Doctoral study, loneliness, and the Breakfast Club

"Fresh waffles" by James Starmer

I just concluded my third and final residency for my PhD in educational psychology, four days in Dallas. I wrote about my second residency, in Orlando, in the fall.

Most of my acquaintances and colleagues know that I am working on my doctoral degree. It comes up eventually. I’m not bragging. I’ve been at it since December 2014 and when you have done something this intensely for that long, it becomes part of your identity. One of my professors talks about how we will not “earn” our PhD but instead will “become PhD’s.” I’m starting to wonder if that is the post-graduation extension of the experience.

Most of the time, when the topic comes up, there is a comment about respect for the effort and the endeavor. It is hard, sure, enough that only 1.65% of Americans have a doctoral degree, according to the 2013 Census.

However, compared to the master’s degree, the challenge is not really cognitive. The books and journal articles are written on a master’s level. A PhD dives a bit deeper, should be able to spot a sample size that is too small, or a study design that does not align with the research question, or an analytic method that does not suit the data, but those elements are not really harder to understand. The program comes with instruction in how to do those things. On the doctoral level, you learn more about less, narrowing your focus, but that is not the challenge.

This sounds strange, enough that it makes sense that nobody talks about it, but after 30 months of study, with perhaps 12 to go and needing it to not be 15, I am sure. The challenge of doctoral study is emotional, not cognitive.

When you commit to a doctoral program, it has to be the most important thing in your life, and by that I mean that if something else conflicts with an academic demand, and the academic demand cannot be met earlier, then the “something else” has to happen later or not at all. Since December 2014, my routine has been to study for 10 weeks, then get a break for 4, then pick up again, all year. Before the first day of a course, I know everything that will be due, and when.

Last weekend, I had a homework discussion post due on Saturday, but I wrote it on Friday so that I could spend half of the day at a Masonic event and the rest at a Re-lei for Life for the American Cancer Society. By now, I know how long it takes to write a paper, so I wrote eleven pages on Sunday morning and then went to Yorklyn Day with a friend. I have time for friends and fun, but it’s all negotiated around my academic schedule.

There’s no such thing as a lazy day. There is always something to do, even if it’s a break from what I usually do. That might be a habit that I want to continue when I am a PhD. Life is forever calling and we are all burning or rusting. Solitude and rest are important in so many ways, but they should be choices rather than defaults, like resting when you can’t find something else to do. I will give that some thought. That, and everything else.

Twenty page papers are typical on the doctoral level and I have one due on June 16, 2017. The standard penalty for a late assignment is a full letter grade per day, so a B paper earns a C, and nothing worse or later even bears consideration. When you study online, as I do, “a day late” means 12:00:01 AM. There’s no such thing as an all-nighter. If my computer shows midnight, I might as well crash for awhile and pick it back up in the morning and do a better job, trying to salvage the grade, but I have never let it come to that. I need a C or better for every course in order for it to count, so a D would be an F.

Rules like that inspire and require a level of intensity that becomes emotionally exhausting. I can let up during the breaks, sort-of, but in the last year or so, breaks have been time between courses to read articles for my dissertation. I want to stop, my goodness how I want to stop. I want to catch a cold, have a two-day power outage, anything that takes me away but is beyond my control. Otherwise, I can’t stop.

My father stopped. He stopped and never returned, though he kept the possibility alive for decades. We never talked about doctoral programs because he died in November 2013, more than a year before I started to study. I recently asked my mother what happened. She didn’t have much of an answer for me except to tell me the topic of my father’s proposed dissertation. He ended his career in a much different role than he started, and his topic suited his work in his early career, but not his later work. He would have had to start all over.

My father had a great career and a good life without his PhD, and I suspect that is the answer to the question of why he stopped. He didn’t need it. I do, to have the career and the life that I want. Incredible things are waiting in the valley on the other side of the summit. I’m doing this because I have to do it, because there’s no other way to where I want to be.

I understand why students crash, drop, stop at ABD (all but dissertation) but for me, to me, ABD is just a really, really expensive master’s degree. This has been all-or-nothing from the start. It’s costing me a lot of money that I can earn back with the degree. If not, I will be ten years repaying loans without a significant salary increase. All or nothing. Did I write something about intensity?

