Sunday, January 28, 2007

Living the Dream


Lately I've been thinking that I should write a book about surviving graduate school. So, I poked around a little bit on Amazon and realized that the concept is pretty played. However, what I did find is that most of these books are really traditionalist in course. If I were to write a book, it would be devoted to doing graduate work the "easy way". As our dear President would say, it's all about "Strategery".

For example, I would devote a chapter to the usefulness of picking a theme of your Master's thesis a year in advance and only taking classes that will allow you to write papers under this theme. Of course, you have to already be mature and rigorous. You have to know what you like, like what you know, and be fully prepared to sink into it. But this way, by the time a year of coursework rolls around, you already have three or four chapters written.

Meanwhile, you make sure to take the very maximum of your credit load each semester--normally 18 credits, by allotting three credits to M.A. thesis research. In the end, you've loaded your credits in advance and simultaneously worked ahead so that you can:
a) graduate early
b) get a heck of a lot more bang for your buck
c) take a semester off to shake and shimmer your way through Southern Spain (or what-have-you) before you either have to go out into the real world or return to begin the coursework for your Ph.D.

Ahem.

Because I'm currently teaching a graduate seminar, I am constantly repeating this advice to my 10 bright-eyed, eager beavers all of the time. Who else is going to tell them this? Certainly not the administrators who want their warm bodies and hard money in the system for two full years.

One of my other little secrets that I will share in my book is that I am a huge fan of doing an 8-credit independent study at the end of the M.A. career. Why? Oh, yes, let me tell you why! The reason for this is also twofold:

1) You pick something you're interested in and write a kick-ass, publishable work on it. You're not confined to the droll of weekly classroom discussions with often less-engaging minds, or having to read from an entire syllabus of stuff that you've already read for the past two years. No. You get to make your own syllabus and proceed accordingly.

2) Upon the completion of writing your kick-ass paper in something that makes your heart race, you are given an "A" from the student-friendly professor who already thinks that you can walk on water. But this is not any "A"...no, friends!!...this is an 8-CREDIT "A". Do you have any idea what happens when you get an 8-CREDIT "A" added to your already-stellar G.P.A.? You graduate...um...6 months early....and magna cum laude from your class. Mmmmm-hmmmm. Sha-bang! Mama knows, child, mama knows!

Of course, I could spin out useful tips for making the most of your time and money all day, but I have another book to write first to fulfill the requirements of the Ph.D. Lately I've found myself clarifying this to my family when they ask when I'm going to be done with my "paper" so that I can start producing the grand-babies en masse. Just last night, even:

"Mom, no...it's not a paper...it's a book. Yes, a book! A real book!"

"But I thought it was just a paper."

"Well, yes, I guess you could say that a book is a really big paper."

"How big, honey?"

"350 pages, Mommy."

"Oh, honey, that's so big! That's just too big!"

"I know. It's fairly daunting, but I can do it. I'm ok."

(Hysterically.) "Do you think you're ever going to finish?" (Pause.)
(Long silence from my end as I take a deep breath and try not to hang up on the woman who gave me life.)
"Honey! I worry for you. You're my baby and you're so lost with all of this talk of doing this and doing that! When!...are you going!....to!... settle down!!....and!!!...raise!!...a!...family!!!!!!?"

My mom is in a constantly flustered state of worry that the florescent lights of the library are going to hinder my reproductive capacities. She once sent me an article from USA Today that said that people with more education get married less, have fewer children, and also have less sex...
...But I digress.

Point is, I've also done the research on this. Statistically, the odds are stacked against me with the Ph.D. There's a reason why so few people in the world actually succeed in getting one. The irony of it is that those at "the top" fail to outstretch their hands to those who are coming up behind them. The thought is that if they had to struggle, then so should we, and so the cycle perpetuates. No one is in the business of helping their fellow scholar. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but what I am describing is the general rule of academic counter-intuitiveness.


I've also realized that, just like the M.A., the key to survival is not how "smart" you are, but whether you have what it takes to navigate down so many dark and winding alleys. It's a matter of how well you handle both silence and failure and what you do with it. The prize doesn't go to the most erudite, but rather, to the the most disciplined. It's one thing to say that you want something, but another thing entirely to sit alone, with yourself and your books hours at a time and still have the gumption to connect thought with action.


For those of you wonderful folks who've asked, I'm really doing ok. My committee is now headed by a supportive, student activist who knows and understands my heart. We talk in high, spiritual metaphors when I relate my research interest to my need to do something worthwhile with my life. He gets it, and, according to him, I can do anything I want, even walk on water. In the past several weeks, I've done a great deal of assessing of this process and realized that it is neither a veritable Mt. Everest, nor a doomed descension into Dante's innermost circle. Sure, writing a dissertation is not easy, but I now recognize that it's an honor to be able to do it. This is what I've worked for. This is the fun part!

