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Discover how a graduate student's temporary office space serves as a metaphor for their sense of unbelonging throughout their academic journey, and how they find solace in making the most of the temporary joys that come their way.

I have a really nice office this semester. It is beautiful. It has a tiny anteroom past the door – enough space to store the shoes that are too uncomfortable to wear when I’m walking around campus and three of the four coats I’ve brought from home in preparation for the unpredictable Massachusetts weather. Beyond the anteroom is an L-shaped mahogany stained desk with a Nespresso machine. I’ve always wanted one of those. They are, however, too extravagant when I have my old reliable carafe-style coffee maker. Beyond the desk is a gray couch with leather footstools, and at my feet is a blue shag area rug. On the walls are real paintings. Years’ worth of lovingly collected books line the walls – I can almost map the semesters of classes taught in their organization.

This is not my office. It’s a temporary office, on loan to me courtesy of a professor on sabbatical. My temporary office while I teach my temporary class and am, temporarily, a professor. I love this space. It’s the most comfortable space I have had on campus in the five years I have been a graduate student.
But the office, just like the life it represents, is not my own. It’s just temporary.

The office is a metaphor for my entire graduate school journey.
The feeling of existing in perpetual limbo. The overwhelming understanding that everything is transitory. I am comfortable in the space, but I cannot let myself get too comfortable. I belong here, for now, but not really. It is the way I have felt for my entire time in graduate school. I’m here, but I’ve never felt like I belong. I’m the first person in my family to go to college – and the first person to even think about graduate school – so the sense of unbelonging is not necessarily surprising. It’s a feeling that many first-gen students can relate to during both their undergraduate careers and into graduate school.

The office represents a deeper sense of unbelonging, though.
Before I turned the key to the office 216 with its big picture window overlooking the faculty parking lot, I had truly convinced myself that I was “ok” with the fact that becoming a tenure track professor simply was not in the cards for me. I have thrown much of my effort into personally pursuing and outwardly advocating for career diversity in academia. I have spoken at length on campus, on Twitter, and at events about preparing students for this reality to ensure that they make it to the other side of the emotional blow that comes from giving up one’s dreams. And that they prepare for what’s next. And while that work has brought me a sense of purpose and satisfaction, it was also a way to prevent myself from imagining what could have been. If not for the ten-year gap between my master’s and PhD. If not for Covid. If not for the perpetual instability of childcare. If not for the lack of funding. If not for the lack of time. If not for my “geographic rigidity” (as one faculty member described my unwillingness to entertain the idea of moving my children around the country for a string of low-paid post-doc positions to chase the mythical tenure track job).

The office forces me to confront the reality that although I know I’ll eventually be “ok” with abandoning the career I have wanted for as long as I can remember, I’m still grieving that realization. For just one semester, I get to live that life. The office is the first professional space in over two years that is truly my own. It is a welcome change from the overlapping caregiving and professional responsibilities that have filled my apartment since Spring 2020 when the rhythm of my family’s life changed. Work for me, over these two years, has been a constant balancing act. Balancing childcare, balancing domestic responsibilities, balancing research, balancing multiple jobs, and sometimes balancing my kid on my lap during a Zoom call. Home can be chaos. This little office represents peace and stability. The kind of stability that is fleeting, as I am all too aware.

In contrast to the class I taught over zoom in Fall 2020, I get to cosplay as a professor for just one semester. I’ve filled the little office with bowls of candy for the students I hope will come to my student hours. I bought a bulk pack of the cheaper off-brand Nespresso pods in case a student wants to wax poetic about political violence over a cup of very strong coffee. I have an endless supply of tissues for the mid-term season.

I know it all seems a little silly. But If I only get to live this life for a while, I’m going to enjoy it. I treat my little temporary office the way I treat my apartment – an equally transitory space that I adore but will never own. I clean it meticulously. I keep it in order. I take care of it and love it as if it were mine, even though it never will be. And when the semester is over and I turn in my keys and close the door for the last time, I will at least have the memory of the one semester where I got to live the life that I really wanted…before I move on to whatever is next. Because everything in graduate school is temporary.

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All views expressed are those of the individual authors and do not reflect the views of The PhD Place Ltd.
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