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Secret Diary of a PhD Candidate: “So you’re almost done, right?”

By January 30, 2014 One Comment

When I tell people that I’m working on the fourth year of my PhD, they often respond with the dreaded question: “So you’re almost done, right?”

This question fills me with shame every time I hear it, and I want to explain why.

First off, being in fourth year means that I am certainly “almost done”… almost done getting funded to do my research. The PhD English program at my university can only fund their students for four years, but in most cases, it takes at least 1-2 years longer than that to “complete.” The university as a whole claims that finishing in 4 years will improve our chances on the job market than someone who takes 5 or 6, but most PhDs in my department stay for the fifth year anyway, because that’s their only chance to teach their own courses, the more realistic way to prepare for a teaching job, after all.

I feel so ashamed when I hear “So you’re almost done, right?”, because I know that my friends in England completed their PhDs in just three years. I’ve been working on mine for one year longer, so why haven’t I finished? Tons of reasons. First, North American PhD programs contain components of course work and field exams. I’ll admit that I did feel like taking a course on TS Eliot was a step back from the momentum I had been building by completing a specialized Master’s degree in Shakespeare, but I can see now that the quality of my work today is far better than it was during my MA, so I appreciate that extra time to focus on my research and writing. The field exams (“Comps”), specifically, allowed me to finally read the early modern drama that I hadn’t even heard of in my undergrad or MA: Lyly, Marston, Middleton, Webster, Beaumont, Fletcher, and more! After completing the months of research that went into those two absolutely grueling four-hour exams, I felt confident that I was no longer the one-trick pony who taught about Shakespeare without any sense of what the other early modern playwrights were up to while he was writing his plays.

Coming from that specialized MA, I thought I was a “Master” in all things Shakespeare, but guess what? To write a decent dissertation, I had to master a lot more than that! Deciding that I wanted to focus on the emotions and trauma in Shakespeare’s comedies, I had to read a range of both early modern and contemporary theory on those topics. That took a semester. It took another semester to read all of Shakespeare’s comedies in minute detail, and then another to write up all my findings. So that brings us to the end of third year. I was so proud of those accomplishments, but when people assumed that I was almost finished writing the entire 200-page book, I felt like they exposed the gaping holes in my research rather than recognizing how much hard work had already gone into it.

And guess what? To deserve the name of “Doctor”, it takes a lot more than free-writing 200 pages. For instance, I didn’t realize that my supervisor would say: “These 70 pages, Erin? Not your best work. I think you’re better off re-focusing your research in these ways, so you won’t be needing anything that you’ve written so far, just the learning experience of having done it.” Nobody can tell you the shock of that, or the effort it takes to receive that feedback with grace and dignity. Nobody can tell you how long it can take to write your first viable chapter, and then to re-write it, from scratch, 3 times. But you know what? That’s what it took for me to become a better scholar and a better writer! I may be clever enough to get into a PhD program, but that just shows that I’m masochistic enough to solicit supervisor feedback: it’s their jobs to tell you that your work isn’t good enough, and to tell you how to improve. Part of becoming a scholar is learning those difficult truths and accepting them with the knowledge that the title “Doctor” needs to be earned through hard, but also good quality, work.

But wait, you don’t just want to be called “Doctor”? You want to get a job, too? Well, you’re going to need more than a dissertation to do that! You also need to make something of yourself in the academic community. I’ve made no secret of my love of conferences: they’re an opportunity to meet like-minded individuals that don’t think of what I do as geeky and wasteful, but instead consider it as a worthwhile way to spend my time and money. Furthermore, conferences allow me to get a sense of how my research fits into my field; they allow me to calibrate the quality of the research I’ve done so far, and get a sense of what’s missing. After conferencing, the next logical step is to publish that work in peer-reviewed journals. Of course, any journal worth naming is not comprised of my peers, but of hugely distinguished names in the field. Good luck with that. Trying to publish is so daunting precisely because of the strong chance that the work I’m putting my heart and soul into will get rejected. But if want to get a job, it’s important to put yourself out there, anyway.

After that, interviewers will want to know how I’ve supported my own university’s English Department. I’ve thought of this, too, and have pursued opportunities to lead “Works in Progress” colloquia, organize a support system for future Comps-writers, and develop a “Dissertation Boot Camp” for English PhDs for whom the notion of completing in four or even five years is a terrifying prospect, but one that needs to be overcome. This event took more planning than anyone in my department even realizes. I had to do way too much pleading to a department that was unconfident that it was worth the time, money, and effort, and I had to personally knock on the office doors of my peers to ensure that there would actually be enough participants to host. It turns out that people aren’t jumping at the opportunity to wake up early, work late, and turn off their Internet and cell phones for a week in favour of staring their work in the eye with no escape or distractions. But in the end, I got enough participants to make it run, and it was worth it. The department and my peers agreed that this event is necessary for our academic progress and should continue in the future… But it shaved a couple of years off my life in the process.

So when people ask me “You’re almost done, right?”, I think about how well intended that question is asked, and how painfully it’s received. Perhaps, the next time you meet someone in the later years of their PhD, instead of inadvertently shaming them into admitting that they’re not indeed close to completing their dissertation, how about asking them what they have accomplished? How about asking: “How are you holding up? What accomplishments are you most proud of?” – they’ll thank you for it.

Author Erin Weinberg

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