"phd topic loop" by Raul P is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy
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“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
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
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,
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
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
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/