Shifting my weight, nearly a PhD

"Toledo" by Steve Snodgrass is licensed under CC BY 2.0

     I probably need to start this post by saying that I am not a PhD yet. Some people have said some very nice things to me, but there are important reasons to be clear that I don’t yet have my degree. I have finished my dissertation, and that tripped a records review. The school is on quarter break, so I am waiting for the results of that review.

     I don’t mind this wait, this in-between time. I normally work with a sense of urgency, because if something is worth doing at all then it is worth doing correctly and quickly, but I have done everything that I have to do. The remaining steps are not up to me. Changing the work that you do is a form of work (Kahneman, 2011) and I am going to need my energy. The last post was about what happened to me while I worked on my dissertation. This post is about what comes next.

     The title of this post is metaphorical, that I am changing how I spend my time and commit my energy, and literal, in that I have gained a fair bit of weight since starting my doctoral program. A PhD is bad for your BMI. I know exactly how much weight I have gained in this trip to graduate school, but because the foundation of this blog is that nothing bad is said about anyone here, I am not going to publish that number. Besides, that’s one of the planned shifts, as described below.

Changing roles 

     I have done a little acting, so I know the process of getting into and out of a role. You can’t step into another person unless you see the ways that you are similar, and it’s hard to step out without seeing the ways that you are different. A doctoral program amplifies certain qualities, like tenacity, tolerance for discomfort, and attention to detail, that you already have, so it changes you, but it doesn’t transform you. If you’re not already something like what you have to be then it seems unlikely to turn you into that person. I’m starting to think about ways in which I am not like a PhD candidate. Some of those qualities, like a sense of urgency in my work and a desire to get things done correctly and move on, once had the potential to derail me, but now I need these qualities to help me to separate from the role.

     More than anything else, I see a shift from have to do to want to do. I could file this PhD in a drawer, put it under glass, let it collect dust, but if you know me then you’re probably laughing because you know that this isn’t going to happen. To reach this point, I did what I had to do. When I have finished my degree, I get to do more of what I want to do.

     There will be times when I may want to be called Dr. Hickey (wow, that seems strange) but there will be times when I still want to be called Mr. Hickey. I work with kids, and they don’t understand a Doctor of Philosophy degree, so a doctor is someone who gives you needles and I don’t want to scare the kids. I know that when I’m a patient in a healthcare setting, I need to go by Mr. Hickey so that everyone else knows what to expect of me. It’s called code shifting, being what is needed in a given situation. I will become a PhD, but I will be a doctor when the job requires an expert. When the job requires evaluating a kindergartner and then playing Uno for a few minutes so that the kid is happy before returning to the classroom, that’s a job for Mr. Hickey.

Next steps 

     At the moment, I’m waiting, resting, planning. This PhD is not going under glass, not going to rust. It’s a powerful tool and I know some good ways to use it, but I also need to take care of some people.

     There are some people in my life, really important to me, who have not always gotten the best of my time or energy or attention. I have had to change plans on short notice and probably been tired and cranky. They understood what I had to do at the time, but now I have to make sure that I am doing right by them.


     I have been counting calories for the last year and dropped about a third of those PhD pounds but the rest need to go and some of what was already there, too. My longest study day was during comprehensive exams in summer 2017. I studied for 12 straight hours, 8 to 8. Your brain is 2% of your body weight but it burns 20% of your energy, and it loves glucose (Heid, 2018). It burns 20% of your energy, but intense mental work only burns about 100 total extra calories over baseline for 8 hours (Heid, 2018).

     My degree was built on pizza, coffee, and chocolate chip cookies. I did what I had to do. Now I want to take care of my body. I want to do that for my physical health and to protect that degree. Exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, one of the brain’s memory centers, in older adults, and exercise is at least as much cognitive as physical, promoting the growth of new neurons and the survival of existing neurons (Raichlen & Alexander, 2019). It’s even better when we can combine some cognitive work with the physical work. The current recommendation for protecting the brain from aging is at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercise, or at least 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic exercise, or some equivalent combination of those (Raichlen & Alexander, 2019).

     If I can work on my degree for 15 hours (900 minutes) per week then I can move my body at a moderate level of exertion for 150 minutes per week. When I look at the people who are strong and active and sharp in their 70s and older, the ones who are still out there, still strong, still getting stuff done, they are aerobically healthy. That’s what I want to become, what I want to do with my will and my comfort with discomfort. I want to do that, and I need a new mission.

A new mission 

     In her well-known book Grit, author Angela Duckworth (2016) wrote about what she called passion. She used this term to mean not merely an emotional state, caring about something, but a steadiness, caring about it in the same way all of the time, in a way that gives meaning and structure to everything else (Duckworth, 2016). Passion influences everything that you do.

     Right now, at what I expect to be the end of my doctoral program, the loss of that passion is the emotional challenge, the hardest part. I probably can’t write this next sentence without laughing, but no, I won’t miss the scary and accumulating student debt, or the criticism, or feeling suspicious and having to check when I think that I don’t have some impending deadline, the fear that I am forgetting something important. I won’t miss skipping good and fun things so that I could work. I won’t miss any of that.

