Reflections on PhD School
June 22, 2012 § 2 Comments
On Monday I finally broke my longstanding tradition of avoiding my own graduation ceremonies. High School? Fuck that noise, I tested out my junior year. College? I graduated in December and lost interest by the time June rolled around. My MFA program? I would have had to stay in Boston for two extra weeks, PFFT NO. I had planned on giving the ol’ middle finger to the PhD as well, for all kinds of reasons. But my parents wanted me to, and my advisor said I’d regret it if I didn’t, so I begrudgingly agreed. I wasn’t happy about it though, no sir — for one thing those robes! What in the Galileo hell?? For another thing, who cares, it’s just an empty symbolic gesture right? Like marriage, except with fewer gifts. But then I actually walked in the ceremony, and was reminded once again of how full of shit I can be. Because other than having to fight the urge to contemptuously live-tweet several walking comedy shows (to be or not to be, is all I’ll say), it felt…….good. I was finished, and had the stupid outfit to prove it.
The following morning my parents and Chris and I did some last-minute packing and hit the road for Spokane, the first stop on our Big Move out to NYC — the above video captures the prettier bits (for full effect, watch in 1080). I’ve driven that particular stretch of road countless times these last few years, but never again — I’m sure I’ll head out to Eugene again at some point, but doubt I’ll drive, and certainly not from here. I couldn’t help but think about all the other things I’ll never do again, stuff I did not thinking that that would be the very last time. The weirdest thought was realizing that my advisor is no longer my advisor, and that I am no longer her student. That I am no longer anyone’s student. That I’ll be unsubscribed from the listservs I mostly ignored. That I’ll never again step foot in PLC, and that due to my continuing self-imposed exile from Facebook, will likely never see or interact with the vast majority of my cohort, ever.
I’m not quite sure how to feel about all this. It’s exciting, but also gives me a headache. And I’m happy, but also irritable. Before the defense I could work 10 hours straight –on the dissertation, blogshit, teaching stuff, whatever– without a single whimper; for the past few days the prospect of taking the dogs for a walk and vacuuming the living room has me overwhelmed and on the brink of tears. I am told this is normal.
Part of me wants to write some sort of takeaway list — what I’ve learned throughout the process, what I would say to current and future PhD students, what I wish I would have known before I applied. Practical advice like “all the shitty things that happen –being ripped to shreds in workshops, being told no by idiots, fucking up at conferences, getting a B– will prove to be the best things that ever happen” and “don’t be surprised if you start drinking” and “your advisor’s job is to kick your ass and make you smarter, not hand out A-for-effort gold stars.” Most importantly, I’d remind people that getting a PhD doesn’t make a person special or even necessarily smart, it makes a person a doctor. And “doctor” is a title, not an adjective — so don’t be a dick about it. I’d throw in something positive too, like how rewarding it can be to see this sort of project to completion, and how, if you’re lucky, you’ll leave with friends and colleagues who continue to help you learn things. I’d also add that “I don’t know” is the smartest response anyone could ever give, so use it as often as possible.
In the end, though, I’d say that the whole process is mostly a confusing, frustrating mystery — and that you’ll probably be better for having done it, but maybe not. It’s just a thing, don’t worry so much. Or something, who knows.