Pushing Through

Sometimes it baffles me when people criticise academics as having ‘cushy’ jobs, living in a different world, etc.┬áHas anyone ever thought to consider that the academic has gone through hell just to be there to teach? Believe or not, most PhDs face an immense amount of rejection. After graduating from a university with an undergraduate, they went one of two ways: either for a Master’s degree (which averages around a 15% acceptance rate across the board) and then a PhD (which averages slightly lower) or directly to a PhD (which, while the average is the same as in the first route, it is more difficult as one competes against those who did that other route). Some departments admit just a handful (i.e. 3) students in a year, some may even not accept applications for a year. With those numbers, a hopeful student generally submits applications to multiple departments and, if lucky, gets accepted into one, perhaps two. Some take years to finally get a successful application. If you think an undergraduate degree is difficult, try getting into (let alone doing!) graduate school.

Secondly, most grad students juggle multiple roles. Sure, everyone does this at university, however the academic load placed on a grad student increases exponentially. Most of them are expected to [1] take a full courseload (which despite being less credit hours takes up more time), [2] work an academic job (lecturing, marking essays, etc), [3] pursue academic research and publications to be competitive when finished grad school, [4] have some semblance of a personal/social life (e.g. acknowledge the existence of family), and oftentimes [5] maintain a ‘real’ job to pay bills. Each one of those is also highly competitive. Coursework, for instance, is expected to be much greater than the undergraduate (I remember some courses offered to both postgrads and undergrads and the quantitative requirements alone for postgrads tended to be nearly double that of the undergrads). Academic work had to be near or on par with that of the staff who already completed their PhDs, particularly as when it came to conferences and publications, the postgrads were often competing with the established scholars for the coveted few spots (panels at major international conferences can get 200 or more proposals for just 3 spots). On top of that, a postgrad may have a family, friends, another job, etc that all need to be balanced in addition to the demands of their academic work.

This has yet to include the two biggest pieces of (American) postgraduate education! After the coursework comes two hurdles, roughly simultaneously. First, the postgrad must prepare for and complete multiple comprehensive examinations (generally needing to prepare for more than what is given, like in a five-out-of-seven series) which establish the postgrad’s competence in the general subject area. It is fairly common for postgrads to take a term (sometimes even a year!) to study for these exams as they are pass-or-fail and graded by one of the established scholars who is proficient (if not an expert) in that subfield. For example, a religious studies postgraduate might have to prepare for three or four of the four major world religions plus one or two mandatory extra areas (e.g. theory of religion, comparative religion, religion and another discipline such as science). The second hurdle is proposing her own research project which will form the basis for her dissertation. This may also need to be defended to a panel of scholars as necessary research. In short, the postgrad must prove academic competence across her chosen discipline and justify her chosen research before she is allowed to begin. If you ever see a PhD student list themselves as a PhD candidate or (more commonly) ABD (All But Dissertation), it means they have gotten that far. The average American postgrad takes 5 years from starting the PhD to get to this point. It should be no wonder that over a third of people who are accepted into a PhD program do not complete it!

The second-to-last hurdle one must complete is somewhat easier (in comparison). While the pre-ABD student had multiple demands pulling from all angles, the ABD student is supposed to be focused on a single goal: completion of the research project and writing the thesis/dissertation. At this point, she is still competing for conferences and publications, but generally the number of rejections she has received has hardened her spirits and resolve. The dissertation is, however, grueling as it becomes an individual burden than cannot be shared easily as the postgrad must first and foremost prove her worth once more, this time as a skilled and able researcher and author. Once the thesis is complete, she faces the final hurdle of a postgrad: the thesis defense. While the earlier defense was to prove the necessity of her research, this defense is to demonstrate her expertise in the area of her research. While American postgrads face their advisors who have been intimate with the research since its beginning, European postgrads face examiners who are well-versed experts in the field (generally one from within the same university and one from an separate one). Only once this hurdle is completed (and it is not always successful!), does the postgraduate receive the PhD.

