3 Facts to Help You Finish Your PhD
“Yeah, I’m finishing my PhD this summer,” I said, smiling brightly to signify that this is a fact, something that will actually happen due to gravity or inertia or some other scientific, inevitable thing that has nothing to do with me.
This is the conversation I have been having lately when people are bored enough to ask me that dreaded question, “how’s your schoolwork
going?” (“schoolwork” reminds me of Monty Burns as a schoolboy, with a satchel and plate-sized lollipop.) No more whining about how shitty it’s going, how scared I am, how I wish I became a painter or engineer or electrician. Lately I’ve been trying to project something a little more positive.
I’m learning a lot about myself and about the whole fucking process. Just when I think that my eyes have been opened and I’m finally aware of what a sham all this stuff is and what I need to do to get the hell out of here, I have another realization. So even though I am not claiming to be the Grand High Poobah of all Knowledge (although this would look great on a door plaque), here are some recent revelations that I hope get me through the summer:
1. There is no such thing as a perfect PhD. Only a finished PhD.
Now this sounds obvious, and I admit that I’d heard it many times before it actually sunk into my grotesquely thick cranium. But there was some cognitive dissonance going on, because in phd world, I certainly don’t think of myself as a perfectionist. I’m not the one living in the library, sustaining myself on chewed eraser bits and copy machine fumes as I live the life of the mind. I’m not the one who goes to every department party, arriving early to set up strategically placed bowls of budget supermarket snacks, or the one following around the dept chair like a deranged groupie, hoping for the shadow of genius to brush against me in a maybe creepy borderline sexual way. And since I am already disillusioned and just trying to do my work and get out, I didn’t think this advice applied to me. Because I didn’t think I was aiming for perfection.
But my realization stems from the fact that on some level, I have still been living under the jackboot of academic perfectionism. Exhibit A- I’m sitting on a chapter I should have sent to my adviser a few weeks ago, but I asked for an extension because it wasn’t ‘ready.’ Wake the hell up, University of Lies! In the Ivory Tower, “ready” is synonymous for perfect. If you keep waiting for readiness or perfection or Godot, you will be waiting for ever. Just send the damn thing. This brings me to point two.
2. You CANNOT avoid criticism.
No matter how thorough you are or how brilliant and original your research is, your adviser and examiners will find problems. Most of these problems will not actually be problems at all, but fall under the category of Things You Left Out (TM). You probably left them out because your thesis is a finite project, and you cannot mention everything that ever happened or will happen in the world. This is just a sad fact. But it makes your adviser/examiner’s job very easy, because all they have to do is point to any number of these infinite things and ask why you idiotically thought it would be ok to leave out a chapter on Madonna’s 1989 music video (where she burns crucifixes and makes out with black jesus) in your thesis about medieval representations of the virgin mary. And despite the fact that you politely answer, “my thesis focuses on medieval representations of the virgin mary,” they will sigh and push their glasses up on the bridge of their nose and insist that your thesis would benefit from a more “balanced approach” and then they make you write another fucking ludicrous chapter anyway.
So, to recap, this criticism cannot be avoided because, in most cases, it probably has way more to do with them not reading your work and needing to critique something in order to claim to be doing their job. You are not a mind reader. And even if you were, they would just lie about having chosen the jack of hearts, and still make you write something completely ridiculous.
3. You are NOT an idiot. You are probably very smart to have gotten this far, but are being held back in some way if you believe their hazing ritual is a binding judgement on your intelligence.
This is a big one. And its closely related to items 1 and 2. You cannot be perfect, they will criticize you no matter what (because it’s their job), and often these things are delivered in a big ol package of ‘fuck you’. Perhaps they make comments like, “I’m really worried about where this is going.. I just have no idea what to say,” making you think this is YOUR fault and not a result of them being too lazy to read your stuff. Or conversely, maybe they rip your shit to shreds and you haven’t heard a positive comment in years besides the one time you got a check mark next to a paragraph. But a check mark doesn’t count as praise, right? I should be smart enough to know the answer to this.
I have experienced this kind of repetitive assault on my humanity before. I was 16 and a trainee lifeguard at the local pool ( I realize it wasn’t exactly Gitmo, but it was three months of nonstop institutional hazing and it sucked). The older lifeguards had a number of methods they used to initiate/terrorize us rookies: they dumped buckets of slop water over our heads while we were stuck up on the stand, took our belongings and sunk them to the bottom of the pool, had a special notebook where they wrote humiliating comments about our looks, pushed us in the water after our shifts were over and we had changed to go home, etc.
The worst perpetrator of these small crimes against my angsty teenage soul was our supervisor, a middle aged woman who ironically was also a psychologist. As far as I knew, she only used her advanced degrees to play mindgames and fuck with people. An example: Once I was up on the stand around dinnertime, which was always pretty slow. She called over to me that there were too many lifeguards up, and I could come down and take a break since the pool was almost empty. I was confused because this went against the normal protocol of the place, but she insisted and waved me over. So I climbed down off my plastic perch and walked over to her. She took off her aviator glasses, got real close to my face, and stared at me like I was the biggest asshole she ever saw (or like a basic training scene from any army movie). She screamed “what the fuck do you think you are doing? You NEVER leave your stand. Are you a fucking moron?” At this point my face contorted in some awful adolescent picture of confusion, and and I said/asked, ‘but you just told me to get down?” and then after several excruciating seconds she bent over in hysterical laughter at how stupid I was, and ha ha how hilarious that she could use her position, age, and authority to get a teenager to follow her orders or believe her or something. I distinctly remember how horrible it was to discover that a middle aged psychologist could act worse than the frat boys.
But what many academics do is just a slightly veiled, ivory tower version of the same treatment.
At 16, when I cried every fucking day after I left the pool, (I was a sensitive child, ok?) my parents told me to suck it up. They told me that the world has a lot of unpleasant people in it. And even though this woman was wrong and a dick (I may be paraphrasing slightly), I was not allowed to quit. I made a commitment and had to see it through.
So what point am I trying to make with this self indulgent and unnecessary trip in the wayback machine? This kind of hazing is wrong and completely fucked up, but these people see it as an initiation rite. The reasoning is usually something awful like, ‘I went through it so you do too. But don’t worry cause soon you’ll be on the other side of the slop bucket!’ You know what? I never went back to that pool after that summer, despite ‘earning’ the ‘right’ to terrorize some fresh new batch of kids who weren’t old enough to shave yet, because it was cruel. And now I feel the same way about academia. Their bad behavior is a reflection on THEM, not you. And you owe it to yourself (I have no idea who I am speaking to right now) to FINISH. Don’t take the mindgames from a sad middle-aged psychologist/professor to heart, when you are so close to the goal.
So, in closing:
1. Hand shit in.
2. They will tear it apart no matter what. Smile and say thanks.
3. Make their idiotic suggestions.
4. Get phd and never enter a formal program of education again.