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Blog: A Day in the Life of A Classicist: Grappling with Insecurity as a Graduate Student

A Day in the Life of A Classicist is a monthly column on the SCS blog, celebrating the working lives of classicists. This month, we look at the life of Classics graduate student Jordan Johansen.  

I typically wake up early, around 5:30 am. I never considered myself a morning person until I got to graduate school, but I got in the habit from taking Greek & Latin survey classes. I found that I couldn’t read Greek and Latin as clearly, efficiently, or quickly late at night, so I started working in the morning. Now that I’m done with surveys, I’ve kept up with the habit. I like that I can get a lot done before I start my day on campus. There are also usually not very many emails coming in that early, so it’s easier to keep from being distracted.

I write mainly at home or in the library. I recently moved into my own apartment and have a second bedroom turned office, so I have a nice workspace at home. I also get a lot of writing done on the couch, especially in the brainstorming phases! On campus, I work from the Classics Reading Room in the main library. We don’t have carrels or private workspaces, but I can usually find somewhere to work, though it becomes more of a problem during exams. I also work in a lot of on campus cafés, but it can often be hard to find a space to work. They get really crowded and loud, so it’s often up to luck. I have an assigned office, but I share it with several other graduate instructors, and I’m only supposed to meet students in it.


I do a combination of writing with pen and typing. I often outline and take notes with pen and paper, usually unlined copier paper, and then type up the first draft. If I get stuck on a sentence, I go back to paper and can usually figure it out. When I’m at home, I often write out loud, so I speak and type the words at the same time. This method has helped me get rid of some bad writing habits, especially overly complicated prose. I’ve tried speech-to-text, but nothing has worked for me yet. I tend give myself lectures on the topic to work through my ideas. If I can convince someone to listen, even better! Unfortunately, it’s usually only my mom who will listen.

I am the co-chair of the Committee on Graduate Education at the University of Chicago, which is a campus-wide, provost-level committee tasked to reevaluate graduate education on campus, which means at least one full day a week and several hours the rest of the week are taken up with meetings and meeting prep: drafting and editing reports for the committee, holding focus groups, analyzing data, and working on logistics, such as setting town halls or extra meetings.  

On days I teach, I spend most of my time in the morning preparing my lecture, discussion questions, and powerpoint for the Greek history course I’m instructing. I also spend time evaluating my students’ online discussion boards and managing our class Wikipedia project via Wikipedia Education. I teach until 2, and then usually head to the library to work until around 6. Often, however, I have departmental workshops and lectures on Tuesdays and Thursdays (usually one a week). I used to go to all of them, but I’ve had to be more particular, so I can get more writing and research done on my dissertation.


Unless there is a special event, I get home most nights around 6:30 PM. When I get home, I make dinner and relax. I’ll occasionally check emails at night but try not to do any work, though sometimes I need a few hours to finish things on a deadline. I’ve been working on not feeling guilty for taking time off. I find it a lot easier now to have more of a work/life balance than when I was in coursework. I have more flexibility with my time and fewer required daily tasks.

What gets me up in the morning is still thinking about individual people and human cultures and societies. I am fascinated by what makes humans and humans, and I love thinking about the big questions that guide humanity though the perspective of the individual experience.

Individuals are present in almost every aspect of our study in Classics, but often they are left out of our discussions, so I try every day to remember that the ancient Greek and Roman world was populated with individuals with their own personal lives, ambitions, emotions, fears, and experiences.


I think in many ways the experience of being graduate student is an experience in insecurity. Graduate school is a long series of tests, sometimes literal exams, other times experiences like presenting at conferences for the first time or submitting an article to a journal for the first time. Most of the tests are brand-new, and we take them on with some guidance but usually alone. The consequences for failure can be high, even ending the dream of becoming a professional classicist. The insecurities are sometimes internal and personal: Am I good enough at Latin to pass my qualifying exam?; Can I really come up with an original argument for my dissertation?; Am I actually a fraud?. And they are also external: if I don’t pass my exams on time, then I’ll lose my funding and won’t be able to pay rent; The job market is so bad that even if I jump through all these hoops, I still might not have a place in the field.

This noise, at least in my experience, is going on all the time in the background. I’ve talked to enough faculty members, especially junior faculty members, that I know this isn’t necessarily unique to graduate students, but I think it is a fundamental part of the graduate student experience. Sometimes, I think people, both non-academics and faculty members, consider graduate school a time of freedom to explore and consider new ideas without the pressures of “having a real job.” In many ways, that is what graduate school is. But we also have insecurities that limit this freedom, and we have roles like teaching and sitting on committees that are very much “real jobs.”

Header image: Attic red-figure hydria. Reading poetry of Sappho, probably by the poet herself. From Vari, Attika. Polygnotos Group. 440-430 B.C. National Archaeological Museum. Image via Wikimedia CC-by-2.5.

Jordan Johansen's picture

Jordan Johansen is a graduate student at the Program in the Ancient Mediterranean World, University of Chicago

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