got a phd in my special interest; what happens next will shock you

Kirby Conrod
8 min readMay 9, 2024

(Content warning: brief discussion of suicidal thoughts.)

I’ve been thinking about the way special interests creep up on me lately, in part because I’ve been getting into a new one — pottery, which I’m pleased to report is absolutely the fucking best and I love it so so much and all of my friends will be receiving some truly ugly flowerpots over the next several months. I’ve had a couple life-long enduring special interests, some of which look more like hobbies and some of which look more like academic interests.

Of the hobby ones, knitting (and fiber arts in general) has been the longest. I learned to crochet when I was 11-ish, and learned to knit when I was 12-ish. My family went on a lot of road trips, and my two siblings also knitted, so we spent a lot of time knitting in the minivan and made a lot of really ugly stuff (some of which I still have, and treasure dearly). In college I got a part-time job working at a local yarn store, which was really great for me, and then I taught my best friend to knit and got him a job at the same store so we hung out and talked about yarn and knitting and got paid for it, which was really amazing. My favorite parts of the job were helping customers who came in with technical issues, or people who came in with tangled yarn that they needed help untangling. (I was technically not supposed to help with this, because I would spend literal hours untangling someone’s yarn for free instead of, like, selling shit. Oops.) I also got to teach classes, and I was one of only a couple people in the store’s employ who could both knit and crochet so people would ask me questions about that, which felt great. I kept knitting after I graduated and moved away from that job, and still knit, but it’s receded from this intense all-consuming every-single-day activity to more of just a part of me.

To me, what makes it a special interest is that when I’m feeling stressed out or unhappy or dysregulated, I can retreat to my mind palace and think about knitting (or knit, or look at content about knitting) and it calms me down and helps me regulate. I can’t find the source right now (on either google or duckduckgo, probably because a lot of autistic people have aquariums as a special interest (I love autism, you guys)) but I remember distantly hearing special interests described as a type of mental ‘substrate,’ where it’s comforting and familiar to just sink into it. When I sink into my knitting special interest, this sometimes means just mentally picturing stitch structures or unfolding 3D objects into 2D to think about different ways they could be constructed if I were knitting them. It’s a kind of mental stimming, and it’s really nice.

Getting into new special interests also sometimes involves a kind of vetting process for me, where I spend some time — sometimes over a year, sometimes even more than that — thinking and learning and observing before I try doing the thing. This has been the case for getting into pottery: I’ve been following a lot of ceramic artists on social media, and talking to friends and acquaintances who are potters or who know potters. Then, after a few months of that, I started putting out feelers for studios, places I could try it, and just researching that for a couple months. Then I took a one-hour workshop with a friendquaintance who has a studio, and I knew that would be an important test: I needed to actually touch clay with my hands to figure out if I liked the sensory experience. I knew I would either really like it or really hate it. It turned out I liked it, so I took a longer one-off workshop to reconnoiter at a studio before finally signing up for a weekly class. I’m five weeks into the eight-week class and completely obsessed, and spend a lot of time in between classes wishing I could drop everything and just go throw 200 cylinders in 9 hours, but I think it’s sort of good that I can’t, because I think I would burn out on it very quickly if I did that. Special interests for me often have this intense honeymoon period before cooling off and settling into something less fanatical and more incorporated into the rest of my life, and only being able to go into the studio once a week feels like it’s sort of prolonging the intense period in a way I’m really enjoying.

Pottery and knitting, as many artisan crafts, are often categorized in peoples’ minds as hobbies unless you’re a professional artist trying to make a living off of it. I have absolutely no desire to be a professional artist under capitalism, so I’m glad I don’t have to monetize either of those, but I do also have special interests that are much less perceived as hobbies and are, in fact, my actual dayjob as an academic. And, yes, professionalizing these special interests has changed and shaped my relationship to them in very specific ways.

(There’s also much to be said about how things popularly imagined to be done by women are more likely to be classified as hobbies rather than as art, but that’s another essay.)

