Good morning! Today we’re doing the thing!
Submit your question before noon either at Patreon or on Twitter (@CAwkward, #AwkwardFriday) and I will answer as many as I can between noon and 1pm Chicago time. Comments open when the full transcript is posted.
Search Terms drop Monday, so, short answers all around! Short answers (literally) for days.
And we’re off: Financial stuff with parents, being a wedding buffer, the hellscape of academic career decisions, more academia with added grief, Mourning Periods, revisited, new dating partners and mismatched feelings, “but we just fell in love how can we be breaking up already” breakups, and avoiding cultural appropriation at family weddings.
Q1: Any advice on tactful ways to ask my parents to take me off their credit cards? I’m 29, and my parents had me on some credit cards while I was growing up for emergencies and to help me build credit. I check my credit score regularly, and it’s been going down lately due to two of my parents cards being fairly close to the limit. I have enough of my own lines of credit now that I don’t need them to build my score anymore (mortgage, student loans, etc.). How do I approach the subject of getting me off these accounts? Thanks!
A1: It looks like you might be able to remove yourself by calling the credit card company. If that works, the conversation could be “Oh hey btw I removed myself from the family credit cards. Thanks for the assist way back when, but I’ve got my own credit history now and don’t need to piggyback on yours anymore!”
In your shoes I’d try that first, but if it doesn’t work just be direct, “Thanks for adding me to the family credit cards way back when, but I’ve got my own credit history now and I’d like to be removed from the joint accounts. Can you handle that for me this week?”
You don’t have to get into the score stuff or the spending (the whole point is that y’all are adults and adults get to do what they want with their $) , just frame it as the totally reasonable request that it is.
Q2: A dear friend of mine is getting married, and I’ve been invited to be a bridespal. Yay! I asked her how I can be most helpful, and she said she’d appreciate my being a buffer between her and her (somewhat overbearing) parents. I know you’ve mentioned being a buffer on the blog a few times, but I’d really appreciate suggestions of 1) how to tell when buffering might be helpful and 2) how to take bufferly action (e.g., what I can try to do). Thanks very much! (they/them pronouns)
A2: Taking lessons from Commander Logic, aka THE GREATEST PARENT BUFFER OF ALL TIME, most of it involves positively engaging the potentially troublesome people in enthusiastic and friendly conversation. The parents can’t get all “is that what you’re wearing?” on the bride or groom when a gregarious person is in their faces like “HI, SO NICE TO SEE YOU, TELL ME EVERYTHING THAT’S NEW IN YOUR LIFE, WHATCHA DRINKING?” and just, like, relentlessly fangirls them into being chill. It’s not fake or a performance, Logic is just friendly and gregarious and parents are helpless against her charisma.
The rest is taking direction from the person getting married – Are there certain communications about logistics that they want you to send out instead of them (b/c the parents might argue with them about it but won’t argue with you), are there certain parts of the day where the person getting married wants space from them (maybe judge-y mom isn’t invited to the Getting Ready stuff).
You’ll be great at this and your friend is smart to ask for this, specifically, ahead of time.