Since starting a draft of this post, I have learned that my Dissertation Research Plan (DRP) was approved. When I pass my comprehensive examinations in July, there are no courses left, no more of the ten weeks on/four weeks off, nothing left but to follow my plan and work on my dissertation until I finish. When I start my dissertation, that will be my baby, probably 200 pages or so.

Until then, the plan is my baby. It runs 48 pages. American Psychological Association (APA) format is very detailed and exacting. Everything in those 48 pages has been sweated and scoured and I can explain and defend all of it, from every piece of punctuation to the reason why I should be allowed to write my dissertation on my chosen topic, and every step of what I will do before, during, and after collecting data. If it had not been right then I would have had to do it all over again, another course and another semester and another residency, another $1,000 or so in travel expenses plus tuition plus a delay in becoming a PhD. It was all riding on a 48-page plan. Did I write something about intensity? It’s funny now that I have won the bet.

It’s not just the pressure. The title of this post includes a reference to loneliness. I have a few friends, God bless them, who listen to me talk about school, and I’m incredibly grateful for them. I study online so most of the time, it’s just me and this laptop. When I go to write my comprehensive exam answers, I will need at least a weekend completely alone.

That takes me to the reference to the Breakfast Club. In Dallas, I met my classmates in person, all of us united by our choice of quantitative research methodology over qualitative. I actually met someone else who was working from the same theory as I am, the first and probably only time for that, and I met again two learners who I met first in Orlando. Most of the nine of us are studying Industrial/Organizational Psychology, but that wasn’t important because each of the I/O students is doing something different from the rest.

There were hundreds of us across all three levels of residency, filling the Hyatt Regency at Dallas Fort Worth Airport. As I wrote earlier, when I add my travel and accommodations, the trip cost me about $1,000. For a moment, it’s easy to think, as many of the Track 1 learners claimed, that this would have been better done through Skype. How much did this event cost as we did it? Half a million dollars? It could have been.

However, I was able to walk up and sit next to my professor, two or three times a day over the course of almost four days, and ask my questions, and say what I thought that I knew, with all of the non-verbal communication between my professor and me, to check and build my understanding. I accomplished more in 3 ½ days, with a greater level of certainty, than I could have in a month of emailing.

I met and talked with, was real with and became real to, my classmates. We left our regular lives for those days to immerse in the different pursuits of our common goal. I listened to a concert by my professor, on acoustic guitar, and a former professor, on flute, and another professor, on bass, playing mostly 70s rock. You can’t carry a lighter on an airplane so we paused to download a virtual Zippo app for our phones, complete with that distinctive sound of a Zippo opening and lighting, even with the “flame” swaying as we rocked back and forth. Damn, that was odd, but it was funny and how we needed that moment. You can’t get this stuff with Skype, and who could be on Skype for 3 ½ days at home?

That’s what I mean when I say that I have about 12 months to go and how I need it to not be 15 months. I am exhausted but I have to keep moving. I will rest when I am finished. I have spent uncounted hours in front of this damned screen for a dream of doors flying open as I approach, for teaching and consulting and writing.

Already, I do my job better than I did before I began to study, and now I imagine some research that I would like to do, shorter and better topics than my dissertation. The world and I don’t know what I am going to accomplish. I want to apply what I learn on this dissertation in the service of my other interest in psychology, crisis and disaster psychology.

I dream of a small house with a big yard where I can build a labyrinth and maybe an old barn where I can build my nano-brewery, with a porter called “Subconscious” and a shandy called “Positive Regard,” a porch where I can sit with a book and bourbon and tealights and watch storms roll in from the west. I dream of sharing that house, too.

I want to travel, get back to Scotland and finally to Ireland and to Iona. Maybe I will go to New Zealand and try to meet Dr. John Sweller, the founder of the theory that I am using in my dissertation, because I really am that kind of geek. I am 47 years old and divorced and I am far from over. Just as my time on Hurricane Katrina showed me my own strength and courage, this degree is teaching me other things about life, about myself, about auditory working memory and educational psychology.