It’s at moments such as these that I realize that I’m still really, really close to the beginning even though the development of dark, round, deep eye bags that require serious make-up time in the mornings suggest otherwise. I’m in my second year of an Art History PhD program, and instead of joining my aunt in sunny Mexico this winter break, or sipping romantic hot toddies with my BF in snowy Brooklyn, I’m in the last leg of revising for my Comprehensive Exam and German translation exams that loom at the end of January. I know this isn’t the toughest hurdle I’ll face during my graduate years by any means. And yet, I’m terrified. Today, I can’t even contemplate the broader topic of why I love art history (I know I do, I just don’t have the brain power to explain why right now) or why I left work to go back to graduate school (I still think it was a great idea, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a convincing explanation for why). I’m too panicked to think creatively on a macro-level. I couldn’t even decide where to sit to begin study this morning.
I was meant to take these exams last summer, but all sorts of work got in the way (and I thought I left work to go back to school, but that’s for another column). Stupidly, and entirely par for the course for me, I’ve now left myself with the dog days of the new year to finish memorizing five hundred slides and “German Quickly.” Panicked, I find a German tutor willing to read through past exams with me and pop $120 for two hours sitting on a sofa in Brooklyn Heights stumbling over past perfect and conjugations. It’s quite obvious, despite my hard work on my own at home, that I’ll need to spend a fair amount of time on her sofa over the next few weeks. I mentally count up the cost of several expensive sessions, wince, and then cancel the bi-annual haircut I had planned and nix all social commitments for January. Such is the glamorous life of the graduate student.
Deike, my tutor, is amazing, and only laughs with a polite softness each time I completely butcher her mother tongue. She spends a lot of the time laughing during our first lesson and so do I, only more hysterically. You see, if I don’t pass these exams, then I get kicked off my course until I do. Until now, I haven’t confessed to anyone but my cat how utterly humiliating that would be. To make matters worse, I’m an international student, and not being enrolled in class plays havoc with my visa. It reminds me that even though I’ve lived in Brooklyn for five years, co-habiting with one BF and one cat, that I own multiple, permanent pieces of furniture, electronic equipment that no longer needs an adaptor to work over here, that I pay New York taxes, and have started to lose my accent (British), I don’t actually belong here in any legal sense. This comforting thought adds a thin veneer of terror to the general tremors of panic engulfing my being. Ich habe…no. Ich möchte eine Tasse Tee. Yes. A cup of tea. The Great British Procrastination that makes everything better for the ensuing five minutes until reality bites again. And I know how to say it in German. That’s progress. Now, if I can just pass these exams next week, I’ll be able to progress even further to consider the bigger picture. For starters, comparing the European PhD system which has none of these exams, and the American PhD system that’s chock full of them, and evaluating my choice of graduate program in the light of this disparity. As my (loving) family is fond of saying, “you might be on a PhD program, but that doesn’t make you smart.” Roll on next week.Michelle Jubin is a doctoral student in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center. Hailing from Glasgow, UK, she worked as a contributor for BBC Radio Scotland and as an artist’s assistant for the sculptor Andy Goldsworthy before first coming to New York to work at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Independent Curators International (ICI). She lives in Brooklyn.