What Finishing a PhD Taught Me

After four and half years, I can finally politely request that you call me Doctor.

It’s still a little surreal, in part because I’ve ended up in a job where my scholarly credentials are less important than in academia, but also because I’ve looked forward to finishing my doctorate for much longer than I’ve actively been working on it. I still find myself quietly whispering “I have a PhD” to myself. It makes me feel a little like Ross Geller, albeit hopefully less self-important.

Ever since I decided I wanted to teach writing/literature at the university level, I’ve had my eye on this degree. To say it feels incredible to finally be done is an understatement. If I had to attempt to describe the feeling, I’d say it feels akin to wriggling yourself free from a cramped car out into a wide open space–it feels airy.

What does feel a little strange is finding myself working in private industry as I finish my degree. That, along with finishing things up in the fall semester and choosing not to fly back to North Dakota to walk the stage, has found me thinking more about the intangible lessons learned from reaching this ultimate academic finish line.

So, I thought it might be nice to share what are for me the biggest lessons learned. Perhaps someone out there is considering getting their PhD (or some similar academic thing) or is needing a little morale boost while neck-deep in exam reading. Either way, here is what I learned through finishing a PhD in English:

1. I’m capable of way more suffering than I assumed

It’s not something they like to advertise, but doing a PhD is rife with suffering: toiling away for countless hours in the library stacks, prepping and grading student papers, and, most of all, the endless amounts of reading (if you’re in the humanities, at least, though I suspect my STEM counterparts spend plenty of time in the literature). At least in my experience, there’s an intentional amount of hazing built into the process to ensure you’re up to snuff. Why, after all, would your professors want a colleague whose mental fortitude is lacking?

Most of the suffering for me came as I studied for my comprehensive exams. This will vary wildly from institution to institution, but at the U. of North Dakota (before the program was changed right after my exams), we had three areas of specialty. For each area, you’re tasked with building a reading list of approximately 50 works, both primary and secondary, that cover the most important work and criticism in that area. These areas can be pretty general or fairly narrow, depending on one’s committee. My areas, for example, were post-1945 American fiction, Trans-Atlantic Modernism, and lyric poetry.

It’s recommended that you take approximately a year to prep for these exams and do all the required reading, ideally while you’re not doing regular coursework. I ended up still taking courses while reading for exams, but was lucky enough to have courses offered that aligned with my reading. So, over the course of approximately a year, you read around 150 books. I’m a glutton for punishment, so I included in my lists the properly long/important (read, difficult) books in my areas: UlyssesInfinite Jest, Louise Gluck’s collected works, etc.

While the sheer volume of all this reading can be intense, it’s actually a really interesting time. I don’t think I’ll ever again spend 30-40 hours a week reading intensely, for better or worse. I’ve already found myself looking back fondly on the experience. I miss the cozy chair at the little Caribou Coffee where I spent hours with Galatea 2.2 and Neuromancer.

If the year of reading is the marathon, the exam period is the sprint to the finish line. In my program, you’re tested in each area separately, one exam per week. For each area, I was given a collection of questions of which I had to answer three, each with a ~10pp. essay. To do all three essays, you were given 28 hours. Like most students, I chose to do my exams on sequential Friday/Saturdays. So, over the course of three weeks, you’re writing around 90 pages in 84 hours. This, above all, was the most brutal part of my doctoral work.

But, it was doable. I’m proof of that. Before getting into the more intense parts, it seemed draconian, and after going through it, I was right. It’s intentionally draconian, and that’s part of the value. My mantra during all this, when my mental health was not so great and was just plain exhausted, was “the only way out is through.” I’ve found that to be an incredibly useful mantra in life in general, and one whose meaning I deeply appreciate.

2. Most people don’t understand academic work (and that’s OK)

One of the best parts of doing high-level academic work is the opportunity to work on increasingly narrow and specific subject matter. Unlike even the latter half of a Bachelor’s degree, when you’re taking courses entirely in your major, doctoral-level work allows you to choose the direction of your research, invariably leading to relatively specialized areas.

The upside to this is obvious: you get to spend as much time as you’d like digging deeply into texts that interest you most. You’re not bothered with a survey course and lengthy reading assignments that only tangentially relate to your interests. For example, I got to spend weeks reading and sketching out the intersections between postmodernism, Marxism, and Cyberpunk fiction in the 1980s in preparation for my exams. When will I ever get the time to do that again?

The downside is that the more specialized your work becomes, the fewer people out there understand it. This is true of academia as a whole, too. Most people just don’t understand what the average doctoral student is up to. Most of my family and friends outside of academia seemed to think I either spent all day in the library (not altogether untrue) or in a lab (if they didn’t know what field I was in).