Like everything, living your dream comes with a great deal of costs. After all, what's the value of anything if it doesn't involve a lot of challenge, enormous personal growth and a little bit of sacrifice?

8 comments:

VJ said...

Well said N, Glad to here of the progress. Cheers & Good Luck! 'VJ'

VJ said...

Geez, too fast. That was 'hear' of course. Spell checks. Really an advance. Somewhere... Cheers, 'VJ'

FSOgirl said...

Oh this brings back memories I thought I had adequately supressed. I remember writing my undergraduate honors thesis. It ended up being only 100 pages, but I practically crawled to the finish, exhausted and just glad for it to be over. I am in awe of those who can sustain interest, passion, quality writing, and organization through 350 pages. So, as we would say in Nepali for good luck on the journey: ramro sanga janus (go with good)!

VJ said...

I was sorely tempted to do one of infamous 'top 10 lists', things they'll never tell you about your Ph.D., but I think we all want to be positive & encouraging, right?! Cheers & Good Luck! 'VJ'

EE said...

If only I had met you before I started grad school. Oh wait, my bad.

By the way, taking your quotes out of context really makes my day:

"Oh, honey, that's so big! That's just too big!"

"I know. It's fairly daunting, but I can do it. I'm ok."

Namaste said...

Only you, Double E! LOL. Will I see you next weekend? Hope you can handle it, love.

VJ said...

OK I can't help myself. So I've watered it down a bit. Some things that may (or may not) be heard (or perhaps just thought) from newly minted & older Ph.D's while at conferences:

1.) Wow! A real dental plan? How does that work? So how's it like working for FedEx anyway?

2.) Hey, it's still tenure right? But you'll retire soon too?

3.) You're pregnant again? Umm How can you afford that? Yeah, right! How can you afford not to at 40!

4.) Bill, you've been wearing that same old emerald green corduroy jacket for as long as I've known you. You say you bought it on sale in 1982 and are still proud you still fit into it and you finally can afford to buy more books now that the kids are grown? It's ever thus, eh?

5.) Frank, you're a nationally known scholar that I've seen on TV many times. Please replace that natty, but dated leather jacket you've been wearing to these things since the Reagan years.

6.) No son, your shoe boots/sneakers don't go with that suit. (Really common!)

7.) No Kitty, the piano player is probably not a 'good catch'. You say this is his 2nd job, and he's actually a corporate tax attorney just moonlighting here in the hotel bar? We stand corrected.

8.) No Stan, I don't know what a 45 year old swinging single does for excitement in Anchorage. I'd start with the docks. Wait, why not ask the kids about this?

9.) No Bob, the bartender is definitely not interested in your new scheme for stochastic randomization for predicting the outcomes of trials. She's just pretending to like you cause you've been confusing $20's for singles all night. No, I'm not your ride back to KS either.

10.) Sorry to say Harry, no one's doing that Classical crap anymore. There's no academic market of it. Wait, you said you got a job in TV production? How the hell does that work?

11.) Carpentry Sam? Well at least it keeps you busy and off the streets. So how much is this repro. chair in the catalog? That much? How many can you produce in a month? Hmmmm.

12.) They'll never understand or appreciate your work Susan. It's just so above & beyond what they've ever seen before. So where did you finally end up? I didn't know they even had a University of North& South Dakota. Winter session huh? How bad could it be? Negative 40 w/o the windchill? Where's this damn global warming when we need it!

13.) No Hugh, you can't buy anymore books the kids need their braces done this year!

14.) Lecturing on Cruise ships? How do we get hooked up with that sweet deal? OK, so how many of the crew did you wind up dating that summer Guy?

15.) You know Arnie, I really forget how to start these '68 Beetle Vans while on the fly, usually the pop clutch trick does it, but we need to find the right slope of hill, and this IS NB!

16.) He can't be stealing the grant money! That old man's got holes in his shoes, and still drives a Dodge Dart! It must be one of the para pro's.

17.) How many is that now for Rick? There's not a secretary or new Grad student that's safe from his clutches, really. Too bad he eventually marries most of them. They all seem to die off so quickly.

18.) Yes, we're all waiting for the 'old man' to kick off. But we're too late, they've more or less done away with tenure in the interim.

19.) Why are all my TA's cute? Because I can dearie!

20.) Yes, I know the budget for equipment can't pay for anything actually, but it's an increase over last year's, and mostly we throw a real nice year end party with it.

That'll do it. Cheers & Good Luck! 'VJ'

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