Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The "PhinisheD" anticlimax

Just reading "Other People" on The PhD Explosion. Started thinking again about the anticlimax of completing the PhD. It was five years of my life. That may seem short to some of you. The normative time in my field is seven years. But, I hit the ground running when I went back to school.

It was 2000, and I was 32 and married. I had a Master's degree, and had spent two years teaching at a community college. I had floundered about for much of the time after I finished my Master's. But every time I thought of doing something else for a career, like managing a bookstore, my wife would say, "you don't get excited thinking about where to shelve a new biography of Kafka, or what category applies to a photojournalist's take on kindergarten in Zimbabwe. Do what you love!"

So, I spent some time thinking about what most fires my passions, and excites my mind. And I decided to go back for the PhD, to learn to do research. Mostly that was it. I love teaching, I do. For me, it's got all the thrills of being on stage, except I can write my own script, and interact with a live audience. But I want to write as well, and contemplate things. That's what my research allows me to do. To ask questions that go beyond a freshman seminar. I want to do both.

So, I went back to school. I had spent a couple years looking into where I would study, and with whom. I knew the what, but I was uncertain about what field my work best fit into. When I finally began graduate school again, I was ready to take off. My first quarter, I had put together an interdisciplinary group, and was holding meetings with faculty from three different departments.

The professor for my first-year bibliography class told my advisor she thought I was "cocky". But I think she softened on me, when I handed in an 18,000 word annotated bibliography for the term project. She had insisted the project should be "exhaustive". I apologized for it's incompleteness, but explained that I had simply ran out of time to annotate the remaining 60 items. Apparently it made an impression. I recently met a new graduate student in the library on campus who asked if I was the one who wrote the 50+-page essay for that professor's class. I confessed.

All this is to say, I felt pretty confident. My work was unusual, pathbreaking I'd like to think. I spent a lot of my time as a doctoral student being defensive about my research. I liked being on the cusp of things, but I wanted recognition from the broader discipline that it wasn't a fringe area. But all the time and energy I spent building up my self-image as a unique, powerful, interesting, contributing member of the intellectual community, I failed to realize that so were many of my colleagues.

It was only after the first failed job season that I accepted this fact. A committee may get 50 or 100 applications from hopefuls, about half of whom all stand out, and shine in their own way. I just still hope there's one place where my own light can shine.

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