Amy Gentry, PhD is the bestselling author of the thrillers Good as Gone , Last Woman Standing, and Bad Habits, available now. Bad Habits is an academic thriller: A whip-smart psychological thriller, in which a grad student becomes embroiled in a deadly rivalry that changes her into someone unrecognizable to her struggling family, her ambitious academic friends, and even herself.
Praise for Bad Habits: “If you’ve ever wondered how the Talented Mr. Ripley would fare in a Ph.D. program, Bad Habits is the book for you. With deft, crisp prose and unerring wit, Amy Gentry charts a singular young woman’s perilous ascent to the academic firmament—and then unravels all the secrets she had to keep to get there. By turns wicked and tender, ghastly and hilarious, Bad Habits is Amy Gentry’s best book yet—and the most fun I’ve had in ages.”—Elizabeth Little, Los Angeles Times bestselling author of Dear Daughter and Pretty As A Picture
Next week, Amy Gentry shares practical advice gleaned from her path from PhD to novelist.
“But you’re good at this,” my advisor said, when I told her I’d decided not to go on the job market again.
This was the good advisor, the caring advisor, the one who liked me as a person and not just as an accessory or potential credit to her name. She was the one who’d looked me in the eye when I was deep in my dissertation—struggling to leave my apartment every day, and so paranoid that being within four blocks of the library made my skin crawl—and asked me if I was depressed.
That question saved my life. At the Good Advisor’s urging, I went to a therapist. It took a while to get the pharmaceuticals right, but eventually the air stopped looking granulated and thick, like it was trying to strangle me. I was able to take a shower without sitting down in the middle of it and crying. I taught classes without puking into the hall trash can first.
But as I got happier, a funny thing happened. Instead of returning to my graduate studies with increased focus, I began drifting away. I moved back to my old stomping grounds of Austin, where the weather was warm and I still had close friends from college. There, I attended plays and comedy shows, met local writers and performers, swam at Barton Springs, and worked on my dissertation alongside a friend, in coffee shops with live music. Even waiting tables once a week felt restorative; it was so real. By the time I flew back to Chicago to defend my dissertation, I already knew I would not be going on the market that year. Or ever.
I kept that knowledge to myself until I had my PhD in hand. When I called Good Advisor and told her, she wasn’t exactly shocked, but she was a little surprised. I had put up a good front at my defense.
“It’s your life. You have to do what’s best for you,” she said, with her usual bluntness. “But I’m not going to lie and pretend I’m not invested in the idea of you getting an academic job. You’d make a really good academic.”
She mentioned a plum job opening in a top department. I laughed out loud. Are you kidding? I said. It was at the one department in my field with a worse reputation for toxicity than ours.
She went silent for a moment. “I know this place has been toxic to you,” she began, then stopped again.
In grad school, I’d pretended to learn many things. But one thing I had actually learned was that academic prestige bore absolutely no relation to happiness. If anything, it was the inverse. I’d never been in such a prestigious institution; and I’d never been in a place where so many people, including me, seemed to be afraid and unhappy.
I had fallen into grad school sideways, via a one-year masters that was little more than an alibi (albeit an expensive one) for chasing a dying relationship. Once there, the part of me that loves being an underdog fought to get into the PhD program, and, after just a few months, I did. For the first year, I soared, in love with the ideas and thrilled to be performing a fun new version of myself for people who seemed to appreciate it.
But it didn’t take long for the atmosphere to start getting to me. We all joked that the department was an elimination-style reality show with the professors as judges, but the fact was, my classmates really were starting to fall away. Over the years, I watched people I knew and liked—disproportionately women of color, queer, and trans academics—get bullied or starved out of the program, or just drop in their tracks, exhausted, after years of micro- and macro-aggressions. Some of them were my closest friends.
It did something to me. Even as I continued to make solid progress toward my degree—a white woman with a big Texas laugh that could cover a lot—I felt increasingly anxious, to the point of paranoia. Moreover, I felt a deep shame over what I had become. I behaved badly at times, out of fear or exhaustion; we all did. The novel I would eventually write about grad school, Bad Habits, taps into that shame, and the rage it barely conceals. To write it, I drew on what I knew of other people’s experiences in other programs, not just my own. “The Program” in Bad Habits is the distillation of the worst of all of our programs. It may not be real, but it’s true all the same.
Good Advisor, though, was a straight shooter. When she told me I was good at being an academic, I believed her. It should have given me a tiny hit of that old feeling, the pride I’d felt getting into the program in the first place. Instead, it felt like an old addiction trying to tug me back—no longer an intoxicating pleasure, but a chemical dependency that had once nearly killed me. It didn’t make me feel good anymore; it only reminded me how small my life had become. I couldn’t help but think of all the pleasures I’d abandoned in grad school: seeing friends, playing my guitar, acting, and most of all, writing.
“The thing is, though, I’m good at lots of things,” I said. “You have no idea.”