In a telltale sign of hackneyism, I was thinking about the point at which I now am in my PhD and all I could think of was Robert Frost’s refrain from ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ (join in, folks, because I know you all know it):
But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
I am fond of telling people that I’m halfway through my PhD, which is technically true if doctorates took four years to complete. In September I will be in my third year of doctoral studies and, to my mind, nowhere near halfway complete. I am halfway done in pretend chronological time only. In real terms (that is, work terms) I’ve got more than bloody miles to go, I’ve got astronomical units. If I were doing a sort of topography of my journey — because that’s where this metaphor seems to be going — so far I would categorize it thus:
1st year 2011 – 2012
In September of 2011 I began my PhD at UBC, mere weeks after finishing my MA at Simon Fraser University. My MA had been by coursework and my first year of PhDing consisted solely of coursework, so this was a bit like driving through the Prairies for me – same old shit: “Oh, look, another field of wheat” could easily be replaced with “Oh, look, another hotshot grad student spouting off about some ancient work of literary theory they just heard about and read because it was assigned as if they were somehow involved in creating it”. The coursework year-as-prairies analogy works on another level too. It’s not just that I was in the very same position I had been for most of my MA, but I could look backward and see the same shit I just left, which was a little frustrating. On the bright side, I was really good at taking graduate courses by this time so I was able to see subtle differences in the material and especially the politics of the classroom, which didn’t always stem from my paying any sort of great attention to what was being said or participating in a meaningful way. In a manner of speaking, grad courses are most helpful for gaining new information if you’ve never been exposed to the things they teach (literary theory, for example). Once you can wrap your head around what is expected of you, it becomes a lot freer an experience and you don’t worry so much about reading every single word on the syllabus. This does not mean, however, that slacking or posturing is acceptable. In this way, I did a great deal of learning and training to be a doctoral student in these graduate classes that were so familiar. I knew what interested me and I knew what was most important in a given/assigned text. I reckon these are skills I picked up during my MA but I couldn’t relax enough during the accelerated time frame of that degree to put them to good use.
There were a few other things going on in that first year regarding my project that felt as though I had veered into an unknown bit of dark forest alone. The first year was not very productive in terms of my proposed dissertation project (which I ended up completely changing anyway) and I was told that my focus ought to be on getting the coursework requirement over and done with. This was advice that cut both ways. On the one hand, the coursework requirement just needs to get done, and quickly; you don’t want to have that requirement hanging over your head when you should be focusing on your own project. On the other hand, I disagree with the line of thinking that dictates the first year should only be focused on coursework. I needed to be formulating a plan for the next stages of my PhD career from day 1 of year 1, which I was unable to do because I was a bit disconnected. Lump that in with the fact that I was having major doubts about my proposed project and in supervisory limbo because of it, and you’ve got the makings of a pretty messed up doctoral student.
I finished the coursework requirement before the summer of 2012 and then thought I’d spend the summer reading for my qualifying exams and making lists. Trouble was, however, that I really was in supervisory limbo at that time and was largely on my own in terms of what the hell I was supposed to be doing. I didn’t get a lot done academically in summer 2012 and if I had to sum it up I would compare it to the time that same summer when me, wife, and dog thought it’d be a good idea to take a canoe out into the ocean, having not canoed in many years and, even then, never in the ocean. My project was very much that easily tippable canoe in the stupid ocean that summer and I’m surprised the whole thing didn’t go, pardon the parlance, arse over teakettle. Year 2 of PhD had to be better than this.
2nd Year 2012 – 2013
Alas, year 2 did turn out better! Er, spoiler alert. For starters, in my program first year PhDs are not expected to TA at all so, for me, I felt like I was missing out on anything that made me accountable in the way only undergraduate education can. I returned to TAing in year 2 and I was happy about this. I know a lot of grad students lament having to do this and feel it’s a burden that interrupts their own more important work. Sure, your own work is more important, the pay is exploitative, etc. My retort to this line of argumentation is, “Fuck you.” Sorry, that’s harsh. Let me explain: TAing is definitely all the things people say it is. It’s cheap labour for the university, time-consuming, frustrating, and generally unfair (to students and TAs). However, in my experience, it is all these things because a great deal of grad students are not adequately prepared for this new role that they are thrust headlong into (they’re not to blame for the pay, mind you). Others have been given the impression that they are training to be academics who ought to have their eyes fixed securely on the R1 tenure prize and teaching isn’t that important. My problem is when this attitude is carried over and TAs just become assholes like the people who planted this idea in their heads. Let’s just say for me that TAing and teaching form an important part of my academic regimen and that was lacking from my first year. I stumbled across this great post over on GradHacker on being a good TA that might be helpful. Oh, I forgot a map reference: teaching is like my compass? Sure.
To get back to it, though, my second year consisted of the resolution of my proposed project and a new supervisor; these were really the two things that really made my brain go off the rails in my first year. I believe we have a name for it: uncertainty. I am usually okay with a bit of uncertainty, but not when the costs are so potentially major. I definitely had moments in my first year (and especially that fateful summer with the canoe) when I considered quitting because I was faced with the dilemma of sticking with a project I didn’t like because my department had nobody qualified to supervise the project I wanted to do. To me and, luckily, my former supervisor this wasn’t an option. I had plenty of support and luck helping me out. Turns out that my department had just hired a new prof whose research and expertise aligned quite well with my project and the rest just fell into place.
As my second year turns into my third, I’m a little behind most of my fellow cohort in terms of progress though I’m no worse for the wear. I’ve edited and introduced a hugely important book to my project that is due out sometime soon called Letters from Laura and Eveline (1883), I’m in the midst of a reading blitz in preparation for my qualifying exams, I’ve moved to the Great White North, and even landed myself a part-time teaching gig at the local community college. All in all, year 3 is shaping up to be quite good. If my PhD were a map, to make some half-assed attempt at continuing this metaphor, before I was only able to see the unhelpful amount that Google Maps shows me on my phone. Now, on the other hand, I got me one of those trucker road atlases that shows me all the best places to stop before I get there.