Monday, July 28, 2008

A Funny Thing Happened On My Way to a PhD

This was written as a guest post for my friend, Nina, of ReaderWrites, whose dad died last week.

So the order of the day is to be funny, crack wise, amuse the crowd so they won't get too totally bummed out by the fact that we're all here because of--hushed tones, Addams Family music--A Death In the Family. And wasn't that a novel by James Agee? Or one of the Agee's. It sticks in my mind, halfway there obviously, as are any number of other works of fiction. My mother gave it to me on my thirteenth birthday, along with five or six other classics that she now considered I was old enough to read. Hah!

Like Nina (or perhaps that should, grammatically speaking, be As with Nina), I am a dropout from a PhD program in literature. We are, Nina and I, what's known as ABDs. All But Dissertation, that is, standing between us and the world calling us Doctor. I gave up the ghost long ago, admitted I would never finish that damn thing and thus condemned myself to, if I choose to teach, a lifetime of Freshman Comp classrooms. If you read Nina regularly, you know that that is somewhere south of purgatory. I don't know if Nina will finish hers. She might get a growth spurt in the fall and just go for it. Or maybe not.

I think statistically there are more of us ABDs than there are PhDs. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the hell that is graduate school may wonder why that is. Why don't we just get on with the fucking thing and finish it (words that I believe my dissertation director, not to mention my department chair, said to me often). Well, here's the truth of it: the easy part of getting a PhD is the course work. It's structured. There are assignments and exams and deadlines that Mommy and Daddy Herr Professors are setting for you. You go through term after term, picking your courses, buying your books, going to your classes, doing your readings, writing your papers, taking your exams and counting just how many credits more you need until you are Done With Your Coursework. And when you have amassed the requisite number of credits, you get shoved into the PhD Exam stage.

It varies from department to department and university to university, but suffice to say, it entails reading EVERYTHING written by and about and even tangentially remotely related to your topic. And then you get to write these horrendous exams written by faculty who are still sulking over (a) their career disappointments, (b) their age, (c) the horrendous exams their profs put them through all those years and years and years ago. Sometimes you're lucky enough to be in a department that has Orals, when those same sulky faculty are now quizzing you face to face about why you didn't put this or that arcane point into your exam answers. Or, as did actually happen to me, one of your examiners will fall asleep while you're responding. Oh, and did I mention that the chair of my committee was certifiable? But even so, the PhD exams are a cakewalk compared to what comes next.

The dissertation. It is not, as many of our relatives think "a really long paper," like maybe forty pages instead of a mere twenty. It is a book length original work of research. See that word 'book'--yep, that's what you're writing, a flippin' book. And for this, you are almost totally on your own. No Mommy and Daddy Herr Professors telling you what to do and when to do it. Just you. Alone. No deadlines, except what you set for yourself. And no one really cares if you keep them. Or not. No one cares about this thing that is taking up your whole life. And no one ever will. The point of it is that you've done it. It's the final hoop you must vault through before you get your degree. I faltered at the last step. I tripped on the final jump. And thus I am, forever and a day, ABD. A vast repository of now-useless knowledge about one minute speck in the world of literature.

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