Q3: I’m feeling stuck. I’m a PhD Candidate at a competitive university. A year ago, I really reckoned with the notion that I am perhaps not willing/able to contend with what a career in academia entails (the precarity! the pressure to publish! the lack of control over where I live!). I committed to ‘parallel planning’ (career centre term!) – planning for both the prospect of an academic *or* a non-academic career, and all the networking/researching/positioning/skill-building that both entail. This has not solved the problem. I put a lot of pressure on myself to do all the things and I frequently and aggressively interrogated my experiences and feelings for ‘signs’ of what I was ‘meant’ to be doing (for example, translating my knowledge-based CV into a skill-based resume and reaching out to relevant sectors (and scrutinizing every interaction), or teaching and putting every student evaluation and lecture performance under a microscope – all in an effort to ascertain whether I felt ‘called’ to one path or another). Clear direction has not been forthcoming. A year later, I am feeling burnt out and fraudulent on a level that is distinct from the bouts of impostor syndrome I’ve had. Past release valves (volunteering, gym, time with friends and fam) don’t provide the same rest and restoration that they used to. Moreover, where I used to be able to power through and do the work even when it was hard and I doubted myself, my discipline has dissolved and been replaced by a daily paralyzing existential crisis about how to finish the PhD, what should be prioritized, and what will come next. I sought some therapy for a month. I was hoping for clarity, but I mostly just cried a lot trying to figure out how my self-worth/identity had become so bound up in my work. My supervisor says that this is normal and I’m well-placed for a good academic gig (provided I publish more this year), but I don’t think I can do the dissertation and the publishing and the non-academic preparation and the make-rent-money-work. I want to finish this PhD (I’ve got ~1 year left), so perhaps I should focus on that. But, I’m worried that if I don’t actively prepare for both academic/non-academic options, there won’t actually *be* an option available to me when the time comes. But then again, what I’ve been doing isn’t working, so what is to be done instead? Should I just do the damn dissertation and get out and come what may? What does one do when the coping/work strategies that have always worked lose their efficacy? Should I go back to therapy? Thank you so much for any insight! She/her pronouns.
A3: Hello and thanks for this real-time glimpse inside academia career decision hell and the mindset of “I WILL NEVER POSSIBLY PRODUCE ENOUGH OR GET THIS RIGHT” it produces in a bunch of smart and driven people.
For you, I will try to boil my thoughts down from the TEN MILLION WORDS OF RAGE ESSAYS surging inside me:
- Academia has some deeply unjust employment practices and norms and I get why you’re freaking out right now. “You, Person A, have a new PhD, here is a reasonable full time teaching job with reasonable pay and excellent benefits! You, Person B, also have a new PhD, you will also teach college students who will go into crushing debt and pay the same amount of $ to take your classes that they do for Person A’s classes, but you might want to also get a job at the Trader Joe’s for the grocery discounts and the health insurance. Person A, you are Good Enough! Person B, you are Not Quite Good Enough and will probably never be Good Enough (don’t tell the students paying out the A$$ to learn from you, though, ’cause we are still gonna sell the hell out of your not-good-enough labor until you die in your car like all those articles about adjunct poverty your friends keep sharing on Facebook).” Like ok I promised no rage essays but ADJUNCTING IS BULLSHIT (please tell everyone)(also read Megan Stielstra’s book, esp. all the essays about working in academia) and your feelings of dread are normal.
- Yes, go back to therapy. At worst, once a week, you get one structured 50-minute-hour to lose your shit and have a trained, helpful, kind listener help you get your shit back together so you can function for another week. Do it.
- You’re allowed to stop. To not finish. “ABD” doesn’t have the ring of “Doctor” but you can decide to do something else with your life if you want to. Whatever you decide, try tacking “I am choosing ____” onto the beginning of the sentence. “I am choosing to finish my degree.” “I am choosing to put school on hiatus while take an internship in the private sector.” You’re so close to finishing, and your advisors believe in you, and finishing might give you more options (like maybe let
those hiring committee bastardsyour esteemed future colleagues reject you, don’t reject yourself when you’ve come so far?), so finishing is probably the best choice but it’s just one of the choices.
- More than anything you probably need a break right now, like, three weeks of reading for pleasure and making your house clean and nice and taking walks and staring out the window and getting an annual physical and studiously NOT trying to deal with career stuff this second.
- Publishing is necessary, MEETING PEOPLE IS NECESSARY-ER. More necessary. Conferences, professional associations in your discipline (academic and potential non-academic), going to karaoke night or explain your thesis in dance or Model UN (but grownups!) or whatever is there socially and professionally has gotta be a thing for you. People. Human beings. Who are making a life and making work. A community of scholars and learners. Meet them. Practically, they are gonna know about job openings and good places to work and y’all are gonna cite each other and collaborate and build a body of work together. Emotionally they are gonna remind you that you are so very not alone. :looks at inbox which is literally burning from all the questions like these: You are so very not alone.