My special interest in syntax came on much more suddenly than my ones in pottery and knitting. I took an intro to linguistics class at a community college in high school and was absolutely obsessed with syntax, and loved drawing trees. My high school english teacher at the time knew very little but gave me a book on old-fashioned sentence-diagrams from the grammarian traditions in english, and I found those to be almost right to scratch the itch, and it tided me over until I took my first syntax class in freshman year of college. I was immediately completely obsessed, could hardly talk or think about anything else, to the point that family and friends who weren’t interested found it tedious to genuinely irritating. I stayed up late at night getting into exuberant shouting matches with my classmates about our homework, drew trees on mirrors and windows in our dorm rooms because we didn’t have whiteboards, badgered my professors into offering Syntax 3 and 4 (not normally on the curriculum, and no idea if they ever did that again). I also had other mental health shit going on in undergrad, stuff that one might label “manic episodes” and “psychotic features,” which got intertwined with my studies in a weird way because both were so all-encompassing. I knew that I wanted to go to grad school, but I also knew that if I went straight to grad school after undergrad I would burn out and not finish a degree, so I forced myself to take a gap year, which turned into three gap years. It was the right call, but being away from syntax felt agonizing. I still drew trees to soothe myself, and wrote down interesting sentences I heard.

Getting a PhD in your special interest is very much a blessing and a curse. The blessing: I was ready to throw myself into it, I loved everything I learned, I was awake and engaged. The curse: I had not learned how to have work/life boundaries in the interim, and did not learn really until like my third or fourth year. PhDing is a job, and it is not healthy to work all the time, even if you love your job. (I’ve written another overly-personal post about this.) PhDing is also training for a different job, a job that may or may not exist. It’s only about 1% of PhD graduates in linguistics who get a tenure-track faculty job. I knew I wanted that, desperately, but also knew full well that I could not realistically expect it.

(content warning: brief discussion of suicidal thoughts)

I did not magically stop having mental illness between undergrad and grad school. If anything, things were much worse in my first two years of grad school than they were even in my last two years of undergrad. It was the period of time where my support network was imploding under my feet, and I was in a deep, dark pit about it. Syntax (and linguistics more generally) was(/were) the only things that it felt like I was put on this earth for. I wasn’t exactly suicidal in those years, because I didn’t have specific, like, immediate plans, but I didn’t have a Plan B for if I didn’t get an academic job. If you had asked me in those first couple years (and caught me in an unexpectedly honest moment) I would’ve said that killing myself was my Plan B if I didn’t get a job that let me do syntax forever.

You might see how this is like… not a healthy way to live. I let go of that Plan B as the rest of my life outside of grad school got better, as I built friendships and relationships and a new support network. I think the single biggest thing, other than the actual people and human kindness, was when my partner at the time told me in very clear terms that they didn’t like the kind of person I became when I worked nights and weekends. I stopped working nights and weekends, and that was the thing that made it possible to imagine being a human and living life even if I didn’t win the job lottery.

I say this all now from a place of… having won the job lottery. I’m also divorced, and moved away from my support network again, and more physically disabled than I’ve ever been, but I have the job now. And I now have to contend with the reality of having work-life boundaries and not putting my eggs all in one basket. Not because my partner asks me to, but because I want to be around for sixty more years of syntax (and pottery and knitting and transgenderism and other stuff I like). It feels like a danger, like a cursed amulet, the seduction of having an academic job where I study the thing that has been a special interest of mine since adolescence. I have to stave off the allure of investing my whole self into just that, because it’s a job. We live under capitalism. It is not good for me to let myself immerse my brain into this thing 24/7, both despite and because of the fact that I would be professionally rewarded for it.

I worry very deeply about some of my students who I see the same deep love of the field in. Yes, I also love this thing, but be careful, please, and do not let capitalism use this love to seduce you into becoming a wraith of yourself, you know? I have the most job satisfaction of almost anyone I know, but I also have to be constantly vigilant for how my passion can be exploited and turned against the well-being of my mortal body. And good god, what if I hadn’t won that lottery? Please have a better Plan B than I had.

Anyways, this is all to say that having special interests feels good, autism is great, capitalism is evil and ruins everything. Letting myself develop non-professional special interests has been a really useful ward against that evil pull towards overwork, and pottery is really fun and I can’t wait until Monday when I get to make more fucked up little bowls. Maybe I’ll fuck around and try attaching a handle to something if I’m feeling spicy. More baskets, safer eggs?

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Kirby Conrod

Dr. Conrod is a linguist and scholar sort of at large. They write about transgender stuff, the linguistics of pronouns, and ways to work with your brain.