On Getting a Ph.D.

Getting a Ph.D. is hard. It takes time. It takes energy. And, as I have told so many of my students, it forces you to encounter your intelligence. As you sit and read and try to write and try to think, you are encountering your intelligence, as though for the very first time. Not confirming it, as so much earlier training has done. But exploring its limits and its possibilities, learning how to learn again, as though for the very first time. If, like me, you work in the humanities, you learn, quickly, that those scholars whose work you dismissed so readily and easily in grad classes (how dare they not account for everything ever thought?) had accomplished the small miracle of articulating something coherent and meaningful: and you begin to envy the ability to make a small, articulate statement. This is learning. It’s the moment when you realize that for all your fancy reading, for all your sophisticated apparatus, you still need to learn how to write a coherent, 50-word sentence that sums up your 300-page project. And it needs to be coherent, compelling, communicative. This is difficult labor. It’s heartbreaking. And, it can break one.
After graduating with a BA in English, I worked for an internet company. It was at the tail-end of the internet boom, there was still some money, and while I knew nothing about computers, I could write and think. I had my own office, a decent salary, a lovely computer, access to free vending machines, enough money to finally pay my rent. I was on my way to something called security. Had I stuck it out for a few years, I might have had a very different life.

I hated it.

I worked in a fast-moving field. Daily, I was learning new things about writing, about marketing, about business, even about programming. I was learning how to think. I wasn’t un-thinking. I did not have a drone-like job. I had a job that stimulated my mind in new, unexpected ways.

And I hated it.

I missed thinking through literature and history and psychoanalysis and feminism; I missed the space where I could encounter my intelligence and my stupidity; I missed the company of those who, like me, similarly encountered their intelligence and their stupidity. I missed the setting where a certain way of thinking could happen and mattered. Mattered not because it was recognized as groundbreaking or significant; not because it won awards; not because it offered social capital. Mattered because our being together as thinkers, as co-thinkers, enabled a certain way of being in the world.
I do not romanticize my Ph.D. life. Though I lived somewhere very affordable, many of my friends still took out loans; many were on anti-depressants to manage the profound anxieties created by graduate school. I failed at what felt like the most elementary things: writing a paper, reading a book, giving a presentation, keeping to a schedule, teaching undergraduates. There were some successes, but the failures linger far longer. Everyone I went to grad school with can produce a résumé of failure. There were some very lean summers—the skinny grad student is not merely fashionable. And there were some devastatingly bad years: traumatic years, one might say.

And the structural problems of the Ph.D. and the job market have not helped any: of my entering cohort of students in literature, I can name far more easily those who dropped out and are either underemployed or unemployed than I can those with tenure-track jobs.

No guarantees at the end. And, depending on where you go, a difficult material life. While the great administrators at the UMD English dept. have been working really hard to raise stipends, for instance, housing in the DMV is ridiculously unaffordable. One soon learns that the life of the mind cannot be abstracted from the needs of the body.

Let me repeat: thinking is hard. Here’s David Hume: “Abstruse thought and profound researches . . . will severely punish, by the pensive melancholy which they introduce, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception which your pretended discoveries shall meet with, when communicated.” Here is Leon Battista Alberti from 1428:

I have often heard distinguished scholars say things about scholarship that could really make anyone give up the desire to engage in it. Among other points, for there were many and varied arguments, they were open about the fact that they themselves, though at one point they had chosen to study books, would, if they could start over, gladly take up any other kind of life. . . . What we do know to be true of all other arts is most especially true of reading and writing; there is no freedom from striving at any age. (qtd. in Garber, Use and Abuse of Literature)

But, and this is what matters: I chose this life.

It is easy to forget that choosing matters. Over the years others have taught me, and I try to teach my students, to acknowledge agency, even in situations where it might feel impossible. I chose this life, just as my friends chose to be lawyers and doctors and accountants and teachers and actors and photographers and farmers.