Yet, the story is not complete yet. There is still one more hurdle which must be crossed (oftentimes on more than one occasion): employment. The postgrad competes with all of her fellow graduates, from every university, as well as other roughly similar graduates who may have spent time in a temporary teaching post. Here, yet again, there can be hundreds of applicants for one position. In a good year, there are 20-25 openings that are highly ‘compatible’ for a PhD graduate, yet there are often 75-100 other candidates who are equally fit. In a bad year, the number of ‘good matches’ can be counted on one hand. It’s a difficult market and it’s not for the thin-skinned.

Why do I write this somewhat mystified account of the postgraduate? For a few reasons. [1] While it may not be physical like SEAL training, it’s no less grueling or difficult; academics and postgraduate students could always use some moral support as they often may experience depression on a regular basis. [2] When people want academics to contribute to Wikipedia and similar sites, they fail to see the immense difficulty an academic faces when the majority of Wikipedia editors are lay enthusiasts who use the bureaucracy of Wikipedia to exclude the minority academic opinion. With an academic’s already busy schedule doing research, lectures, and (if lucky enough) conferences and public speaking — enough to keep even the most able busy, most are not looking to include spending time on Wikipedia to justify an edit despite having an immense battery of sources. [3] Despite the great difficulties, countless rejections, lack of pay, and (for most) the ever-looming threat of yet another series of university cuts because the justification for one’s existence was not enough, many academics still enjoy what they do. Most love to do research, especially once they’ve secured a long-term (not necessarily tenured!) position which often allows them to pursue their own interests. Also, most enjoy lecturing, as they love having conversations (again, these will generally revolve around their academic interests) which bring new perspectives (yes, many academics do admit to learning from their students!). However, most if not all do not enjoy grading; that’s something left for the postgraduate, perhaps as an academic form of hazing (you think I’m joking?). [4] Last, but not least, I’d like to thank all of the academics who have helped me along my way. Even though at times I may have been the student making the lecture (or course) less enjoyable, your persistence and enthusiasm have been wonderful examples for me when I stand on that side of the podium. Thank you for your labour and, when needed, support, even if the best piece of advice I have received regarding postgraduate work was simply ‘Don’t do it’.

It’s true: if anyone wants to pursue a PhD, she should be thoroughly resolved, committed to it, and prepared for a lifetime of rejection, under-appreciation, and friends and family who will always say that she should have gone to law school or medical school (or any profession that pays well). The reward in postgraduate work (and in academia) is what one makes of it, which is often seen as more valuable than any high-paying profession (though a better salary is rarely rejected by academics!).

3 thoughts on “Pushing Through

  1. thainamu

    I’ve seen this process from the viewpoint of young wife and old mother. It seems like getting a Ph.D. in a humanities field takes a lot more time and energy than one in the sciences, especially when it comes to the volume of words one must write for a dissertation. Or maybe scientists know how to talk tersely??

    As for rejection, I fondly remember the the day when I took my boyfriend to meet my parents and told them he would soon be “a doctor.” My mom’s reply, “Yes, but not a *real* doctor.” :-) (I guess that is why my son is getting both a PhD and an MD!)

  2. christopher Post author

    Well, science PhDs tend to do some kind of time-consuming project of which the dissertation/thesis is more of a report of that project rather than the project itself. I’ve seen time and time again science PhDs having minimum word/page counts half (and less) of humanities PhDs. If I remember correctly, my stepdad’s PhD (biology) was a mere 80pp. In contrast I’ve seen chapters longer than that in the humanities. In the end, it’s more about the time and effort put into the actual research which is about the same despite coming out quite differently on paper.

    Also, I think it’s funny that ‘doctor’ is now seen as equivalent to a medical practitioner. It’s original usage was for the best theologians (which is why some folk like Aquinas are called ‘Doctors of the Church’) as its original meaning is ‘teacher’! Though this was expanded to include other fields, it still meant a well-trained person in any field, not just medicine.

  3. thainamu

    Yeah, you’re right about the dissertation as report. In fact, our son was required to have an article about his project accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal before he would be allowed to graduate. His dissertation was just another, longer, version of the article that was accepted for publication in the proceedings for the National Academies of Science. Once he got to that point, the rest was “easy.”

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