- There are jobs and there is the work. Something drew you to this field, there was something you wanted to be when you grew up that led you here. Is that a teacher? Is that a researcher? Is that a writer? I know you’re supposed to be all three all the time all things to all people but if given a choice, how would you spend your days if you could choose? That’s what you need to hone in on for your academic AND your alt-ac job searching. “I’m a writer and a researcher, I want to work on x kinds of problems.” “I’m a writer, I want to communicate about x kinds of ideas.” “I’m a teacher, I want to be in the classroom talking about x with students who want to learn about y.” “I”m a trainer, I want to train specialists to do highly technical work in x” “I’m a researcher, I want to investigate x kinds of problems.” “I’m a speaker, I want to get my work in front of x kinds of audiences.” Example: One of my favorite students ever is a career scientist with a fat PhD who started taking improv and film classes in her 50s because what she really wanted to do was to help her fellow scientists visualize and explain and communicate what they do. Last time I saw her she was starting a consulting business where she translates their work into different kinds of media – academic publishing, popular/general public kinds of articles, social media, TED talks, video essays, etc. – and teaches them to be better communicators. It’s the coolest thing.
Do you like writing exercises? I like writing exercises. So, take out a notebook and write down:
- What are five universities you’d most like to work for someday? (Follow up later: What do their job postings look like? What do the bios* of the people they’ve hired look like? Track this stuff.)
- What are five private companies you’d most like to work for? (Follow up later: What do their job postings look like? What do their staff bios* look like? Track this stuff.)
- What are five things you do really well (don’t have to be academic or career things)?
- When you work in a team, what role(s) do you shine in? Are you the leader/the idea person/the scribe/the planner/the researcher/the presenter/the mediator/the moderator/the savior/the explainer/the manager/the translator/the compiler/the editor/the fact checker? (Those roles all map onto different jobs and can help you make sense of alt-ac job descriptions).
- Who are five people in your field you’d most like to meet or work with? Do they have Twitter or other social media presence? (Follow themmmmmm)
- If you had to describe what you do to those people, what would you say? (Follow up: Could you tweet out your research in digestible chunks? I’m not just being selfish b/c I love reading when people tweet their research – It’s a skill to be able to hone down and explain what it is you’re doing in that format, and the more practice you get telling the story of your work the more it shapes the work)
- What are five outlets you’d most like to write for? Sure, academic journals where you must publish for it to count, but also, publications that normal human people actually read in their free time? (The content you create for your dissertation may be able to be recycled into many forms for many audiences, including freelance pieces that pay your bills).
- Close your eyes. Imagine you wrote and published a book. Who do you send the first 10 copies of this book to? What do you write in the inscription? What does the cover look like? What do you wear in your cool author photo? Who in your wildest dreams comes across this book and reads the book and whispers “I read your book, it is so great” in your ear?
- Who are five teachers from your whole life you think are great? What did they do right? Who are your five worst teachers? What did they do wrong? (Follow up: Write your Statement of Teaching Philosophy, it will be at least 75% less boilerplate bullshit than it was before).
- In the work you’ve done so far on your PhD and dissertation, what are five things that you didn’t know before you started?
- Without looking anything up, what are five things you read in grad school that made you go “whoa, now I get it” or “omg I need to learn more” or “no, you are completely wrong about that”? (What is sticky for you)(Where is your work fitting in the conversations that need to happen in your field)
- Are there any happy people around you where you are – (colleagues, advisors, mentors)? Can you hang out with them more than you do now?
- Which of these was the hardest question to answer?
*Professional bios are the hardest thing to write and also a fucking goldmine for anyone who is trying to figure out what career words mean and how to position themselves. How do the people you aspire to be describe who they are and what they do? What buzzwords and key words and titles do they use? Can you apply that to how you describe and promote yourself? In those lists of grants they won and stuff they did on their way up, are there things you didn’t know about that you could also do?
