Nearly a PhD

     The title of this post probably doesn’t make any sense. A staple of doctoral programs is that you become a PhD, more than receive or earn a PhD. It didn’t make any sense to me for the first few years, but I see it now, and have written about it in the past (Hickey, 2017). A doctoral program changes how you think and with that it changes who you are.  I’m nearly finished and pausing to take stock of the journey so far, trying to figure out where I am so that I know where to go next. Here’s how it looks.

The challenge and the learning 

     The hardest part of becoming a PhD is not the cognitive aspect. The books and journals are the same on the master’s and doctoral levels, though you understand them with more depth as you study more, but the challenge is not there. The hardest part is emotional.

     I learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I learned to put aside the sadness when my friends were doing fun things but I knew that I had to work. I learned to put aside the anger when someone who didn’t know me or my work pulled it apart and told me that it was all wrong and had to be rebuilt their way. I learned the limits of fatigue and hunger, to ignore them until I had to stop and tend to them, and to know where that line was, how to squeeze a bit more out of myself and when I had nothing left for the night. I learned that wanting to give up is not the same as actually giving up and that it was better for me to have a quiet tantrum and listen to that part of myself for a day, respect those feelings rather than let them knock me over, and then set them aside and resume the job.

     If you are going to study on the doctoral level, you are going to take a beating. Some of it is intrinsic to learning a way of thinking and working that you have never done in the past. Some of it makes you better, the constant rebuilding of your work. I really liked some of the changes that came out of my last two rounds of revisions, when I was told to make some changes that I had wanted to make but been afraid to make on my own. Some of it is probably hazing, making you rewrite for its own sake. It’s hard to tell. Everything in psychology goes by multiple names and there are usually several ways to reach the same point, so it’s often a matter of preference based on experience.

What I know 

     I will have a PhD in educational psychology with a concentration in child and adolescent development. My specialties are auditory working memory (short term memory) and the connection between childhood stress and learning, into adulthood. I promise that I can tell you much more than you want to know about these subjects.

     I also know that I don’t know very much, and that, with occasional exceptions for the things that I have learned through my own experiences, everything that I know came from someone else. I know how to evaluate a source and how to cite the source for anything that I claim to be true. I look for sources everywhere now. Where did you hear that? Is that the only source or are there other good ones that agree? I ask these questions. It’s a good habit in an era when anyone can post anything on a blog or on a social site, what amounts to micro-blogging. There are few gatekeepers now so anyone can share any ridiculous thing with the world, and the more ridiculous and upsetting it is, the more attention it gets. Single data points, outliers, become launching points. Lies are convenient and loud and popular and entertaining. Truth is strong, confident, quiet, and often boring.

     Learning moves slowly, carefully, incrementally. Sometimes it doubles back on itself to make sure. Sometimes it takes a wrong turn then corrects itself. It never moves as fast as anyone wants. Something can be understood for a very long time and then new information destroys the old understanding, and when that happens, it’s exciting and exactly what should have happened.

The work 

     As a doctoral student, you can expect to read 100 pages each week, participate in one or two discussions, and write a paper of about 40 pages. That’s for each course, and you will probably take two courses per quarter. When you finish your comprehensive exams and move to dissertation-only, you start each quarter with a Plan of Action, a term which always sounded vaguely redundant to me but which, in any case, describes the steps that you intend to take toward degree completion. The second sentence of every POA is how many hours per week you expect to devote to your dissertation, with 15 hours being the standard unless you have a good reason to work more or less.

     Fifteen hours per week is pretty close to a part-time job. That job is nearly over. Put 15 or 20 hours per week into something for almost six years, something that changes how you see the world and yourself, changes even how others may address you, and it’s going to be hard to leave it. That doesn’t mean that I want to stay, just that I know that changing gears will be hard and will take work, too.

The impact of COVID-19 

     I have continued to work throughout the pandemic, but I moved more into helping to write policies and standards and procedures, something that I could do during flexible hours. For those reasons, I am sure that I have moved faster in this quarter than I would have otherwise. Please don’t take that to mean that I am happy about the death and destruction caused by the pandemic. The change of events merely created an opportunity that I took, because ignoring it would not have saved anybody.

     The pandemic helps me now because it made all of my study routines impossible. It closed my favorite study locations and cut me off from established supports. I had to improvise and build anew and create other ways to work. It takes an average of 66 days to form a habit (Dean, 2013), so these new routines are weaker and easier to set aside. When my favorite study locations reopen, they probably won’t feel like doctoral study to me, won’t cue me to study behaviors and feelings.

The wayposts are being abandoned 

     I still love the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. I read the series in fourth grade, thanks to Mr. Clark and Mr. Beal. You might know something of this series from the Disney movie The Black Cauldron (Berman & Rich, 1985), but if you liked the movie, or especially if you didn’t, then you might prefer the books.

     I mention it now because the last book in the chronicles, The High King (Alexander, 1968) has one of those lines that has stayed with me. After following the heroes’ adventures through four other books and hundreds of pages, the battle is over and evil has been conquered and it is time to close the refuges and forts that have sustained us. It’s time to clean up and move on. The wayposts are being abandoned (Alexander, 1968, p.281).

     What are my wayposts now? One is surely all of the stuff that I have kept. Hoarding is a good habit, adaptive in this case, because you never know what you might need. A quick look at my computer finds 5 folders with 1,149 files, accounting for about 3 G, for my degree. That’s in addition to 3 programs, accounting for another 1.5 G.

     Under the terms of my agreement with the university, I have to keep all of my raw data for 7 years, on a flash drive only, and then destroy it with a shredding program. Everything else can go. I expect to get rid of about 80% of it, no room for sentiment, and keep only what I think will be useful in the future. Some of those megabytes are for textbooks on my computer and the ones that haven’t been revised yet will be in a few years, so most of those can go, too. I have a few paper books and most of those are headed to the recycling bin, could really go now, but I want to make one grand purge of stuff.

     By far my favorite target is the app on my phone that has allowed to me to receive and respond to “feedback,” a delightfully dry euphemism, from my university, at any time, in any place. I want to delete that sucker so badly that I can taste it. That’s going to be a good moment for me.

     There are some things in my life that have to come out, some things that have expired and others that simply have to be destroyed to make way for what is coming. In my next post, I will lay out some of the next steps and the new mission.


Alexander, L. (1968). The High King. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell.

Dean, J. (2013). Making habits, breaking habits: Why we do things, why we don’t, and how to make any change stick. Boston: Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Hickey, B. (2017). Fear and dissertation. Retrieved from