Posts Tagged ‘phd’
This post is long overdue.
But every time I’ve sat down to write it, I come down with a terrible case of ennui. And boredom is so much worse when its french, no? The whole thing was so strange that a month later, I still don’t think I’ve been able to process my feelings about it.
So the viva, defense, simulated drowning, whatever you want to call it wasn’t actually that bad. I ‘studied’ for weeks, which mostly involved torturing myself by rereading my thesis several times and alternately praising my own genius (rare moments, let me tell ya) and mostly crying about how dumb I am and how the examiners are going to see right through the thin veneer of my ‘expertise’ which is in fact more narrow and insubstantial than the ‘wood’ part of an ikea dresser. Then I reread 5-10 of the books I relied on most heavily to do my research, and beat myself up even more about all of these good bits that I didn’t quote, or realized that I didn’t actually understand the author’s argument, and shit, what if they ask me about (insert random theory I could care less about here), because I will have nothing to say and look like a fool.
So basically, the month or so I took preparing for the viva was like the condensed soup version of the last 3 ish years. All of the emotions you experience during the course of your phd timesmushed one last panic bursty rush. And the worst bit is the knowledge that you can’t really really prepare for a viva. Rereading your thesis and being really familiar with your own work is really all you can do. I have a friend who went though her entire bibliography and wrote a paragraph sized summary of every single thing she read. (I was too lazy, too disorganized, and too disinterested to do that.) In the end, did they end up asking her about any of these fucking sources? No. Although you could get caught out by some dickhead examiner who will ask. So yeah. But anyways, the only bit of my manic preparations that helped was rereading my own thesis, but I do say that with the caveat that unfortunately this advice ended up working in my situation but might not in yours. YMMV and other internet acronyms. To anyone preparing for their viva, I’d suggest doing whatever level of prep will help alleviate your anxiety and not make you feel worse, whatever that is.
The viva itself was actually kind of fun. My examiners had both clearly read my thesis and were familiar with a number of the primary texts I used. They started off by telling me how much they enjoyed (?!?!!!?!) reading it and asked me a whole bunch of interesting questions that either asked me to clarify my position on something or asked my opinion on something else. There was only one part where I metaphorically shat myself- they asked about some obscure philosopher whose name I never fucking heard of in my life, but I was able to explain why it didn’t occur to me to go there, and they accepted that just fine. But for the like 5 minutes while ze went on and on about the works of this person, I was imagining that I was chained to a desk like Bartleby the Scrivener in some room made of algae covered stones with iron clamps around my legs, reading shitty books about this philosopher and writing yet MORE crap until I squeezed myself between the rusty window bars and jumped out the window to my doom.
But here I am still, so obviously it didn’t come to that.
I will say that the university’s impartial moderator (whose function was to fill out the paperwork and make sure nobody got stabbed?) was very fucking rude. Ze was texting the entire fucking time and after about an hour, started making throat clearing noises, because this was probably interfering with hir SimCity or feeding stray cats time or whatever the fuck they wanted to go home and do. Which ok, I get that this isn’t particularly fascinating for you and its one more shitty administrative duty you have to do for your shitty tenured job with amazing benefits and good pay, but seriously sit the fuck down because this is the only time in my life I will be in the same room as people who have read my thesis and want to fucking discuss it with me, bitch.
The final result is that I passed with minor corrections, so just a few typos to fix. I still can’t believe it. I do know how lucky I got with my examiners. Really fucking lucky that they 1. read the thesis 2. behaved like compassionate human beings 3. had totally reasonable expectations for a phd thesis and realize that I am not a 73 year old wizard guru with infinite knowledge. And thank Allah for that, because after all of the shitty experiences I’ve had with various advisers, I needed a fucking break.
My brain is still trying to process the mindfuck though. Because according to these people, my ideas were original and convincing and my writing was GOOD and INTERESTING and shit. And I’m not saying this to sound like I’m up my own ass, but to hopefully provide some reassurance for anyone out there that has heard nothing but how stupid they are for the last 3,4,5 years that it’s not fucking true. I was told up until the time I submitted (for the parts of my thesis that my adviser actually claimed to have read) that there were chapters where ze just ‘didn’t buy the argument.’ Guess which chapters the examiners liked best? And based on the very specific things said examiners referenced, I knew they took the time to actually read it. So after 3+ years of being told that my ideas weren’t deep enough, that I needed a writing tutor, and never getting any kind of positive feedback, these independent examiners evaluated my work in detail and felt that it was good enough for a phd.