While this lack of understanding usually isn’t a big problem, it can certainly be lonely, and it makes celebrating academic accomplishments like getting a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal harder to celebrate with folks outside of the academic world.

3. The finish line is just finish line

This is probably the best life lesson I’ve derived from finishing my degree: as human beings, we seem to thrive off of movement toward an accomplishment, not actually accomplishing the thing. This is so counter-intuitive. After all, shouldn’t achieving something as substantial as a PhD bring some kind of euphoria? Well, yeah, but only for a short time.

I was pretty surprised at how quickly I shifted from celebrating my crossing the finishing line to focusing on another big project I was working on for the company I’d just started working for. I got a clearer sense of my tendency to get hung up on pushing toward a deadline that feels like the deadline, after which I’ll be able to take it easy for a while, but it just doesn’t work that way. Or, at least that’s just not how I’m wired.

This is not to say you shouldn’t acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments–you absolutely should. Just don’t be too upset when the feeling isn’t what you anticipate. As cliche as it is, it really is about the journey, not the destination.

4. Achievement doesn’t bring happiness, but it can bring contentment

Echoing much of the previous realization, I learned that hitting a big milestone like this doesn’t really bring happiness, however we can define that slippery term. It can, however, bring a deep sense of contentment. That’s probably the best word I can find for how I feel after finishing my degree: I feel content.

It’s not exactly the degree itself that elicits this feeling (it’s just a piece of paper, after all); it’s the sense of having made it through something so challenging and come out the other end more resilient, more knowledgeable, and (hopefully) more qualified. In other words, it’s the personal accomplishment that brings contentment, not so much the external title and accolades.

That seems to be the bigger lesson here: it’s how we choose to understand and interpret our accomplishments–and failures, too, for that matter–that determines their value. That’s really the core lesson that the humanities teach. You have the power to step back and choose how to read your experiences, for both good and ill.

Would I do it all again?

That’s really the question, isn’t it? If I knew that I’d transition from academia into the private sector and be happy, would I have spent the past four years the same way?

If money and opportunity cost were no object, I’d say yes without reservation, but it is in part an economic question. I was fortunate enough to earn a a tuition waiver, so my degree was ridiculously affordable. This makes it pretty easy to say it was time and money well-spent. It’s such a unique experience, after all.

On the other hand, if I’d gone into any amount of debt for this degree, I’d be far more hesitant to so quickly say yes, I’d do it again. Just having those three letters attached to your name does carry some weight and has opened some doors, but I’d be lying if I said it’s worth going into debt over–I honestly don’t think it is.

There’s so much incalculable value wrapped up in the whole experience, though. I’ve learned so much about myself that I may not have otherwise learned. So, in my particular case, despite deciding not to immediately pursue an academic career, I’d say yes, I’d do it all again.

Wrap up

For those either currently in the doctoral trenches or considering applying to programs, I’d just say think long and hard about whether you’d like to end up in academia long-term. Look at the job market, carefully. Research what the market’s like in your area or where you might have to move to find work.

Look at what life’s like not only for those lucky few who end up with tenure track jobs, but also those on their second post-Doc or those with three lecturer appointments at different schools. Be realistic about what your options are, and don’t be afraid of looking into the private sector. Columbia University has a helpful resource for such research.

My main goal here is to share my experience, not offer advice, but I do wish someone would’ve told me more about the myriad non-academic routes there are.

Regardless of where you decide to go afterward, a doctorate is a hell of a ride, and I do feel better for having made the trip.

Some other interesting articles on the value of getting a PhD, etc.:

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What Finishing a PhD Taught Me

  1. Congratulations! I know what a tremendous amount of work that must have been, if only remembering my time spent getting my masters and realizing that what you earned was so much harder and took so much more time!. I do still miss the time that I was able to justify reading all day and spending time researching and writing a thesis that was of intense interest to me but probably to no one else but another esoteric academic. Still, it was heaven. The exams not so much.

    I used to wish I could be a professional student. There was a kind of “high” in that immersion into a subject of choice, the intense study and leaps of thought and understanding, the sense, of “furthering the conversation” with my writing, that I have experienced no where else.

    • Cody says:

      I don’t know what a doctoral student is if not a “professional student” haha. That’s a perfect description. And I totally agree with you: the rhythms of reading and research and writing are in some ways intrinsically appealing. I’m sure your experience getting a Master’s had more in common with my doctoral work than you’d guess. The difference between the requirements for the two degrees aren’t so much differences in kind but differences in degree (no pun intended).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s