Name: Chelsea Johnson
Field of Study: Race, Gender and the Body
Year in Program: 4th
Dissertation Title (Tentative): “Natural Hair Movements: Embodied Intersectional Resistance in a Global Society”
I recently began a fellowship that allows me to focus completely on researching and writing for the year, so I moved from Los Angeles to Brooklyn, New York in an effort to ethnically diversify my interview sample. Getting used to a schedule without teaching, classes, or regular meetings with my committee while also adjusting to a new city on limited funds is both stressful and exciting. However, from the very beginning, I shaped my graduate school career around what would make me happy.
I chose a dissertation topic that interested me personally so that fieldwork felt less like an obligation.
As a result, I spend many of my days at events that I enjoy attending. Likewise, I’ve always imagined myself in my 20s as my own version of Carrie Bradshaw. I have achieved just that by writing a dissertation where New York plays an important role while working in the fashion industry part-time. I am constantly killing two (or three) birds with one stone, putting myself in situations that both contribute to my academic thinking, organize my time, and allow me to live the life I’ve always wanted.
I am the type of person that works well under pressure because I know the least possible amount of time that I need to accomplish good work. I have a tendency to push myself to the limits, so a feeling of stress forces me into productivity.
My part-time job provides some guidelines and structure. Working in fashion forces me to theorize how women use and present their bodies to increase my productivity when I am on my days off, while also structuring my completely flexible schedule.
My responsibilities include modeling, marketing, and selling very expensive items to a largely homogenous group of white, upper-class women. As a black woman, this facilitates my thinking about dynamics of race, class, bodies, the market, subjectivity, and representation—all issues that are critical to my dissertation. Guided by Sociology of the Body scholars like Ashley Mears and Miliann Kang who also employed autoethnographic methods in New York and who I hope to be in conversation with as a scholar, I consider days on the job as a contribution to my research. At the same time, creating limited freedom in my schedule makes me feel the need to write with intensity on my days off.
Typically, a day of writing for me means waking up around 9am and going to a café in my Brooklyn neighborhood. I choose to work outside my apartment because I am too easily distracted by the TV, chores, my dog, whatever. I often work with my boyfriend, who runs his own website and also works on his own schedule. This is a wonderful thing for me because seeing someone else at work makes me feel motivated (and a bit competitive). Together, we set goals for how long we want to stay at the cafe, and I am able to occasionally bounce ideas off of him when I need to. I typically spend the first hour arriving and settling in to the space, responding to emails, journaling to get my energy flowing, attending to side projects or planning my tasks for the day.
My biggest source of struggle during this graduate school process is that nothing is ever done. You could always think more, write more, do more, and conduct more interviews.
In order to mitigate the feeling of being lost in an ocean of information with no concrete destination in sight, I give myself small accomplishable tasks so that I can say, “Yes! I’ve completed something!” If I can’t finish what I am working on in less than three hours, I use the Pomodoro Technique on mytomatoes.com to break up big tasks into 25-minute segments.
As someone firmly in the data collection phase of my dissertation, I am mostly transcribing interviews and reading to inform my theoretical framework.
I do try to write as I read, making sure that I find at least three ways to tie in an author’s main arguments to central questions in my work. In this way, I do not just read for information, but to directly feed a chapter of the dissertation.
Lastly, I have two pieces of advice for aspiring and fellow graduate students trying to figure out a work/life balance:
First, make the graduate school process work for you. The job market is tough, and many PhDs end up in totally different careers once they finish despite the five to seven-year commitment of graduate school. For me, this reminds me to treat graduate school as an opportunity in and of itself, and not a means to an end.
Before you start graduate school, I think it is important to ask yourself what kind of life you see yourself living.
Who do you want to spend time with? What parts of the world do you want to see? What experiences are on your bucket list? How do you see yourself spending your days? As someone who started the PhD process at 22 and will be spending much of my young adulthood on this journey, I am glad I thought about this early on. I’ve been able to spend a summer backpacking across Europe while participating in the Black European Summer School, meet inspiring women of color at conferences and in the field, live in New York without having to deal with the work grind, and much more. Having thought about how to incorporate what makes me happy into my grad school process, I have not had debilitating work/life conflicts.
Second, take time for self care! If that means giving yourself a day off, give yourself a day off! There will inevitably be times where you are burnt out. Spending a day doing things you love is not messing up your work/life balance, it is contributing to it! When I was in Los Angeles, I would escape to one of my neighborhood Korean spas to distress. It was relatively inexpensive, and there is almost always free wifi and great workspace. Many times ideas would come to me when I least expected it and without trying, and I would find myself sitting in a robe with my laptop working at the spa. Other times, I would escape to a local pottery studio. Having something concrete to hold in my hands after a few hours provided balance to what can feel like endless academic work.
I suggest you find out what spaces both calm and inspire you and go there whenever you need to. No degree is more important than your mental, physical, and emotional health.
I hope this helps!