Thursday 13: The dirt on doctoral studies

Yesterday in class, we scrawled narratives about the experience of being in our doctoral program. While I went the stream-of-consciousness-I’m-too-tired-to-think-straight route, my friend got all narrative genius on us. Channeling Patton with a fake cigar (highlighter) in her teeth, she read a story that likened grad school to trench warfare. It was a story of attrition, “battling” stacks of papers and loads of theory, “gaining territory,” and “friendly fire.” While hilarious to us “veterans,” it occurs to me that few outside of our little world would find it funny.
phd schoolAfter “rigorous” research (aka two minutes on Google), I’ve discovered that roughly 1-2% of the U.S. population holds a doctorate, not including doctors and lawyers. It got me thinking, as I wrap up my second year as a ridiculously tired doctoral student, that there’s an air of mystery around this whole PhD* thing. What’s it about? How do we do it? What’s it like? Why bother?

Well, for my first Thursday 13 in eons, I’ll tell you.

Doctoral school is…

1. Reading. A lot. When people ask me what I do, sometimes I answer that I read for a living. Because it’s true. In classes, it’s not uncommon to read 300+ pages per week. And not beach reading either. A sampling of titles from the stacks around my desk: “Organizational Identity and Place: A Discursive Exploration of Hegemony and Resistance,” “The Somatic Marker Hypothesis and the Possible Functions of the Prefrontal Cortex,” “Feminist-Bureaucratic Control and Other Adversarial Allies: Extending Organized Dissonance to the Practice of ‘New’ Forms.” (If these titles are gobbledygook, that is quite all right. I’ve read them and they still seem like Greek to me sometimes.)

2. Synthesizing ideas.
One of the more challenging tasks is not just reading the aforementioned dense tomes, but synthesizing and critiquing the ideas presented. And putting them in conversation with other readings. And trying to figure out why the hell they matter. (And realizing that sometimes they don’t!) Synthesizing may take the form of class discussions and long-old term papers. And if that sounds boring, don’t worry, sometimes I think so, too.

3. Pretending you did the reading.
Synthesizing is difficult when you don’t actually do the reading, which let’s face it, is a common enough phenomenon. Because I’m type A, I probably read upwards of 95% of what I’m asked to in a given class** but I have friends who fess up to reading maybe 50%. The annoying part? No one can really tell! Keeping up the facade of accomplished studentness is a big part of the game.

4. Talking. A lot.
So after we do the ridiculous reading, we talk about it, for hours on end. A typical seminar is 3 hours long and while the format may differ depending on professor, it often involves reviewing every reading and talking it to death. While my pessimistic edge comes from end-of-semester fatigue, I will admit that the process of vocalizing ideas is stimulating. For me, it’s not uncommon to leave an evening seminar at 9:30 and not be able to sleep for hours and hours because my brain is buzzing.

5. Swimming in smarts.
Check out the big brain on Braaaaad!” (Name that movie.) The frightening thing about doctoral school is realizing that you are among a bunch of scary smart individuals. If you do the grad school thing, it’s likely that you like school, are good at it, and are somewhere near the top of your class. In PhD school, you’re surrounded by other top students. Everyone is smart. Everyone is accomplished. Everyone is reallllyyy good. For me, I choose to view all of those other big brains as resources versus competition. If I have a problem, there’s no better group to help me solve it. It’s still boggling to think about the brain power though.

6. Feeling insecure.
Of course, I admit that being around said smartypantses can give a girl a complex. When I first arrived, I kept asking myself “How the hell did I get in here?” Even today, I turn in term papers and am shocked to get good grades. I keep waiting for someone to discover that I’m not really that smart. Of course, I think a little insecurity keeps me humble so I roll with it.

7. Finding joy in obscurity.
A lot of people ask me why I do the PhD thing. Initially, my answer was so I could be a professor. I love teaching. Love, love, love teaching (see here for my ode). But as I get into research and kicking around topics for my dissertation (answering the “WTF” questions, perhaps), I realize that I find joy in understanding the nuances of human communication. My niche lately? Emotions. How do our feelings–the physical and mental processes–influence our behavior and how we communicate with others? Doctoral school for me is largely about appreciating small things–theories, phenomena, literatures–that make a big difference in the world, and understanding why. The really cool part? I’m surrounding by others who feel the same way.

8. Fighting about ideas.
Did you know that entire academic careers are predicated on fighting about theoretical perspectives and paradigms? Yeah, I know. Crazy. Whereas I’m a “to each their own” kind of person, there tends to be a lot of um, discussion, about ideas and defending of positions. Luckily my specific department is pretty amiable and while class discussions may get heated, they don’t often devolve into fisticuffs. (Okay, they’ve never, to my knowledge, devolved into fisticuffs. We’re mostly nerd types here. ha!) But understanding paradigmatic divisions is important because some people really do hang their careers and identities on explaining the way the world works.

9. Playing politics.
Like any job, being successful in PhD school is understanding the politics of the department, the professors, the school and the discipline. I could write a dissertation on this topic, but I’ll just leave it at that.

10. Endless work hours.
The schedule is probably the strangest thing about school. It changes every semester, but always includes long hours. Early mornings, late nights, work every weekend. Depending on how successful you want to be, you can work anywhere between 10 and 20 hour days and never feel “done.” In a given semester, I may take three or four days completely “off” meaning no schoolwork whatsoever. The crap part? Even when I take time off, I feel guilty for not working. It’s a very strange experience!

11. Controlled autonomy.
The beautiful double-edged sword of PhD school is autonomy. I can choose my research topics, my classes, my advisors but in order to be successful, I must know the rules and (see #9) work within the constraints of the system, naturally. For instance, work is ongoing, self-driven and largely, self-defined. I can choose to work three weeks or three days on a paper, with no one telling me what’s what. Supervision is minimal which means freedom to do things my way, but it also requires discipline.

12. Procrastination.
Being disciplined is tough, especially with the almost universal propensity for procrastination among grad students. The joke is that a house will never be as clean as when a paper is due. On deadline everything seems more important. This short video explains it better than I ever could: Procrastination.

13. Building relationships.
 More than I ever realized, PhD school is about networking and building relationships. The school you choose and the advisor you pick set up a specific set of connections that will matter throughout the rest of your career in terms of finding jobs and opportunities. And the colleagues you work with… the people you may fight with, be annoyed at, never want to see again? Academia is a small, small world. The odds are you will be with them for the rest. of. your. life. Of course, I know that the friendships I’m developing here will also be with me until I’m old and grey. So that’s cool, too.

Bonus. Finding yourself.
Whether it’s original goal or not, I think a large part of doctoral study is finding yourself, your voice, your place in the world, both academic and personal. More than once I’ve been asked to define myself in terms of topic, method, and paradigm. Those answers definitely show me more about who I am. Interesting stuff.


* Please note that I am writing from the communication studies/social science discipline and focused on the front end of the process e.g. not dissertating. This list is definitely not exhaustive!

** Level of reading is significantly influenced by class size and intensity of professor. For instance, in classes of 6, it is imperative to do the reading because it’s oh-so-obvious when you don’t. Likewise, some professors practice the Socratic method and will grill you if it seems like you’re slacking.

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