Maybe I should feel vindicated? Run around with my spartan brushy helmet thing beating my gold plated breastplate, yelling incomprehensible testosterone fueled shit? I don’t know what to feel, besides relief. I’m so glad I don’t have to write anything else and that I can finally graduate and be done with it and that I’m free from that horrible sadistic relationship of submitting work and getting shat on for no reason. But I don’t feel proud or like I accomplished something. I just feel like I survived. Which is a start, right? But why did I put myself through this torture to begin with? Was it worth it? I honestly don’t know.
This is all made more complicated by the fact that I am now unemployed. You see, getting a phd really fucking impressed that shitty school I was working for. I want to say more about this but there’s some investigation thing going on surrounding my unceremonious discharge so I’m going to wait until that’s resolved to get into specifics.
I’m very very lucky in that I have a partner with a job and health insurance and a good support network. Thank god for that. I’m going to use the time between now and graduation to focus on getting my writing ‘business’ off the ground. More on that soon.
I remember talking to a friend who had submitted hir phd a few months ahead of me and after all of the congratulations and buying of drinks, I asked how they felt.
“Eh, just the same as before,” my friend replied.
“WTF dawg?” I definitely did not say. “Don’t you feel relieved????”
“Not really. The whole thing is kind of anticlimactic,” said my friend.
I seriously could not understand this. But now that I’ve finally submitted my own thesis, my own catatonic state seems to reflect my friend’s experience.
I don’t really feel relief. I don’t really feel excited or proud. I do feel vaguely guilty that I’m not working on it anymore. Crazy, right? I think this lack of relief comes from the fact that I know I’ll have to defend the damn thing in several weeks time and then I may or may not have to make a few months worth of ridiculous changes. So this feels like more of a temporary reprieve than anything else.
I also feel guilty because the ‘finished’ version still had 87 holes that I know are there. A few things I couldn’t find for my bibliography, a few bits were I probably cited something wrong or didn’t elaborate when I should have. A friend who had been through this many years ago told me that everyone’s thesis has shit like this in it, and that nobody but me will be aware of ‘a few bricks missing from the cathedral.’ What a great mental image that is, no? I hope my friend is right. You get to a point where you can’t fucking work on the damn thing anymore, and it has to be over.
Hopefully the examiners agree.
It’s funny, because the disparity between the ‘oh the phd is a research exercise’ attitude schools officially espouse and the not on the university website attitude of ‘everything you’ve ever written sucks, gtfo of my office’ reality of advisement fuck with your head until you internalize your own shitty mediocrity.
Maybe that’s the real point of the phd?
Anyways hope all of you out there in blogland have a happy new year.
I’ve started a half dozen entries over the last few weeks but don’t have the enthusiasm to finish writing anything.
My days currently look like this: wake up, eat string cheese, stare at thesis for 9 hrs, eat more string cheese.
The ‘staring at thesis’ bit involves changing a few words here and there, cleaning the kitchen sink, cursing my lack of foresight as a youth, and deleting loads of shit I thought was brilliant but in reality is horrible. I’ve also had a few of those weird trances where you start writing and it feels like looking at one of those magic eye posters from the 90s because you are slightly cross eyed and focusing at something just past the computer screen. Then, after you snap out of the daze, your word count has miraculously increased by 999999 and it’s time to stream an ABBA playlist on youtube because THIS IS PROBS THE BEST THING YOU EVER WROTE!!!!!!! but not.
My ass hurts from sitting all day. I feel like the dead professor from “A Grammarian’s Funeral” but without the genius. Just the atrophied muscle and lack of life.
Anyways, if anyone out there in phd land is suffering through this with me, I am throwing some virtual gang signs in solidarity.
Check this out on your next cheese stick break:
I know I’ve already written several entries comparing the adviser/advisee relationship to that of a 18th/19th century woman with no legal rights and her MIA overlord/absentee fiance. But since I still feel the need to complain as a way to cope with my panic and fear, I have come up with a new, maybe more fitting scenario to explain the perilous dynamics of this type of relationship!
scene: Bureaucratic office in Dontgiveafuckistan. Interior is dim, as only a few photons of light stream though the dust and corpses of dead flies stuck to the communist issue blinds. Undead flies explore overflowing ashtrays. Empty coffee cups and old newspapers are strewn around for artistic effect. It is 500 degrees but air conditioning is out of the question, as it is an untrustworthy example of western excess.
