Thursday, May 26, 2011

My Grad School Story, Part III

This is the last part, I promise.  Parts I and II are here and here, respectively.

I began the summer of 2008 with renewed hope for a successful graduate school career.  Both my husband and I had experienced a difficult first year of graduate school, but things were looking up for both of us.  I had selected a topic for my candidacy paper that I found personally compelling, and he had started working as a research assistant on a trial basis for a physics professor whose work he found interesting. 

My entire summer was consumed with researching and writing my critical literature review.  Focusing on the information and communication needs of parents with special needs children made the experience fascinating, emotional, and cathartic at the same time, even through the most tedious moments of searching, reading, cross-referencing, making notes, writing, and re-writing.  For the first time, I felt very much at home in my work, even if I didn't feel at home in my program.

As the deadline for submitting approached, I sent my paper to my candidacy advisor, Jeff.  He made a few suggestions for improvement, but was generally complimentary.  Each student had been assigned a three-member committee of professors who would judge whether his or her paper and oral defense merited full admission to the doctoral program.  The advisor was included on this committee, but did not have a vote.  The other two members were assigned to me based on my topic.  Jeff recommended that I meet with them before submitting my paper and defending it to see if they had any suggestions for improvement.  One of the members, "Gene," kindly read the paper and met with me to discuss it.  The other, "Bernard," issued a tersely worded refusal to my emailed request, using language that led me to believe he felt as though I'd been trying to cheat by asking for his impressions before the actual defense.  I was a bit taken aback, but I responded that it was fine, I understood, and thanks anyway.

Here and there, I would discuss the candidacy paper with various other members of my cohort.  Most of them didn't start it until mid-summer.  As the date for my defense approached, I ran into a student who told me that he had already defended and that it had gone fine.  He laughed as he revealed that he'd written in over the course of a week and had worn shorts to the defense.  I was surprised, but encouraged: if a week's worth of work and casual clothing were good enough, surely I had it in the bag!  "They want to know why you're researching what you're researching," he advised me.  "Make sure you address that."

A couple days before my defense, I received a request to email my presentation slides to Bernard.  It turned out that he wasn't going to be in attendance, but would be listening in via conference call.  Oh well, I thought, one less person in the room might be nice anyways.  My defense date arrived on August 18.  It wasn't scheduled until 3:15, and my nerves worsened as the day wore on.  Early in the afternoon, I donned a business suit and took the bus down to campus.  I printed out all of my notes and copies of my slide presentation for my committee members.  Then I walked down to my assigned room, eager to get started.

A few minutes after I arrived, Jeff and Gene showed up, and Bernard called not long after.  I then had to leave the room so they could discuss their initial impressions of my paper.  After a few minutes, I was invited back in, and I began my presentation.  I thought about the advice I'd received from my colleague, and I explained to my committee why my topic had personal meaning for me.  Frankly, this was a big deal.  I'm not the slightest bit embarrassed about it, but my brother's autism doesn't come up much.  Some people know me for a very long time before I mention it.  I struggle to introduce it, because I feel like I can never accurately convey who my brother is as a person with that label.  Autism is a part of him, and it certainly has a major impact on his life, but it's still just a part.  Plus, the challenges and abilities of people with autism have such a wide range that using it as a descriptor is minimally helpful.  People tend to conjure up images of individuals who are either savants or completely nonverbal, neither of which apply to most folks with autism, including my brother. 

After giving a brief description of my family's background, I delivered a presentation on my paper, complete with the required PowerPoint.  Once I finished, it was time for my committee members to ask questions.  Jeff didn't ask any; I think he felt that, as a nonvoting member, it wasn't his place.  Gene asked me a few, but they weren't too difficult to answer.  And then Bernard spoke up over speakerphone.

"It isn't clear to me at all," he began, "why there is a reason to look at this group in particular.  What is so different about their way of looking for information online?  How is the experience of these parents when they're looking up information different from, say, me looking up information on vacation I want to take?"

I felt like I'd been punched in the gut.  It was obvious from his derisive tone of voice that he thought my entire paper was worthless.  The comparison he'd made really stung, too: growing up, we went on vacation exactly twice -- once to Niagara Falls and once to Gettysburg -- because traveling is very difficult for my routine-oriented brother.  "I -- I would say that this type of information gathering is much more -- important," I stammered.  The idea of comparing the information needs of isolated, frantic, and sometimes grief-stricken parents to someone planning a trip to the beach made me sick.