I can’t unfuck academia for you and I can’t make these choices for you but I hope I can make your period of anxiety-procrastination at least slightly more productive and interesting.
Q4: My beloved cat died yesterday after a heartbreaking fight with cancer. I defend my dissertation on Monday, hopefully finishing my PhD. Finishing my dissertation while my cat was so sick (surgery, being fed via feeding tube for over a month, the general emotional exhaustion and sadness) was a nightmare, and now I’m alternating between feeling numb and sobbing. I have no idea how I’m going to make it through my defense. My advisor and committee don’t know about any of this (because heaven forbid anyone ever actually ask you how you are in academia). I have a good but not personally close rapport with them all. Do I tell them what’s going on? Do I suck it up and say nothing and pray that I have my shit together better on Monday and that I won’t start sobbing during my defense? (Although apparently it’s normal to sob during your defense.) I’m supposed to prep for Monday, and I just don’t care about any of it, other than a low grade sense of panic, because I’m so freaking burned out and miserable after managing to write the thing under so much additional stress and the crushing sadness of losing my baby. Delaying the defense is not an option because I’m moving to another state next month. Any advice for getting through this colossally important event without crashing and burning would be much appreciated.
A4: I am so sorry. My cat friend died in March and I probably cry once a day for at least a few minutes when I think of her.
Here’s my advice:
- NUMB IS OKAY. WE CAN WORK WITH NUMB.
- YOU KNOW YOUR SHIT.
You know your shit backwards and forwards and what you don’t know you’re not going to magically cram between now and Monday. Trust that you know your shit, you’ve done the work, and that when you’re in that room the shit you know will follow you there. You don’t have to feel any kind of way about the shit you know in order to know it. Numb is good. Numb is useful. Numb will get it done.
In your shoes I would not tell anyone on the committee that my cat died before the defense because (and this is just me) if I am on the verge of crying and someone is sympathetic and warm and asks me about the thing that is making me sad, it will trigger FULL UGLY CRY.
If I did tell my advisor in advance it would be like “The cat died I am a mess I need you to NOT ASK ME ABOUT IT also DON’T HUG ME and please JUST BE SUPER BUSINESSLIKE AND EVEN A LITTLE MEAN IF YOU CAN HANDLE THAT, IT WILL MAKE IT EASIER.”
I would also not tell anyone for practical reasons: It does not help you to set expectations lower. You are an expert on your dissertation topic, in fact you are THE expert on that topic in that room. You phoning it in about your topic while distracted by grief is still the phoning it in of a motherfucking expert. You will not be the worst, least-prepared thesis defender they’ve ever seen, you will not be the only crier of yesterday who goes by “doctor” today. It is not a weakness to have strong emotions upon losing a friend OR upon completion of a very hard milestone. If you happen to biff a question, or feel yourself totally breaking down in the middle, you always have the option to say “Listen, I’m a mess, my cat just died and I need a few minutes to get my thoughts back on track” and then you go to the bathroom, you clean your face, you come back and stick the landing like the champion EXPERT you are. Do not call attention to your weaknesses. Let others do that…if they dare.
I have one weird practical suggestion if you can afford it: Right after Beadie died, the apartment was so very haunted by her. I couldn’t stop looking at her usual spot, or talking to her, or looking for her underfoot, or pulling her hair off my clothes. If you can afford a hotel room or an AirBnB for a couple days, this is a GREAT couple of days to pack a suitcase and GTFO to a sterile space with good TV and fewer feelings.
If you can’t, you can’t. Moving on.
Today is Friday. Today you cry, wallow, nap, eat comforting things, distract yourself. Drink fluids (some of those can be booze if you partake).
Tomorrow is Saturday. Tomorrow you read your dissertation out loud to yourself from cover to cover, exactly once. Practice saying the things you asserted/learned/no/discovered/argue out loud in your voice. Take a long walk or bike ride or drive, imagine yourself answering all the arguments and questions in your head. Drink fluids (booze still allowed). Eat regularly. Sleep often.
