Fighting the Fear: Because Now It’s for Real

Stephanie White

This past summer, after taking five months off to be with my newborn, I went back to work. My department chair was, I think, trying to do me a solid, and he assigned me to teach two online classes. This made my days completely flexible: we got Maggie into daycare part-time, but I could be home with her when I wanted to be, nurse her often, and sleep in or take naps when neither of us was getting much sleep. But it was also a brand-new endeavour for me, being a working mother, let alone teaching online. And to top it off, my online classes made for very little face-to-face interactions with anyone from work.

A few weeks into that summer semester, I was riddled with anxiety. I’d find myself actually shaking as I sat down to open my work email or to check the class discussion boards. What if, this time, I really was stumped by the questions students asked? What if the students weren’t interested or, worse, were cruel? But also: what if this was not the most productive or efficient use of my time? That question slayed me — I’d bounce back and forth between fear of working to the point of burnout and fear of not working enough. My panic that I was spending my time badly led to me feeling the need for a mental break, which led to Facebook, which led me down the rabbit hole that is the internet, and there would go thirty minutes I could have spent responding to the two simple questions my students had asked.

Within those few weeks, my confidence flew the coop, and my pleasure in my work flew after it. I was going through the motions, doing the work I needed to do, but without really investing in it. I was staying on the edges of it, keeping my distance out of fear. I stayed tentative and leery for fear that I’d be found out as an impostor, or for fear that I’d fail, or for fear that, after all of those years preparing and planning, it would turn out that I didn’t even like being a faculty member.

One root of this problem was the lack of feedback. Even informal feedback, like a nod from a colleague when I share a teaching strategy or a question from a student that shows they’re thinking hard, was missing. When I did go to campus, I’d walk down the empty hallway to my office past rows of closed doors. People just aren’t around much here, especially in the summer. And then there was the fact that I’d received no official guidance or training for teaching online (ah, academia, how disorganized we are). Another steep learning curve, with no feedback to let me know I was doing okay or where I could improve. There have been so many of those curves lately, and I’d thought that would all be over after grad school.

I spent a lot of time in grad school dreaming of my “real job” and everything I’d do with the time, money, and confidence that would come with it. I dismissed those who said that life was busier after grad school and clung to the stories of those who managed to find good work/life balance on the tenure track. I ignored warnings that things aren’t so financially hunky-dory past grad school and instead pinned new couches and fancy kitchen equipment to the Pinterest board I dubbed (no joke) “When I Have a Real Job.” I imagined myself in a stunning blazer and crisp-but-casual dress pants (I’d magically lost weight, too, in these scenarios), breezing into my sunlight-filled office on my way to an important meeting, stopping generously to chat with the adoring undergrads crowded around my office door. Yes, I knew there would be some challenges, but none of them could be as soul-crushing as graduate school. After all, I’d have freedom.

Over the past year, I’ve certainly been free. But I’ve also been very alone. I was utterly unprepared for the intense isolation that came with this “real job.” With no cohort to fall back on and no graduate classes or dissertation writing groups or TA meetings to provide a sense of collaboration, I’ve felt like I was flying solo. And with that feeling has come a lot of self-doubt. For someone with strong extroverted tendencies like myself, this isolation has been crippling.

My work fears this summer seeped into other aspects of my life, too. I was anxious every day my baby girl went to daycare, worried that she’d be unhappy, or that it wasn’t the best fit for her. Or, on the strange flipside, I worried that her caregiver wouldn’t be happy with me! The anxious mind is so creative. And I’ve gotten anxious about other things, too, that shouldn’t be a big deal, like our attempt to buy a new couch — the most major piece of furniture we’ve ever invested in. My husband, Andrew, and I have been hemming and hawing over couch style, colour, and price for literally months now. I keep thinking, “What is wrong with us? It’s just a couch!”

I’ve been trying to figure out what shifted, and here’s what I think: I’m trying to create that perfect self I had in my mind all through grad school. Yes, when I was explaining to Andrew how nervous I was about my fall classes while we anxiously pored over couch fabric swatches, he ventured, “It’s like now it’s for real, so it all has to be perfect.”

I know that much of this anxiety is normal. I’m juggling a lot of new things at once, and any one of them could cause me to be fearful. I think it’s important to just put this out there — to say that I’m scared, and to reiterate that the transition from graduate school to a faculty position is really scary. And I think it’s important to stop expecting some ideal life for myself and instead enjoy the life I have. Of course, that means learning to trust — trust that it’s not about me or my idea of perfection but about God and his perfection. Trust that things will change, that this time in my life — and really, this life — is not the end of the story. And, at the same time, trust that God delights in me even now.

I’m sure that many of the readers and contributors to The Well know what I’m talking about, so I’m curious to hear about your experiences stepping over the threshold after grad school. What was that experience like in terms of your confidence and pleasure in your work? How did you respond to fears? 

Stephanie White is a member of the English Language and Literature faculty at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario. She teaches writing and rhetoric while researching composition pedagogy and service-learning. She and her husband Andrew have a darling baby girl and very helpful neighbours.

10 comments

I'm keeping this anonymous because sometimes my potential clients google my name and they don't need to know this. But I graduated from a grad program a couple years ago and went through an intense year my first year back seeing clients as a therapist. The whole time I was in school I was thinking working will be sooo much easier and less stressful than having to see clients and the deadlines of tests and papers due every quarter or half quarter. My son was born halfway into my 2nd year, so I had taken some time off before finishing my program. So, getting used to having a child while I was in school was a whole new ball game.

