Ode to my cohort

We’re a PhD cohort like any other, maybe—this is my only one, so I’m not sure. (NOTE: I suspect we are ridiculously good-looking versus the norm. I have no evidence to back that up.) We are a small-ish PhD cohort (n=8). In 2012, we entered an academic department that was growing tremendously fast on a wave of hot methods takes, like data science and surveillance of social media behavior. We got caught up in a lot of powerful research and social forces. When we had to adopt an official cohort color (don’t be jealous, that’s an iSchool thing), we agreed on the moniker “T2 Liquid Metal Cohort” because as researchers, we could morph and adapt. Just like the bad guy in Terminator 2, obviously.

My first Christmas gift to the cohort was making us into Lego people and giving everyone a framed picture. I’ll be displaying my copy in my postdoc office, because it always cheers me up.

One of our powers in counteracting those forces was our ability to hold on to one another. We’re like sea otters who doze together, floating in the water while holding otter-hands so they don’t drift apart. Much of our affection and care bridged the times we were too busy, or too disconnected, to actively take care of one another. One example: Zak and Tez hug when they greet one another, as though no time has passed. Another one: Sandy nods her head in a small gesture of joy as other cohort members trickle in to our gatherings.

Not all of us can make it to every cohort gathering all of the time. Life and the PhD program have this crazy intersection: life is nuts, and on top of that, we decided to go to grad school (?? I’m done, and I still marvel at this decision). These demands on our time deserve a lot of respect. However, the solidarity of our PhD cohort is much more powerful and motivating than just showing up at any of our individual events.

In February 2014, I notified my PhD advisory committee that I’d been diagnosed with stage IV cancer. I did that as soon as I knew what treatment would entail. Naturally, this was after speaking with my PhD advisor, distant family, and local support system to figure out how we would coordinate care. Thank goodness for those people!

My cohort members were the second big group of people I struggled with notifying that I had cancer. The subject headline of that email to our cohort email listserv was: “A little hiatus,” which, at the time, I hoped it would be. I wrote and rewrote that email many times. My cohort-mates were at the top of the list of people I was afraid to leave, even though I didn’t know what leaving meant right then. I ended the message with, “I love you all!” because it was as true then as it is now.

To be fair, a lot of wonderful people loved me while I went through cancer treatment and survivorship. There are so many ways to love someone, which I now appreciate more fully. When I look back on my life before cancer treatment, I realize I wasn’t always good at recognizing or giving some kinds of support. The best thing about my PhD cohort was that they talked to me like I was still competent and normal, despite the fact that I felt bald, and weird, and out of place.

It’s because of my cohort that I felt okay coming to campus during treatment. It’s because of their support that I didn’t doubt I could keep on getting through the program. Their belief in me combined powerfully with the logistical, emotional, and academic support of my parents, brother, friends, and PhD advisor, Dr. Wanda Pratt. I want my cohort and anyone reading this to know how they contributed. I want other peers in their place to know how powerful such support can be. I hope we learn to lift up one another, no matter the challenge, in academic pursuits.

I (still) love you all, T2 Liquid Metal cohort!

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