Green-Eyed Grad Student

Everything changed when my best friend immediately found tenure-track employment while I struggled to finish a dissertation that seemed increasingly like a waste of time, writes Patricia Grisafi.

September 27, 2016

When Linda and I first met at a mutual friend’s party, I didn’t expect to become best friends with her. I was having a lot of pity tequila and screaming at someone about a celebrity’s recent sexual assault scandal when she walked in, tiny and tottering on wedge heels, with perfectly manicured hair. She was wearing white jeans and accompanied by a smug-looking man. The host wanted to introduce us, but I was not interested. Who the hell wears white jeans?

Little did I know then that our relationship would not only become one of the more important ones in my life but would also highlight the professional and personal struggles one can experience trying to obtain a full-time job in academe.

A year later, Linda and I met again at a bar on the Lower East Side to celebrate a colleague who had just passed her comprehensive exams. This time, we were both having pity cocktails, and Linda tearfully told me the story of her pending divorce. As we shared some deeply personal stories over the course of the evening, I couldn’t believe I had judged her so harshly. We ended the night hugging and crying all over each other. The next day, we went shopping. Then next week, we made Italian food and watched horror movies. It was a lovefest. I even made her the maid of honor at my wedding.

I was a year ahead of Linda in our graduate program, so I was excited when she finally started teaching. We visited each other all the time at work, making French-pressed coffee and chatting about our students, our lives and our hopes for the future. That all changed when Linda graduated a year ahead of me and immediately found employment on the tenure track.

While Linda was well on her way to establishing an excellent reputation as an educator and scholar, I had gotten all muddied as I struggled to finish a dissertation that seemed increasingly like a waste of time. I was depressed about academe, questioning what I was trying to achieve as I saw smart and talented colleagues rejected from job after job. As I sat crammed in a cubicle with four co-workers, and with Linda already gone, I knew I had to find a more sustainable career.

Wrapping up what I thought was my last semester as a professor was painful. While I knew I would miss my students and sharing my enthusiasm for literature and writing, I also knew I couldn’t succeed financially on an adjunct salary. Even though I could no longer see a viable future in academe, it was still hard not to view my pending departure as an incredible failure.

As I crawled toward restructuring my future, twinges of jealousy and annoyance started to color my feelings about Linda. She was so perfect. Everyone liked her. She was kind, smart, hardworking. She believed in the importance of her scholarship and her role as a teacher. Most bothersome, however, was that she believed in the higher education system. She knew it had embedded institutional issues, but her optimism -- and, let’s face it, acceptance into its ranks -- made her hopeful. On the other hand, I was critical, wounded, angry. How could she defend such a broken system?

It was not a lover, but academe that threatened to come between us.

Sometimes I felt resentful about her accomplishments. “So what, only three people are going to end up reading that,” I sniped at her when she shared that her essay was coming out in a peer-reviewed journal. Intellectually, I knew it wasn’t fair to take out my resentment on Linda when I should be congratulating her; I understood that this resentment stemmed from my own anger, shame and sense of loss. But I still struggled with my emotions.

I must sound like the worst friend ever. But feelings of envy between friends, especially friends in similar careers, are quite common -- although we often don’t talk about envy or feelings of jealousy toward our friends because it’s embarrassing and makes us look like terrible people. We’re supposed to be happy about our friends’ successes all the time, right? We’re supposed to be fully secure in our identities all the time, yes?

In an article for Psychology Today, Mary C. Lamia notes, “Envy has to do with feeling unhappy about the success of someone else, or about what they have and, at the same time, secretly feeling inferior yourself …. Typically, envy comes with fantasies of having what you are lacking, and often what you might be lacking is admiration that is similar to the high regard you have for the person who has the desired attribute or possession you envy.”

Few fields thrive on your feelings of inferiority as much as academe. How else can you get thousands of smart, caring educators to work for poverty-level wages? But the trick is to communicate; don’t sit on your envy and let it fester. You might not be able to do anything about larger power structures, but you can empower yourself to be a better friend as well as to be kinder to yourself.

So as not to let my jealousy and bitterness hurt my friendship with Linda, I started being more forthright about all the messy emotions I was feeling. It wasn’t easy, and I hurt her feelings. But putting faith in the strength of our relationship, which isn’t defined by career or professional success, will be crucial as she advances in academe. After all, Linda had never called me a failure; I did that to myself. In fact, she even admitted to envying qualities I possessed.

At what seemed like the 11th hour, I was offered a postdoctoral fellowship at my institution. It came at a fraught time. After sending out numerous applications for writing jobs, I garnered exactly zero interviews and was worried that I might be unemployed for longer than anticipated. I was grateful for the job offer but cognizant it would be a short-term solution to my career dilemma. With her typical pluck and insight, Linda advised me to accept: “You can teach these classes upside down and backward. So think of this job as a stepping-stone,” she said. “And keep freelancing in the meantime.”

At graduation, Linda wasn’t able to make my hooding ceremony but still managed to be a part of the day; she had let me borrow her robes so I wouldn’t have to pay for a set I likely wouldn’t wear again. After all, what are best friends for?

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Patricia Grisafi is a New York City-based freelance writer and English instructor. Her work has appeared in Salon, Broadly, The Establishment, Bitch, Bustle, Ravishly and elsewhere, and she is a staff writer at Luna Luna. She is passionate about pit bull rescue, cursed objects and designer sunglasses.


Patricia Grisafi

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