Anyway, when I started, I had a very light load of clients. however, some of them had some very serious issues. On top of which, things with my husband hit some pretty rough patches. I went back to seeing my therapist, but things didn't really smooth out. Just as things were getting back to "normal" something else would happen (like hand-foot-and mouth disease...that was fun). But right around month 8 of going back to work, I realized that part of the problem was exactly this lack of feedback. As a student, for better of for worse I had quarterly evaluations from supervisors and professors. As a member of a close cohort, I could talk shop in between class breaks about this client or that. Or, better yet, to go deep into what we were doing this all for. I didn't realize how much of a vacuum that loss of support from classmates, professors and supervisors had left. I went as far as really questioning 1) whether this was my calling, and 2) if so, I wasn't sure if I wanted it anymore.

It's nice to know I'm not the only one who faced (and was surprised!) by how much that informal and formal support/feedback had meant. My turning point came when, deep into my questioning and doubt, God very strongly let me know that he didn't care about my calling nearly as much as he cared about me. I felt accepted for who I was at a level I have rarely experienced. I go back to that when things get rocky. But, realizing my need for more connection has helped me take some practical steps...still very much in progress but it does seem to get easier, even just one year out.

many blessings on your path, sister!

Oct 28, 2015 8:10PM by Anonymous

Thank you for this encouraging and powerful story! Humility is so key here, right—or maybe it's a dose of reality? It's remembering that God cares for us, not our work and not our accomplishments. Us.

Oct 29, 2015 1:58PM by Stephanie White

Awwwww, I just want to give you a hug. What I read in this post is just way too much transition and newness all at once--a new job, new motherhood, new to teaching online (and yeah, you should have had some training or mentoring). OF COURSE you're anxious and overloaded. Don't be too hard on yourself.

This will get better. I promise.

Love from a 25-year-veteran of professor life (and yes, there were two small children along the way, one born during professor school and one while I was pre-tenure).

Oct 28, 2015 9:37AM by Dana

P.S. We're kinda sorta in the same field. I'm a professor and a writing program administrator in a large independent writing program in California.

Oct 28, 2015 9:39AM by Dana

Totally the same field! And that sounds like a lot of too much transition for you, too. Glad you got through it. :)

Oct 29, 2015 1:59PM by Stephanie White

And then there's this, posted at the same time as my post, by one of my lovely colleagues: http://www.hookandeye.ca/2015/09/i-got-this-duration-persistence.html

Oct 1, 2015 11:31AM by Stephanie White

Stephanie, I'm feeling a lot of this as well. I can really, *really* relate to your grad student dreaming of your perfect life/self once you had the "real" job. We spend so much time as students earning these degrees - and while it's not like being undergrads, it's not like being real adults either. Even if you had an admin position, even if you TA'd for years and were incredibly active organizing events for your cohort, being a faculty member is reallllllly not the same thing.

I wasn't at all prepared for the challenges of transitioning from a huge R1 to a small Liberal Arts college. It's a huge weird unexpectedly political shift, one with different expectations for involvement, advancement, and decorum, and just learning that set of code switches alone is proving challenging and a little demoralizing at times. It's harder to create and embrace an ethos as a full-on professor than I expected too - at heart I'm still a TA, and apparently I'm going to have to actively change that, it won't just happen?? LAME.

The transition from grad school to "real job" is proving just as messy and hard as all the other transitions to adulthood I've gone through - I'm not sure why I expected this to be different. But with all that said, the one thing that hasn't given me self-doubt is my choice to do this. The career is a marathon and not a destination, I see that now; but I feel confident I've chosen a race that suits me, and which I may even be able to finish. Especially after hearing that I'm not alone in struggling. I'm still recovering from the mindfuck that was the final year of school. Maybe once that's a full six months behind me I can start to function normally in this next stage of things. Hang in there, Steph! And go boldly with your couch choices!

Oct 1, 2015 9:22AM by Becca

Becca, we've got a wine-coloured velvet and gorgeous thing on it's way. Be proud of us.

And yes to a marathon. I'll keep reminding myself of that.

Oct 1, 2015 11:33AM by Stephanie White

Stephanie, I am having a hard time expressing just how much I appreciate your posts. Your candor and sincerity are exactly what women in the profession need to hear; that we are not alone in our journeys and that it is okay, and healthy, to talk about our fears.

As a new faculty member (just a year out of graduate school), the same fears, isolation, and anxieties have been eating at me as well. One of the biggest hurdles, for me, is trying to determine a good scholarship/teaching/life balance as a non-tenure track full-time faculty member. I find myself constantly worried that my dissertation adviser, graduate school colleagues, or the world of literary studies in general, will judge me if I am not constantly saying yes to every professional opportunity that comes my way. And, of course, there is the nagging sense that I will always be viewed as an impostor, as someone who couldn't land the "dream job," or simply as someone who managed to slip through the cracks of a doctorate program and doesn't actually know that much about anything.

I wish I had advice or suggestions for how to make this transition easier. All I can say is that you are definitely not alone and you should take pleasure in the fact that you have created an outlet for women to share the emotions and anxieties that the profession so often tells us to hide.

Sep 30, 2015 12:14PM by Rebecca

Rebecca, I'm so glad these posts are useful to you! It's scary to put myself out there like this, but it's also cathartic.

And I so agree about the balance issue. I'll be talking more about that next month... Let me know if you have any tricks.

Oct 1, 2015 11:35AM by Stephanie White

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