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Just the Beginning

When I started running last spring, I could manage about 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile nonstop before I would pause to walk for a stretch. By late summer and early fall, I had pushed that distance up to a mile, maybe slightly more. In the spring, I steadily extended that distance to 1 and 1/2, then 1 and 3/4. It sort of hovered there for a while. My overall distance on runs is about 5 miles. I think I probably could have pushed myself further, faster. At each stage, though, I let myself hold steady for a while. I think it was psychologically comforting; at some level, I knew I could take a break at that benchmark and finish the full run in reasonably good time and condition. Two weeks ago, I ran around Lake Nokomis in South Minneapolis. Two laps equal just around five miles, maybe a pinch more. From my car on the nearby parkway, I jogged to the lake and circled once around. Lately, my usually stopping spot to walk has been about 1.7 miles, as I reach the Cedar Avenue Bridge. I kept going. I made it a full lap around the lake, and I kept going. I made it three miles when, just as I was contemplating a breather to walk, my phone rang. Good excuse. I stopped, walked, and talked for about four minutes, and then continued to run the rest of the way. It was my best time ever, best speed per mile, and by far the longest I had run uninterrupted.

That breakthrough came exactly two days after my dissertation defense. As any good researcher will tell you, correlation does not equal causation, but I like thinking that my newfound endurance was symbolic of a burden lifted, setting my legs free to stumble further than they’d taken me before. As a closing image on these last five years of my life, it offers a certain optimism, albeit drenched in sweat and punctuated by my gasps for air.

I’m not sure anyone survives a Ph.D. without some moments of self-doubt or self-reckoning, or feelings of just not knowing enough about anything of consequence. But, five years after starting this work (and four years after leaving my nonprofit job for it), I’ve gained far more than I’ve lost. I know the work I am capable of doing, and I know how to differentiate thoughtful, helpful feedback from petty workplace garbage (to give you an example, a senior director in my old nonprofit once likened my job – managing volunteers – to “keeping the toilets clean”). I know that I enjoy teaching, but my true passion seems to be for writing, especially lengthier projects that consume a couple years of my time and energy, leading to longer, richer manuscripts than the typical journal article or blog post. I also know that I love – love – working independently. I don’t mind collaboration, but I get frustrated by office politics and rivalries, which people sometimes seem to value more than the tasks at hand. I like structuring my day around the work that is most pressing, but I never again want to operate in an environment where “crisis mode” is considered business as usual. For these and many other insights that will guide me in the future, the past five years have been invaluable.

Up next is a project I’ve been quietly readying for the past two years. This feeling of exhilaration, finding myself poised for another big endeavor, is familiar but different.  I’ve already scanned hundreds (if not thousands) of pages to examine. I have a growing list of people to interview, chapters to outline, and a full-fledged book proposal to write. Taken as a whole, the work feels intimidating. And yet- I just did most of this already. For my dissertation, I scanned and coded documents, observed meetings, and interviewed participants in my study. I earned people’s trust, built rapport, and protected their confidentiality so that they would feel comfortable sharing their most personal insights. I created a fairly strong audit trail for my analysis, so that others could replicate the study if they wished. I’m also a really good proposal writer (which I hope will help pay the bills along with my teaching work).

What’s different, then? Well, there’s no committee of seasoned academics reviewing my progress and warning me away from risky decisions. This project isn’t theoretical or data-driven, in the mathematical sense, but it does take the skills, I think, of an academically inclined person to pull it off. It also means I have to stay on track with it until it’s ready to share, keep myself financially afloat, and not get bogged down with other obligations. The two biggest differences, though, seem to be these: First, I feel passion and excitement for the discovery process, putting together the story of a person whose life is surprisingly under-examined. But second, it’s the feeling of having experience, confidence, and clarity from the work I just finished, knowing that I can put in the effort, use the skills I possess and the knowledge I’ve gained to assemble a product that will be compelling, credible, and readable.

In that sense, it feels similar to the rush I felt two days after my defense—running farther than I had gone without a break, testing my limits, knowing that I could press beyond my previous accomplishments. With experience, we understand and anticipate the soreness, the rough stretches, the moments of doubt, and the times when we just can’t seem to finish. I have my Ph.D. It didn’t come too late, or too soon. It came to me when I was ready for the work. At age 38, with another 40 to 60 good years ahead of me, this really is only the beginning.

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About Michael Lee

South Minneapolis queer writer, researcher, educator, and social change enthusiast. Currently researching and writing a biography of the late journalist Randy Shilts.

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