The other night I was at a party and a couple second year doctoral students from my college were there. When I asked them what they were up to this coming semester they both sighed heavily. They launched into the long list of courses they were taking, research they were conducting or assisting in, teachers they were observing (one duty of grad students in education is to observe and mentor teacher interns who are undergoing certification). As I listened sympathetically, I realized that I am no longer in that boat at all. What happened? The first two years of grad school was such a whirlwind of classes (taking and teaching), meetings, and, some days, literally running from one place to another, that I don’t think I ever stopped to consider that this wasn’t a permanent state of being. There were nights when I found myself at home after a long day, scurrying to the kitchen to make dinner, and then scurrying to the bathroom to brush my teeth because I had forgotten what it was like not to rush.

A few months into my third year, I’ve finished my coursework and finished my comprehensive exams. I’m not anxious or rushed anymore, and thank god, not flat out terrified of my schedule the coming semester. I spend a lot of time in coffee shops, and when Adam comes home he can usually find me at my post, on the left end of the couch with my feet on the coffee table, tapping on my laptop. The semester starts on Tuesday, and the only thing that’s going to change in my current mellow schedule is that I have to go to campus for two hours twice a week to teach one class. Easy, right?

Yes and no. The program is designed like this on purpose. I’ve made the switch from learning mode to production mode.

Now it’s time to write. Alone.

The successful completion of three comps (“comprehensive exams,” which in my program take the form of essays– not orals or timed exams, as is often the case in other disciplines) shows me that I appear to be capable of writing long winded academic texts. But still, the next project is looming like Mt. Fuji. Or maybe I should call it Dissertation Mountain. It’s scary, but rather than inducing hyperventilation (like 500 pages of reading due tomorrow could), it makes me realize that the only way to do this is to get grounded and focus.

Over the next year and a half, the only deadlines I have to meet I’ll set myself. Maybe I’m not scared because the only way I can even conceive of this project is in smaller chunks, maybe like mountain climbers do. I’m defending the proposal in May. I’ll collect data in the fall. I’ll write in the spring. (Oh, and there’s a baby coming in July. That might cause moments of hyperventilation, but I can’t blame the university for that.) But no one’s breathing down my neck except my own conscience.

It’s a new way of being a doctoral student (I mean candidate!), but I’m glad to find myself here. I’m ready to climb.