in a violent system which is biased against you.

I'm really attached to the idea of myself as officially smart. I tend to identify with academia, and read criticisms of academia as criticisms of me. But over the years, I've had to realize that while I am smart, I am actually a working class person and the system does not work in my favor. I think you're identifying with the institution - you assume that if there's any screwing people over to be done, you're complicit. What I'm saying is that it's going to be healthier for you to recognize that you are an outsider and you are not meant to succeed in this system. Some marginalized people succeed in academia - I'm not saying that you can't - but not nearly as many as deserve to do so, and most of them constantly experience shitty treatment.

You feel like you're an insider but a failure. I'm saying that it's going to be more realistic to assume that you're an outsider and your "failure" will always be overdetermined by systemic bias.

(My dad knew a guy, for example, who actually sued to get tenure - he was Jewish and he was opposed to the Vietnam war, and his chair mangled the tenure process on purpose. He won. What did they do to him? Well, he got tenure, all right - but they never promoted him past Associate. He didn't want to leave for family reasons, so he toughed it out, but they held a grudge his whole career. And that was someone who was basically a white straight guy from an upper middle class background!)
posted by Frowner at 7:35 AM on October 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

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