Monday, August 20, 2012

Reflection on Two Years in Economics

Today is the first day of the Fall 2012 semester. That means it has been two years since I have polished my nails. Before starting graduate school, more or less as a joke, I vowed not to polish my nails until I got my PhD. "Time is scarce, and becoming an economist requires sacrifices!"

I joke that this is my motivation. Whenever I felt discouraged, especially in the first year, I would just tell myself, "No quitting. You've got to get through it, so you can get your PhD, so you can paint your nails." The truth is, I like but don't love polishing my nails. As an incentive to finish my PhD, it is not that great. And yet, this little joke of a non-enforceable commitment mechanism has taken on more significance in my life than I ever planned. 

Most of the time, I love graduate school and economics and Berkeley. It is exhilarating and an unbelievable privilege to have five years of super-concentrated learning and thinking. It is really so awesome. 

But sometimes, I lose sight of this. I started my PhD at 21, and most 21-year-old girls are not pledging their twenties to this type of endeavor. Especially first year, sometimes the pressure was so intense that it felt immensely lonely. On one level you know that you are not alone, that other people, no matter what path they choose, work hard and feel stress too. But on another level you don't know this, not with any conviction, because when you start as a 21-year-old, you have the task of becoming an economist at the same time as becoming an adult. And when you start  as a 21-year-old girl, you become an economist at the same time as becoming a woman. 

Sometimes you're not ready for either. Sometimes it is too much, too soon. Sometimes you mourn the girlhood that is slipping away from you, and suddenly seems so idyllic and charmed and fleeting. You mourn for it like you mourn for the South. You blame work for taking it from you. But it is not becoming an economist that is ending your girlhood. The end of your girlhood is ending your girlhood. Growing up is bittersweet, and not like you expected. Womanhood is not like you expected, and for this too you blame work.

You dreamed you'd do everything, be everything, but none of it defined. One specific thing you do, or are, means how many undefined things you won't do, won't be? So sometimes it feels like you are giving up everything, past and future, to become an economist.

You're not, of course. You are just growing up and making choices. You are getting married in December, bringing your past along and vowing your future. You're a young woman and a child of God. You're becoming an economist, yes, but you're not giving up everything. You're just giving up some dang nail polish, and who even cares about nail polish? So get back to work!

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