I’ve been absent for a while. I didn’t mean to take time off in the middle of this series but sh*t happens. In particular, I’ve been going through what The Thesis Whisperer calls “The Valley of Shit.”
I have been so close to calling it quits and walking away to do anything else.
On top of that, this series about being a PhD student from a working-class background has been . . . difficult.
It’s forced me to confront the fact that I don’t think I know much about how to be a working-class PhD student.
Am I from a working-class background? Yes.
Have I been in a PhD program for six years? Yes.
Have I written a dissertation? Yes.
Does that mean I know f*ck all worth sharing about being a PhD student from a working-class background? I don’t know.
Today, I had a conversation with my chair about what needs to be done before we can schedule my defense and I left that meeting, a meeting 6 years into my PhD and 8 years into graduate school, and 17 years after starting college classes, feeling like I don’t know sh*t about how to navigate academia.
Things that seem so basic to my committee, things not even worth mentioning, are revelations to me. I don’t want to get into specifics, but I had been working on the assumption that, to schedule a defense, I needed to do A, B, and C. Thus, I was diligently putting *all* my effort into doing A, B, and C.
When I asked my chair about scheduling a defense date she said she wouldn’t feel comfortable discussing that until I had done X.
What the hell?!
It’s not that I can’t do X. I can. X is easy.
It’s just that I had no idea X was a prerequisite to getting A, B, and C done.
I wonder how long I would have diligently kept working on A, B, and C without knowing that my advisor was waiting for X.
It may sound like I have a bad thesis advisor, but I genuinely don’t think that’s the case. My advisor is patient, gives good feedback, responds to emails promptly, and gives me a lot of leeway to construct my project.
These are all excellent qualities and I’m grateful for them.
My impression after today’s meeting was that the idea that X needed to come before A, B, and C was so basic my advisor never thought to mention it. I was so focused on A, B, and C that X would never have occurred to me.
I find myself running into this dynamic all the time. I am almost done with this degree and still have these moments of finding-out-something-hugely-important-that-I-should-have-known-ages-ago All. The. Time. In fact, I have these moments more and more the closer I get to defending.
It’s exhausting and demoralizing.
I would love to tell you that I have learned the tricks and can tell you what to do, but I can’t.
Here is what I do know:
I know that these moments of “WTF?” and the difficulties you have in navigating archaic institutional structures are not reflections on your intelligence. They are not reflections on your scholarship or your dedication. They are not reflections on your ability. They are most certainly not reflections on your worth either as a person or a scholar.
I know that you belong here. I know that you can figure out this system if you want to.
Although I feel like I have so much to learn about navigating this system, and so little advice to give, in reflecting on the meeting described above I’ve come up with two best practices I wish I had adopted much, much sooner which, maybe, could have stopped the painful incident described above from ever happening.