"phd topic loop" by Raul P is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
“I know about academics and people with PhDs.” I used to think that and sometimes say it. I’ve heard it a few times over the past year. It’s a good example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, by the way. Confidence in your knowledge of a topic is on a U-shaped curve in relation to your actual knowledge of the topic. When you don’t know much, or you are an expert, then your confidence is high, though experts actually have less confidence than people who know almost nothing.
Imagine a typical teenager, who doesn’t really know much and acts like an expert in everything. We’ve all been on the left side of the Dunning-Krueger Effect’s curve, and some people reach the other side. When you actually know something, you realize that you don’t know very much. Here’s another video, a small TED, because a single source is never enough. It’s easy until you understand it.
Officially, I became a PhD, because that’s the term, because it changes who you are, and I will say more in a bit, on June 28, 2020. With the anniversary, in the slower time of summer, I’ve had a chance to reflect. Here is how it looks to me now.
I find that the process of becoming a PhD reminds me of what I can do. It’s similar to my service with the American Red Cross on Hurricane Katrina, providing disaster mental health services from 9/8/05 to 9/22/05. When I received that invitation, saw that opportunity, I thought about how I saw myself as brave and strong and concerned about others, so here was my chance: put up or shut up.
I put up. I went and served. It was hard but I did what had to be done. In the years since then, when I have doubted my strength or my courage or my sense of what is right, I have recalled Hurricane Katrina and remembered who I am. I had to do that several times on my PhD. Now my PhD is another reminder, an update of the same touchstone. I can handle it.
Like a job
My academic schedule was 10 weeks on and 4 weeks off, two classes at a time, while I was a doctoral student. In a typical class, I would read 100 pages per week, write about 3 pages of responses, and conclude with a paper of about 40 pages. That’s for each course.
That length guideline gets me into one of my best stories. The expected length is not exact, just a reference. If it’s 40 pages and you’re at 37 and sure that you have answered all of the questions then review it one more time and hand it in. If you’re at 25 pages and sure that you are done, you’re wrong because you missed something. Are you still writing at 45 pages? You’re wrong because you missed something.
I spent about a year studying statistics and analysis. It was hard work and I called it sadistics. Late one evening, I was working on a paper about some advanced analytic method and I had just written my 40th page, the guideline limit, so I looked back and realized that I hadn’t understood anything that I had written for about the previous 8 pages. I figured that I was doomed, so I cleaned up what I had and hit submit. A few days later, the paper came back with an A and the comment, “You have an obvious mastery of the content.” That’s never going to make sense to me, but I will take it.
After comprehensive exams, I went from being a doctoral student to a PhD candidate, which is an odd in-between state. You’re a PhD candidate until you finish your dissertation. The schedule is the same but at the start of each term, you write an awkwardly-named Plan of Action (PoA) in which you describe the work that you had done over the last break and your goals for the new quarter. Every PoA includes the statement, “I will spend 15 hours per week working on my dissertation.” Sometimes it’s less, while you wait for a review, or more, if you are approaching a deadline, but it helps to put a number on the time required doctoral study. The commitment is about 20 hours per week and the academic calendar becomes your calendar. If you want to do something fun, take a trip? Do it during the quarter break or early in the quarter but never, ever schedule anything else from Week 3 to Week 10. That’s the job.
Unlike a job
In your regular work, you are earning money. In your doctoral work, you are spending money, either your own or borrowed. That may cause you to try to work harder to finish faster. In your regular work, your boss will appreciate your enthusiasm and initiative. In your doctoral work, that may backfire.
I’m still a volunteer disaster responder. When my phone lights up, it usually means that something bad has happened and I’m being asked to go make it better. I move fast and get stuff done. That caused me trouble on my PhD. Academic is its own system with its own pace and any attempt to accelerate it will provoke roadblocks. It can’t be moved any faster than it does.
The actual challenge
Most research is written on a master’s level, with specific methods and expectations that are distinctly doctoral. A PhD understands research on a deeper level, knows if the methods fit the question and if the interpretation fits the data. I learned a considerable amount in my doctoral program, but that wasn’t the hardest part.