     If all of that sounds obsessive, it might be. I won’t argue with anyone who thinks so. I know that only about 2% of Americans have their doctoral degree (Wilson, 2017), and about 50% of doctoral students drop out (Cassuto, 2013). I may not always see it this way, but right now, I suggest that there are many parts of a doctoral program that a student will dislike, that I have disliked, but that to finish, you have to love the whole thing anyway. In the previous section, I wrote that I once studied for 12 hours straight. That, and the context are all that I remember. I know that I accomplished a huge amount during that those 12 hours, did what I had to do to pass my comprehensive exams, and was lost in the work, that state that Duckworth (2016) and many others call flow. I’m going to miss the mission and the flow and the times when I lost myself in an encompassing and enduring task that I thought worth doing. I’m not there yet, and it already hurts.

     Losing weight and gaining strength and conditioning are goals that fit well with the PhD. They are things that make sense and are, to me, worth doing, worth the effort, another way to lose myself in the task at hand. Everything else is just a project, good and important but not as meaningful. I have some in mind and some of them are listed below but nothing bad happens if I replace or skip some of these.


I’ve been working on the next steps since about February. Here are a few of them.

  • Learning about how to start my own small business, conducting evaluations, and maybe other services, as a side job. I even have a name picked out and it doesn’t seem to be in use, so I’m keeping that a secret for now.
  • I’m volunteering with a suicide prevention group, working on a project to reduce suicides by firearm. At the moment, I’m writing on a meta-analysis and reviewing the scientific literature to determine what is already known. I have been doing literature reviews for years. This one will tell me what the field already knows about how to save lives.
  • The best part of my dissertation involved comparing two particular methods of studying reading to each other on the same task, something that may not have been done before with these two methods. My committee said that this is worth carving off and publishing.
  • There were other studies that I would have preferred to my actual dissertation. Aerobic exercise may improve working memory, so I would like to partner with an expert in exercise and look at working memory in people who are improving their physical fitness. There are lots of online rumors that playing games that make high demands on working memory, like checkers and chess, cause improvements in working memory in kids. Causality and correlation are often confused and I haven’t seen a study that tested this rumor, but it would be easy to compare working memory in students who play chess with those who don’t, the first step in seeing if there is any truth to this recommendation.
  • In February, I spent a day in a workshop on school neuropsychology. It was a good investment, to see if it were something that I liked and made sense to me. There’s an online full-year program in this area, worth considering next year. It would pay off when I evaluate students privately.


Finally, there are some trips that I have been talking about for years. I want to explore the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky and visit a few friends in that area. I want to explore my home state a bit, too. I’m right where I belong and need to be, but I know that the rest of the Commonwealth is beautiful and different and I want to see it. It’s so easy to think that your way is the only way.

Wrapping up 

There are some songs that have been running through my head lately, which usually tells me something. One is part of Native Son by James Taylor (1991)

     Mount up, move on
     Damn the darkness, speed the dawn
     They lost, we won
     Try to find your way back home

Another is one that I would post on Facebook when I needed to see the words, from Lovers in a Dangerous Time by Bruce Cockburn (1984)

     Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight 
     Got to kick at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight

     Reaching this point in my doctoral program has been a struggle, but the metaphor of fight or war doesn’t quite hold. I don’t think that anyone else was my enemy, or even that I was my own enemy. There were times when I wanted the discomfort to stop, and there were two ways to make that happen. One was to quit and the other was to finish, and I can see why listening to that part of myself that wanted to quit would be scary, but I suspect that if I didn’t then the pressure would have built up and it would have surprised me, knocked me over at some point. The darkest point was probably in February 2020, when I said it aloud, and even then, I knew that I wasn’t going to stop. I never investigated the process of quitting, never explored the option. The way out was through.

     I’ve posted about the process of studying for a PhD six other times, but I suspect that this will be my last, and that’s where I want to be right now. In movies, big moments always come with a loud and crashing soundtrack, but in real life, big moments come quietly. Life is a certain way in one instant and a different way in the next instant and it can’t go back to how it was. There’s no soundtrack. I’m waiting for the results of the record audit, which will probably start sometime after the summer quarter begins on July 13. I don’t expect a problem with this audit, but it hasn’t happened yet, and when it does then there will be an email, and that will be it. I’m grateful for this wait, this quiet time, when I can get myself ready for what happens next.


Cassuto, L. (2013). Ph.D. Attrition: How Much Is Too Much? Retrieved from

Cockburn, B. (1984). Lovers in a dangerous time. On Stealing Fire. Waterdown, Canada: True North.

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York, NY: Scribner.

Heid, M. (2018). Does Thinking Burn Calories? Here's What the Science Says. Retrieved from,way%20the%20brain%20consumes%20energy.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Raichlen, D. A. & Alexander, G. E. (2019). Why your brain needs exercise. Scientific American, 322 (1), 26-31.

Taylor, J. (1991). Native Son. On New Moon Shine. New York, NY: Columbia.

Wilson, R. (2017). Census: More Americans have college degrees than ever before. Retrieved from,a%20four%2Dyear%20bachelor's%20course.