Government Employee: lets phone ring for a few minutes, then realizing nobody else is around, picks up phone. Yeah?
Me: checks watch. Good morning, sir. How are you?
GE: lights up cigarette, inhales deeply and leans back in chair. What do you want?
Me: feels self-esteem draining out of body through pesky leak in soles of feet. Um I was just calling to see how you were doing. And to see if you got that last draft I sent you a few months ago? I know internet access has been a bit spotty what with the riots and all, so I just wanted to check and see how things were going.
GE: The draft? Can you refresh my memory? I’m so busy that I can’t recall exactly what you are talking about. doodles hangman’s noose on corner of old newspaper.
Me: The draft of my thesis? Last time we talked we discussed a timeline and you said it would be ready to submit soon. And that you’d get back to me with some comments.
GE: Hm…I’d help you but this doesn’t sound familiar. Was it before the uprising or after?
Me: After the uprising but before the General was ousted. Right after Christmas.
GE: Oh right, right, right… Let me just check my outbox, hang on… rummages in old filing cabinet. Finds huge folder marked UofL thesis, which contains no comments as it has been sitting there for years unread. GE launches the brick of papers into a metal wastepaper basket in corner of room
a loud metal clang can be heard over the phone
Me: Sir? Sir? Are you ok? Have they started the artillery fire again?
GE: Oh no, just knocked over my machete. Don’t worry, I’m fine. I can’t seem to find your papers though…give me a few days and I’ll get back to you.
Elderly janitor shuffles in and, with the speed and strength of a dying turtle, lifts and empties the metal wastepaper basket containing UofL’s livelihood. GE covers mouthpiece of phone and asks janitor to run out and purchase cigarettes and mustache wax.
Me: Thank you so much! Hope I didn’t disturb you with my phone call!
GE: Oh it’s no trouble. I’ll be in touch. puts down phone.
My well-meaning parent likes to forward me job vacancy announcements for various academic positions.
I used to fill them out.
I wasted countless hours last year going nuts with those things, each one requiring you to invent some stupid login name and info for their campuswide internet system, writing letters of intent for each one, being careful to incorporate their exact bullshit phrases like “multi-ethnic,” because I was informed by some ‘insider’ who scores the applications that writing “diverse” just ain’t the same thing.
(and obvi, that highly classified info was not enough to help me.)
And due to the sheer number of applications I filled out, I did allow myself to indulge in a few daydreams about what life might be like with one of these cushy government jobs. 3/4 teaching load, good health insurance, funding to go to conferences, and a starting salary that doubled the highest wage I’ve ever earned, for what appears to be a lot less work. Less stress. Union membership and some kind of job protection. More time to bike and kayak and do other outdoorsy shit that people in herpes commercials get to do.
Maybe it was some kind of optimism bias. Or maybe since I filled out so many of the damn applications, I felt a little like Charlie Bucket when he took the shilling he found in the gutter to buy one last Wonka Bar. Not realizing, of course, that Veruca Salt’s dad employed a whole fucking factory of people to shuck candy bars in the hopes of finding that magical piece of paper.
I do realize that my analogy is seriously flawed because of this:
But I digress.
The odds are not stacked in my (or most people’s) favor. So would it really be the best use of my time today to churn off another application and raise my hopes for a life of probs decent civil servitude, when I could be working on my thesis? So I can get the fuck out of academia and just eat chocolate and read books for fun, without having to rely on those things to supply my livelihood?
There’s also this to consider. While I think it’d be great to have one of these jobs, is it really what I want out of my brief time on this mortal coil? I imagine that I’d be better equipped to laugh apathetic students off and not take it so personally if I was making a fair wage. But maybe it wouldn’t be enough for me. What do I really want out of life? Damn you, academia, and your awful penchant for making me re-evaluate shit and think.
If I had to answer that question right now, what do I want to do with my life, well the real ugly worm under the rock that is my heart answer is, I want to be david sedaris. (not in a creepy skin wearing way. I will continue to respect and admire you from a very healthy physical distance, mr sedaris!)