Then comes Sunday. Fluids, good. Booze, no. Three meals, good. Pick out your outfit and get it ready. Don’t try anything new with your hair or face. Sleep as much as you need to.
Monday. Eat breakfast. Drink fluids (esp. water). Some caffeine, not too much. Put on your outfit. Pee before you go into the room. If it’s allowed and you think it will help you, take a blank notebook and pen with you to the defense and take notes as people ask questions and discuss – It gives you something to do with your hands and something to look at and helps you slow the process down a little while you think.
THEN CRUSH IT THE WAY YOU WERE ALWAYS MEANT TO CRUSH IT.
Then do something celebratory. It’s okay if you cry – relief, grief, it’s all good.
Schedule NOTHING for Tuesday.
Q5: Hi Captain – I’m looking for advice on getting through a formal mourning period, when I have promised people who matter to me I’ll stay in mourning for a prescribed time, but my mind and heart are now chafing at the restrictions. Specifically, early this year my beloved gentleman companion of several years (who was also a long-term friend before we were romantically involved) passed away suddenly. In the wake of my shock and devastation, when I was so heartbroken I couldn’t contemplate ever being happy again, I promised to join his family in the one-year formal mourning period prescribed by their faith (different from mine) and family traditions. The mourning period includes the usual specifications, such as wearing dark colors, declining discretionary social invitations (work-related socializing and family commitments such as holiday gatherings are okay, just not things like going to parties and the movies), and spending a chunk of time each day on somber reflection. Their home, which I am asked to visit regularly, is also set up basically like a mausoleum during the mourning period, with only dim lighting allowed, most of the shades drawn, and pictures/mementos of him everywhere. And several months down the road…I am having a hard time with all this. My own grief is lifting quite a bit – I still miss him horribly, but the “pain in every fiber of my being” intensity has subsided enough that I am able to look to the future with hope, instead of dwelling exclusively on what I’ve lost. But I keep getting drawn back into it, especially when the mourning period doesn’t allow much socializing, or even solo fun stuff, essentially all the things I would normally do during a tough time to lift my spirits. I don’t think abandoning the mourning period is an option – his family tells me repeatedly that my participation has tremendous meaning to them and brings incredible comfort during the most difficult time of their lives. And surely, I can handle another 6 months or so of a reduced social schedule. But any tips for self-care (within the parameters described here) would be most appreciated. (I’m already working with a therapist on grief issues – which is one of the reasons I’m no longer feeling quite so glum!)
A5: I’m so sorry for your loss.
We talked a little about formal mourning traditions last week, and the good/helpful parts that let people compartmentalize grief and rely on rituals when feelings are messy. Now we’re running into the constrictions. I think one of the reasons the traditions DO work so well is that by the end of the enforced dark clothing/dim lights/no doing fun stuff/photos everywhere period there is also a ritual where you have permission to put it all down and take up normal life again, and that feels more like a relief than a betrayal. But their tradition is not your tradition and it’s okay if your heart is running on a different schedule.
I think before you talk to the family about any choices you’re going to make, give yourself permission to identify some things that you need.
- Do you you actually need to go to the movies? Would it make you feel better to see some friends?
- Of course you want to continue visiting his family and stay close with them, but what’s the right, sustainable schedule for you? Do you have to go to everything, every time they ask? (I mean, ostensibly, yes, you do, because they want you to and you theoretically shouldn’t be busy with something else social, but, can you start going to every other thing instead of every one?)
- Is there someone in your family you’re close to that you could be honest with about how you’re feeling? “I’m so honored to be a part of this, but the way I grieve is different, and I’m starting to need to do joyful things, sometimes, too. Do you think [beloved] would understand if I went to the movies, or to see our friend’s band play?”
- If you privately gave yourself one day/a month “off” from observing mourning for the rest of the year, what’s the worst thing that would happen? Could you keep this off social media, etc. and just privately do what you need to do, while still visiting them and staying connected?
