Thoughts: PhD or Bust

I’m not sure what to write here, honestly. I’ve been steadily working toward this point since I took the LSAT in 2008. Of course, my goals changed, and I took the GRE in August 2010. I went from wanting to be a human rights attorney to wanting to work in sustainable development in Africa. Now I’m looking at a PhD in History, in order to research human trafficking on the continent of Africa.

I’ve emailed the professors whose research is related to mine. I’ve researched graduate programs and schools. I have already ordered all of the official transcripts, and test scores. I even have the letters of recommendation lined up.

Now I have to cope with the pent-up stress of not being where I thought I would be by age 23, coupled with the stress of job searching. I’m unfocused, and it shows in my scatter-shot efforts to DO SOMETHING. It’s difficult to wake up for 2+ years to another day of un(der)employment, another day of unpaid, unseen work that yields little, if any tangible results. Employers don’t respond, save for an automated email: “Thank you for your application.” I send out applications, cover letters, tweaked resumes and curriculum vitae with a prayer.

I have to stop taking this personally. I do. But it’s hard for me to separate “being” from “doing” when I’m so singular. I have to fight to filter out the voices that tell me who I ought to be or how I’ve failed or fallen short. The sense that I am stupid, unintelligent, deficient or incapable assails me on the most difficult mornings. And I have to remember to keep my armor on, and to filter out the voices. Why should I let what other people say about me define how I see myself? Why should I let other people tell me who I am?

Who I am is not what I do. This is a distinction that is often lost in American culture. The language of capitalistic self-valuation is demonstrated when we ask “What do you do?” “What are you?” The assumption is that being employed makes you somebody, and being un(der)employed makes you nobody. I happen to be un(der)employed after graduating into one of the worst recessions in recent history. I’m 23, with 7 years of substantive work experience ranging from being a teacher and a research assistant to being a supervisor. I have the education, skills, experience and knowledge to do a job well, but I don’t have a job.

(Then there’s the added stress of my hearing possibly getting worse. My ears never rang this loudly before. It’s tough enough being hearing-impaired…)

Now, circle back to graduate school applications. I’m struggling with balancing my job search with the process of applying to graduate school. I know I need to find the academic sources I need to write a full-bodied, focused statement of purpose, but I also feel the need to follow up on this job application, send out that cover letter. I have no routine. I have no defined, purposeful demarcation of my day. Hours just flow in clumps and ebbs, while I search for the “right” word for the cover letter, email or article I’m writing.

I’m actually doing pretty well. I just revamped my curriculum vitae to include new freelance & consultant work. I finished an article on remittances to Northern Kenya, where 4 million (approximately 10% of Kenya’s population) is suffering drought. I have also made contact with 11 professors who could potentially be my advisors as I complete my PhD.

The schools on my list (a work-in-progress) include:

  1. Princeton University
  2. Cornell University
  3. Yale University
  4. Harvard University
  5. New York University
  6. Columbia University
  7. University of Kent
  8. University of Pennsylvania
  9. University of Chicago

If I were to extend my field of interest, I could look at African Studies programs, I’d consider:

  1. School of Oriental and African Studies (London)
  2.  Columbia University, African Studies
  3. U.C. Berkeley, African Diaspora Studies
  4. University of Kent at Canterbury, Postcolonial Studies
  5. Yale University, African Studies
That’s all for today.


  1. arri, life is kind of like a boat ride into the open waters. anything can happen at anytime since our God is an infinite God and i know plans are always changing, but i’m excited for where you are now and wherever you go.

    1. Mel! I’m actually going to call you a little later! Thank you for reading this and supporting me. It means a lot to me.

  2. I do think it’s difficult to remain focused, when so much of everything is that if we’re not working (making money) then there’s little value in what we’re doing. Granted there are bills to be paid, food to be bought – but it can be emotionally draining because people want to “help” but they just breed more frustration about the situation. Which is part of the reason why I’m keeping pretty much everything I’m doing to myself – I’m not getting paid to do a lot of this stuff, but I want to do it!

    I think it’s difficult to be 23 because there’s no context. I spend a lot of time comparing where I “should” be at my age since there are people who have full time jobs, side jobs, significant others, are traveling, etc and graduated with me. It can be daunting, and incite feelings of powerlessness. I dislike being unemployed and not having any money to do the things I want. :/

    But good luck with grad school applications.

  3. Hey, this reminds me of my article, “Living Life” :-) I didn’t copy u, I swear! I think many can relate to the feelings this economic downturn has brought us… Great article!

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