"All right then, forget the vacation -- you could put anything in there.  What about me looking up information on colleges for my son?"  And so it went.  That second one hurt too -- my brother could never have gone to college.  I struggled through, trying to explain why I felt this group was worthy of its own study.  Gene gently helped me to better understand Bernard's point by mentioning similar studies of diabetes patients' information needs -- how was my group different still?  I finally realized what my colleague had meant when he told me to explain why I was researching my topic -- it wasn't about personal motivation, it was about worthiness of scientific inquiry.  In Bernard's opinion, I hadn't even come close to demonstrating that.

After the questioning session, Jeff and I were asked to leave so that Gene and Bernard could discuss my presentation.  "I gotta tell you, Bernard really didn't like your paper," Jeff said while we waited in the hall.  It was obvious he didn't agree, although he conceded that Bernard had some points.  He tried to offer an explanation for Bernard's hurtful response: "He's had some professional setbacks lately."  Once you get to know him, you find that Jeff is a nice man at heart, but he is the quintessential socially awkward, head-in-the-clouds type of professor.  This was as close to a comforting remark as he was able to offer, and I knew it, so I smiled weakly in gratitude.  He told me that I probably wouldn't fail, but earn a "conditional pass" such that I would have to do some sort of specified work to make up for my initial failings to earn full candidacy.

Not long later, the event was over, and I was free to go.  I whisked down the hallway, head up, heels clicking the floor.  As soon as I entered the stairwell my eyes flooded with tears.  I broke down in sobs. 

Looking back, I realize that my paper was flawed.  Bernard's criticism was actually correct: I never provided any sort of argument as to why parents of special needs children were worthy of study in our field.  To be honest, I never knew that I had to.  Part of that is my own failing -- I should have read more critical literature reviews to better acquaint myself with the genre, I should have been more diligent.  But I know that it wasn't all my fault.  Jeff is a pioneer in his field, a highly regarded scientist, and a very prolific author, but when it comes to advising, I don't think he knows quite what to do.  I doubt it was a coincidence that the majority of the five "conditional pass" folks were from his lab.  He simply didn't provide much guidance when guidance was sorely needed.  Ironically enough, he was the one who had spearheaded the idea of changing the candidacy process from an exam to a critical literature review in the first place!

A few weeks after my defense, I received my official letter stating that I had earned a conditional pass.  It included comment sheets from each of my committee members.  Bernard's indicated that he had really wanted to fail me outright.  I threw it in the garbage.

It was decided by the graduate program directors that the process by which conditional passers could earn full doctoral candidacy would be by earning a master's degree through completing a thesis.  Some doctoral programs require that for everybody, but mine didn't, so this would be an extra step.  I didn't mind the idea of getting a master's along the way.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized: I didn't mind the idea of getting a master's, and getting the hell out.

And that's what I did.

Yes, there was more -- but not much.  I was incredibly nervous about telling Jeff, who at that point had replaced Jolene as my advisor, but he took it well.  He was surprised.  He was even regretful, and he told me that he thought I was smart, which coming from him was very high praise.  My courses that fall were all in other departments, and (not surprisingly) they were far better than the ones I'd taken my first year.  Still, I was unswayed.  One of Jeff's other advisees recommended that I start looking for jobs early, as there are many more applicants than positions around here, so I took his advice.  I had expected to finish my fall courses and then spend the spring semester writing my thesis while still holding my graduate assistantship.  But when a teaching job at a local career school came along within a couple months of the beginning of my search, I decided to apply for and (joyfully) accept it, even though that meant I had to pay outrageous out-of-state tuition fees for my "thesis credits" that I took in the spring (because I had only lived in PA as a student, Penn State still considered me out-of-state for tuition purposes).

I started teaching during finals week of fall semester in early December 2008.  That was insane, but my decision to bag the Ph.D. was one of the smartest I've ever made, and my teaching position was a delight.  (It will be the topic of a future Love Letter to Central PA!)  I managed to finish my thesis and successfully defend it on June 19, 2009, two days after the last day of my school's spring term.  As of August 2009, I am an official master's degree-holding alumna of the Pennsylvania State University.