If you’re committed to following through and just looking for ways to pass the time and take care of yourself:
- Could you put yourself in service of other people and the things you believe in? Volunteer, do good works, etc.?
- What’s a giant book series you’ve always wanted to get through?
- Or a giant, picky, absorbing hobby or craft you could take up?
- Or a thing – a foreign language, shoemaking, cheesemaking – you’ve always wanted to learn?
- Are you moving your body and getting outside on the regular?
- Could social things with friends be more “let’s take a walk in nature” or “let’s go to the art museum together” or “come over and help me make cheese” than parties?
- What mourning rituals did you grow up with and are any of them worth getting in touch with now?
- What are the places and activities that your beloved most loved, could you revisit them in his name?
That’s what I got. There is an end date to the expectations, I think you’re allowed to try to find a balance between taking care of yourself and keeping your promises.
Q6: I have recently been told I am very important to someone new I am seeing, and it makes me twitch. not sure I want to be important, not sure how to answer his statement to myself or him. Seeing each other for about 3 months, non primary poly. (I am she)
A6: The twitch you’re feeling is good information.
Let’s look at it like that, like information.
The person is giving you information about how they feel about you. They’d probably love it if you said “I feel the same way!” but if “I don’t know what to say but thank you for telling me that” is the truth, say that. It’s okay to need more time to figure out how you feel, it’s okay to be a slow processor, it’s okay not to mirror back exactly what people are feeling about you at a given moment. It’s also okay to be enthusiastic and forthright, like your dating person is.
Everything about this says “still processing, need more time” to me. If you’re still twitching a month from now you’ll know what to do.
Q7: I (he/him) recently started dating a guy with whom I feel a deep kinship on a level I’ve only experienced one other time in my life. Now he needs to press pause on things for mental health reasons. How can I healthily grieve this potential relationship?
A7: You’ve felt this before, and now you’re feeling it again, which is telling you that this is rare and must be held onto at all costs but is telling me (an Old) that “well, it’s happened twice, so it’s possible again someday, because the same good qualities that drew wonderful people to you are still in you.”
I think you can say “I really like you, and I hate to part ways right now, but please do what you need to do to take care of yourself. If you change your mind when you’re feeling better, please promise me you won’t be shy about reaching out again.”
And then you disengage and work the getting over somebody steps like with any other breakup.
Q8: My cousin is getting married and has appropriated a “Native American Blanket Ritual” (of no legitimate origins I can find) into her wedding. We are not Native, nor is the groom, nor is the officiant. I’ve RSVP’d no, but do I tell her why?
A8: Yiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiikes! That would also give me pause/whatever the opposite of schadenfreude is where you might die of secondary shame instead of feeling pleasure in it.
You’ve RSVP’d no already, so, leave the no in place and plan not to attend. I wouldn’t attach the RSVP specifically to the discussion you’re wanting to have – What I wanna know from your RSVP is “do I gotta rent you a chair or no” not “is your attendance conditional on your objections to the plans I’ve made.”
If you normally email or call or text with this cousin, you could try a “Cousin, congratulations, again, I’m so sorry I’m going to miss the wedding. I’m so curious about the Native American Blanket Ritual you have planned, what’s the source of that?” and see what she says. I did a little research just now and there was an Offbeat Bride thread where someone was like “ew, cultural appropriation” and the actual bride was like “Nope! You don’t know what you don’t know about my actual heritage!” so, while you probably know, maybe you don’t 100% KNOW-know. If she’s like “No reason! Just liked it!” then you have room to say “Hey, it’s your wedding, and I get why you like it, but are you sure you want to risk cultural appropriation?”
If you don’t normally email or call or text her about other things – like, you’re related but you’re not friends like that – then consider what she is going to say to wedding critiques (even justified, accurate, “I’m trying to help you not be a gross colonizer”) from someone she barely talks to who just said they aren’t coming. You might still need to say something to her! But yeah, that bridge is gonna burrrrrrrrrnnnn and she’s gonna do the blanket thing anyway.
And that’s all she wrote today. Comments are open.