Did we know what we were choosing? Not exactly. The world looks very different when one is 16 or 17 or when one is 21 or 22. Economies change. Politics change. Desires change. Pleasures change. Commitments change. Obligations change. We choose and muddle through as best as we can, but we choose.

There are many things one can say about grad school, about the state of the humanities, about the state of the job market in the humanities. And many of them have been said, often in the form of: “don’t do it!”

This “don’t do it” is offered, I believe, with the best of intentions. To prevent young people from “wasting” their lives. I understand these impulses. And, sometimes, I share them. But only sometimes.

Increasingly, I am finding it harder to stomach such advice.

There’s a lot I didn’t know when I applied to grad school. I didn’t know it was possible to feel stupid semester after semester; I didn’t know that shame would accompany much of my grad school career; I didn’t know that even after multiple years in school, many things would still remain incomprehensible.

I also did not know the intense pleasure of trying to co-think with others; I did not know the joy of catching a glimpse of an idea as it emerged; I did not know the frisson of realizing that something I had thought completely inaccessible could begin to make sense; I did not know what my brain could do when pushed to the limit and then pushed some more.

But I chose to want to know.

And from this vantage point, I want to respect the 23-year old who chose. I want to respect his decision. I want to respect his agency. And I want to respect my students who want to choose this life. Doing so means providing them with proper information. Letting them know about the precarious state of the humanities. But also letting them know about the intense pleasures of thinking and teaching and producing scholarship and interacting with other scholars. We can tell them, as I tell my students, that one need not imagine the Ph.D. leads down one highway. We can encourage them to imagine the range of ways their futures might unfold.

The more I think about the labor of the imagination, the more I realize how terrible it is to be a dream-crusher, or a dream-manager. Surely it must be possible to tell students about the pleasures and perils and nurture their sense of agency. We can be for them. We can remember others being for us. We can remember we chose. And support them when they choose.

16 thoughts on “On Getting a Ph.D.

  1. KK says:

    This is very beautifully articulated. I chose to do 3 masters degrees instead of following through to get a PhD and a part of me has regretted not doing it. II have admired the thinking and co-thinking that exists in the Humanities and miss it dearly since I decided to take a break from academia. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Khalil says:

    As someone who just applied for PhD admission in English for Fall 2013, this piece is beyond resonant and poignant. Your writing is clean and deliberate. I felt your passion and your humanity in each sentence – that can’t be taught. You eased much of the anxiety I am feeling right now about this waiting game, possibly not getting admitted and then, if I do, what the hell will that bring. Thank you for your wisdom. All the best.

  3. Nicely worded… I am nurturing this ‘desire to choose’ too… I appreciate the heads up. this was vivid enough to experience some of the anxieties.

  4. I like this post. It’s a good thing you didn’t choose to continue working at that computer place. I am stuck with this job and sometimes look back and think I should have chosen to take a risk and do something else. And I realize it’s not a choice I made to do what I am doing right now. I feel enslaved.

  5. This is very nice in theory, but the reality is that grad school is a piece of cake compared to what comes after. There is the fact that the thing you loved and worked so hard to spend your life doing, you never get to do, because the only thing you have time for is grading freshman comp papers, and probably working a second job–desperately seeking benefits that an adjunct position, though it requires 40hrs of work a week, will never give you. I can’t recall the last time the my life post-Ph.D. involved much co-thinking, or thinking for that matter, or books, or ideas. I’m lucky if I have the energy to do laundry. But far worse is having your life’s work nullified a hundred times over when applications you pour your heart into don’t even warrant a second look, until you finally realize the awful truth that nothing you can do or achieve intellectually will bring you success, that it’s all the luck of the draw–that is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. What I chose–the life of an academic and a scholar–is not what I got, and what I got is not something I would ever have chosen. And I doubt this is something that anyone would actually choose, if s/he knew what was in store.

  6. katharinahone says:

    This is soo beautiful. It is one of the best accounts of PhD life I have seen. It’s honest and empowering. Many thanks!

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