The actual challenge in a doctoral program is emotional, when the straightforward, mostly-objective world of the doctoral student becomes the confusing, substantially-subjective world of the PhD candidate. “Your dissertation is finished when your mentor tells you that it’s finished,” I was told at the start of my candidacy. It can be arbitrary and unclear, a sharp contrast from the explicit and reasoned world of science in which you are working.
Faculty can be rough, too. A PhD candidate sometimes wears a “kick me” sign, and part of the job is to take the kicks. Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter once said, and I’m sorry that I can’t find a reference, “Never let your face show how hard your (butt) was kicked.” You can’t fight back. That’s a hard place to be, tough to swallow. It’s also a good example of what Hochschild (1983) called emotional labor, defined as “the work we do to evoke or suppress feeling or emotion in the service of doing paid work—that is, by managing emotion” (as cited in Stix, 2020).
There were times when I was angry, and scared that I would never finish my degree, when thinking about how I was investing huge amounts of time and energy and postponing good things and incurring bad things. I wanted so badly to quit, even as I knew that I would not. The way out was always through.
I never felt tempted to extend my stay in my doctoral program, but I have heard that some do, feeling safe in a predictable world, and I understand that. From December 2014 to June 2020, doctoral study was an organizing principle in my world, a framework for the day and the year. It was never my only priority but it was one of them and one that others respected. I remember being tired but never exhausted. Instead, I was often absorbed in an adventure leading to a goal that I regarded as worthwhile, consumed in a task, in the state often called flow. I suggest that there are moments in life that equal the experience, but that there may be none that exceed it.
In those last months of candidacy, I started to prepare, as best I could, for the coming change. When I received that email a year ago, I wondered, “What happens next? What about those 20 hours per week?”
I’ve kept busy as Worshipful Master of a Masonic lodge. That’s something else for which you can never really be prepared, but doctoral study made me stronger in important ways. I have been working on other projects, like an excerpt from my dissertation. It was some good science, a tiny but real contribution to my field, and I have been working with the founder of the theory on which my dissertation is based to turn that excerpt into a journal article.
I have also started the process of creating a small, part-time private practice that will give me a chance to do some training and consultation work. My article applying disaster management principles to school psychology was published in the January/February issue of Communique, the newsletter from the National Association of School Psychologists, and I have to think that the PhD made that publication a bit more likely.
How it looks today
The title of doctor is tough to absorb. If you have ever chuckled at my surname, which by the way means “physician or healer” in Gaelic, then it’s probably even funnier in the phrase, “Dr. Hickey.” I have an uncle who has a PhD and his father was a veterinarian so I am not the first Dr. Hickey even in my family.
Beyond that, I know that the PhD opens some doors, which was part of the point. I also know that it can close other doors. I’m wary of using it around children, because doctors give needles. Sometimes being called doctor gets me credibility that I want and sometimes it can create a sense of aloofness that I don’t want. Sometimes the best part of the title is when I ask to just be called Brendan instead. I’ve been Brendan for longer than I will be Dr. Hickey.
I’ve also learned how to not take things personally. Are PhDs hothouse flowers, fragile ivory-tower intellectuals? Maybe some are. It’s hard for me to imagine an actual genius enduring PhD candidacy, though, at least not in most programs. I’ve learned that I can take hits and keep moving.
My longest study day – I can’t bring myself to call it my “best” – was during comprehensive exams. I worked 12 hours, 8 AM to 8 PM, on one day. I can think when I am tired and compensate for my level of fatigue. I know how to keep my brain going.
You can see other evidence of the PhD in this post. I’m citing my sources, in APA format, and I don’t expect or want you to take my word for things that I haven’t directly experienced. You should wonder, and I should be able to readily say, where I picked up an idea.
It’s been a year and I don’t miss my doctoral program at all. I’m very happy to be finished and very happy to be doing other things. The degree hasn’t paid off yet, but it is the foundation of some projects that I hope will pay off. In the end, I think that you start your PhD because you must, because there is no other way to get where you absolutely must be, to become what you absolutely must become.
Stix, G. (2020). Emotional Labor Is a Store Clerk Confronting a Maskless Customer. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/emotional-labor-is-a-store-clerk-confronting-a-maskless-customer/