So maybe I should work on that today instead.
So what exactly is “fair” in the realm of phd advisement?
Besides the obvious things, like answering your advisees emails, meeting with them every once in awhile, and not jumping into a dumpster, neverending story style if you should happen to pass your advisee on the street. (They probably can’t beat you up anyway.)
There’s such a wide range across the spectrum of phd advisers–you have individuals like my former adviser, who never read any of my material, period. And then you have the other extreme– really industrious, kind souls who return your work a week or two after you write it and invite you over for dinner with their family on a routine basis. I recognize that both of these examples are outliers, but it still leaves me feeling ill-equipped to determine if I am being ‘fucked with’ right now, or if I have allowed myself to become so broken by the system that whatever sense of judgement I had is warped beyond belief.
Interweb friends, please help a muggle out here: what is a reasonable amount of time for a supervisor to respond to one of your emails? days? weeks?
how many times do you need to contact your adviser before you get a response? my magical number is more than one and less than 6. and how long of a turnaround on a chapter is ‘ok’ in a ‘you are not being taken for a chump’ kind of way?
The next question is, is there anything in the fucking world I can do to speed this process up?
(legal disclaimer: ok, maybe a tad..)
The whole thing does reek, though. I am still in phd limbo and have no idea what the next step is with my own writing. Academia, I can’t wait until I quit you.
But the mindset is so pervasive. This morning I was fantasizing about how fucking free I will feel when the whole thing is submitted and defended and I get a dumb title on my snail mail. And my next thought was how I should just submit the dissertation to publishers, because it will basically be a book already. It’d be a waste to not have it published, right? And the I realized that it would probably need to be edited to hell and back, and the idea of that fills me with refried bean vomit. And also, why bother? Why put myself in a position where I am wasting precious months of life agonizing over a document that nobody will ever read when I have no interest in joining the ranks of the Stuffy Tweed Brigade, as I do not want to become an endangered species/mythical creature? It’s just the fucking mindset is so hard to break. Just one more paper. One more year on the job search circuit. It’s like crack but without the good feelings. Ahem.
Teaching is also kind of a sado-maschocistic job. Like being one of those people who get paid to spank balding men who work in management. Or like dating notorious jackass and woman hater, Chris Brown. It’s easy to get addicted to the adrenaline rush of it all. The performance aspect, the russian roulette feeling that despite your meticulously planned lesson, anything could happen. Sometimes it goes better than you could have hoped, and your students get into a heated debate about killing a mammoth spider in the classroom because you’re reading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and they’re using bits of the text to justify their position, and wow. It feels like you won the fucking lottery or saved 10000 souls for jesus that day.
But when it’s bad, its bad.
Here are some things that regularly occur in the classroom that I hate:
1. When, upon trying to be Socratic and shit, you send a pretty basic question out there into the ether and either a. 50 blank faces stare back at you like you are a fucking asshole, or b. someone tries to answer your question with the most random shit ever, like an anecdote about their dad’s girlfriend or the word ‘twentington.‘
2. When you spend 5 minutes explaining what “deus ex machina” is, only to be asked immediately after, “What’s ‘deus ex machina’?”
now 3. is a new one and a favorite… I have a student who sleeps with hir eyes open for most of the session. But ze must have a well-concealed wifi connected device, because they randomly volunteer equal parts highfalutin and random shit. So the other day, ze raised hir hand and goes, “The metaphysical aspect of praxis is demonstrated in lines 98-104 of the text.” So I asked for some clarification or a specific example, and just got, ‘uhhhhh.. i can’t find it now.’ BAM muthafucker!!!! I got you! Which means absolutely nothing, you probably still think you are 8 million times smarter than me and who knows, maybe you are right.
That last one is probably what bothers me the most. That I get so wrapped up in trying to ‘defeat’ plagiarists or students who are trying to get one over on me and it really doesn’t matter. I won’t get paid more if I ‘catch’ them. It doesn’t mean I ‘win’. I can’t change a person like that and all it accomplishes is making me less dude-like.
So I am making a promise to myself that this is my last semester teaching. I am still kicking around my business idea and am going to be more serious about making it happen. There’s got to be a more satisfying and less destructive way to make a buck.