Trust Your Gut, But Which One?: Indecision in Grad School

Recently, I made a big decision. I spent months agonizing over it, partly because my options were in flux for so long and partly because of my indecision. I won’t share the details, because they’re not particularly relevant, but I do want to spend time on decisions. Specifically, why are decisions in graduate school so difficult?

I wouldn’t describe myself as decisive, but I’ve felt uncharacteristically indecisive for the past two years. The starting point of this indecision? Deciding on a graduate program. I found myself comparing my recent decision to my graduate school decision, because somehow the struggle felt comparable. There’s a common thread across most of the decisions I’ve made about or in graduate school. I’ve started calling it an issue with the “academic gut.”

The most common advice people give when you’re struggling with a decision is “trust your gut.” Your gut is supposed to reflect the “right” choice for you. We don’t always have the self-awareness to consciously identify what we need but we assume that the answer is in our subconscious. “Trusting your gut” recognizes a wisdom held in your body and its accumulated experiences. The problem is when there’s a second, competing “gut.”

I’ve found that decisions become especially difficult when there’s a conflict between my personal gut and the academic gut. This second gut isn’t the same as the wisdom accumulated from your lived experiences. But in graduate school, you’re being socialized to take in the norms of this gut as your own. That can cause confusion.

The Academic Gut

The academic gut is what you “should” do to secure a job in or perform well in academia.

You should choose the higher-ranked program over the one in your preferred location.

You should focus on research rather than teaching.

You should keep quiet about any problems until you have tenure.

Following these academic shoulds will probably increase the likelihood of your success (as defined by the academy) and make your work life easier. After all, shoulds are the path that professors before you have taken to succeed. While there is no one “right” way to become a scholar, the illusion of a single best (or better) path is strong. Given the state of the academic job market, deviating from this path feels career-threatening. Yet not even the “right path” guarantees a job. Today it seems that professors advise their graduate students based on a combination of what they did in their careers and a bingo board of “best” practices you should hit to increase your likelihood of securing an academic job.

You should apply for big grants and fellowships.

You should work with prestigious professors.

You should network at big conferences.

Unfortunately, the “should” path is intended to uphold the current system and reproduce its inequalities. This path also assumes a great deal of privilege (i.e. you can afford to go to conferences, you have the time to write a competitive grant application, you have access to well-known scholars). The path preached is not the one you need to follow. But until you’re familiar with how academia works, you don’t know which parts are necessary and which are status-quo deadweight. It’s when you stray from this path that the academic gut kicks in to tell you you’re headed the wrong way.

As a graduate student, you’re being socialized into academia. As a result, the academic gut can start to feel like your own. Professors, older graduate students, and scholars in your field preach the norms of the academic gut to you incessantly, an indoctrination of sorts. You may even hope to become successfully indoctrinated, as this would be an indication that you’re starting to fit in. But you’re not fully socialized and you can’t yet be sure of what is really necessary for an academic career. Even if, like your professors and more experienced colleagues, you became fully fluent in the ways of the academy, your successful socialization might be exactly what keeps you oblivious. It’s now too normal; you can’t see beyond your own disciplinary boundaries. When it comes to time to trust your gut, this socialization kicks in and you draw on the academic gut, which you may have come to confuse as your personal one.

A Note on Difference: The Academic Gut as Invasive

The development of an academic gut troubles some more than others. Not all of us can exist in academia in the same way. Some people will never struggle with the academic gut; they’ll tag along for an easy ride. The career moves, research directions, and daily priorities exalted in graduate school come naturally to them.

Decisions are only difficult when you find that the values of academia are at odds with your own. The farther your proximity from positions and identities of privilege – race, class, educational background, able-bodied maleness – the more likely you are to be at odds. This pattern certainly doesn’t map out perfectly. Some assimilate or have been in the process of doing so for years; they slip easily into a second skin. It becomes their skin, until the next moment that reveals it is not. Others have been trying, stretching this skin around their own, squeezing and squirming to get the fit right, yet may find themselves too tired to do this any longer.

But let’s return to the gut.

Unlike skin, guts are internal, invisible unless something has gone very wrong. Then, in implanting a new gut, someone has deemed something about your original one to be wrong. But for you, the academic gut becomes an invasive force, clouding and distorting judgment.

The gut built by and for white, cis-heteronormative, male, wealthy-masquerading-as-middle-class, traditionally abled, and otherwise privileged bodies transplanted into your own is wrong. But in resisting you are deemed wrong, going against a current or coming up against a wall, as Sara Ahmed would say.

This is all to say, some of us must do far more work to survive. Like all graduate students, we arrive at our programs and must learn the ways of the academic gut. Unlike all graduate students, some of us must go through the painful process of realizing that this academic gut is not working in our best interests. This realization can be a relief, clarity on why you’ve been so sick, or miserable, or unable to adjust. But after the initial relief, you must come to terms with the possibility that your gut may never be in alignment with the academic gut. And so, you’ll need to become practiced at assessing the risks of trusting your own gut if you are striving to perform well in the system.

Some of us do far more work to survive.

So maybe all I want to say is 1) the indecision makes sense, and 2) don’t mix up your guts.

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