Oh, and that "Internet find" that I mentioned ever-so-briefly in Part I?  Turns out that Jeff and a few collaborators published a paper on social communities for people with autism last year.  Its references include at least ten of the articles I worked so hard to find during that long summer of 2008, yet my name is not listed among the acknowledgements.  It's not plagiarism, not at all, and the project its based on wasn't even inspired by me -- Jeff had already begun it when he took me under his wing.  But the fact remains that that I'm the one who originally found those sources.  A shout-out would have been nice.  Oh well.  I'm not mad, just all the more relieved to be done.

Do I regret writing my literature review (and, eventually, thesis) on a topic so "close to home"?   A little.  I know my failure wouldn't have stung nearly as badly had I written about something else.  Do I regret going to grad school in the first place?  No.  Even though I hated it, it's over now, and I'm happy to have the degree.  I'm enormously grateful that I had the opportunity to do postgraduate work.  For all the shortcomings of my program's coursework, the classes I took in other departments were excellent.  I learned a lot in them about some really interesting topics (attachment parenting, sociology of the family, and discourse analysis); plus, their demanding workloads really pushed me to learn how to learn and to think critically as a scholar.

As an aside -- I'm beyond delighted to report that my husband's graduate experience has just continued to get more and more awesome over time.  The professor with whom he started working three years ago is still his advisor, and they have a fantastic relationship.  She balances a staggeringly impressive curriculum vitae (that's a resumé in academe) with a kind, supportive personality.  My husband's scholarly pursuits have blossomed beautifully under her guidance.

I hope that this series has not come across as being motivated by bitterness.  It has been wonderfully cathartic to write about these experiences.  I wanted to be honest, and let's face it -- my graduate career honestly stunk!  Truly, I wish nothing but the best for my former colleagues and advisors.  Jolene's other advisee, along with several other students who worked with her, adored her and found her to be incredibly inspiring.  As I mentioned previously, Jeff is an outstandingly prolific researcher who has influenced his field more than I could possibly imagine.  So maybe it's all me!  Ultimately, I think the combination of my graduate program and me was just a marriage made in hell from the very beginning -- which only serves to remind me of how happy I am that my real marriage is absolutely heavenly.

Through all of my grad school trials, I maintained my faith, though I often wondered what God's purpose was.  I don't claim that it now "makes perfect sense," but I think I do have a much better idea than I did then.  Jen wrote (in a much more profound way than I could hope to) about learning that "to be a Christian is not to make God part of your story, but to realize you are part of God’s story."  My graduate school story has been lived; I learned lessons in patience, sharpened my skills as a scholar, and offered up my various sufferings to God.  But maybe, in the grand narrative, I'm not the protagonist anyway.  Maybe the protagonist is Jeff, whose heart was softened by reading my work.  Maybe it is my husband, who has had an excellent graduate school experience here, and who has undoubtedly grown as a husband and a man in supporting me through my saddest days.  Maybe it is my daughter, who will benefit from my education in ways I can't even begin to imagine yet.  I don't know, but I don't need to.  I trust that -- whatever the reason -- my academic journey was the one I was meant to take.

And now I get to hang out with my beautiful baby girl every day, giggling like crazy over peek-a-boo and busting a move to S Club 7.  Motherhood rocks absolutely.


  1. I love your last two sentences, motherhood is totally rewarding...and kids don't put us on the stand and exam us until much later in life!

    I would have probably broke down in tears during the defense if that guy said to me what he said to you.

  2. Thx for sharing! It is funny how things work out even if not how we plan. Kudos to you for choosing your marriage over your personal goals! :)

  3. I read this whole thing, and I truly resonate with it. When I was at grad school I really had plenty of moments of just feeling stupid and behind. I felt very alone and lost in my field. Sure I had points where I knew why I chose to go to grad school.

    When I quit, I realized I made the right decision to do so. I felt relieved and free.

    I also think that I was so much more frustrated with grad school because I was not married. I was sad to not live with the daily support of my fiance since we weren't able to get married last year. It took its toll on me after awhile.

    At this point, I'm counting down the couple of weeks until my wedding and my move, then I need to figure out what the heck I will do until hopefully I also get to spend all day at home with a little munchkin :-)