Ph. Duh

I am the proud owner of two incomplete Ph.D.’s.  I did all the coursework for a Ph.D. in “critical studies in teaching English” at Michigan State and I am ABD (“all but dissertation”) in academic leadership in higher education at Western Michigan University.

There are three segments to most Ph.D. degrees: coursework, comprehensive exams, and the dissertation.  I’m pretty good with the coursework part.  I’m good at reading and discussing ideas in seminar (which comprised most of my coursework) and, although I always put the writing of the paper off until the last minute, I can crank out a pretty good seminar paper in a few days at the end.  They usually end up at 20 pages or so.

I find the reading and discussion that goes on at seminar invigorating.  The only trouble I have is keeping up with the reading.  Not that I can’t do the reading; I can read a novel in a day if I get hooked.  But if the reading gets too tedious, my interest wanes severely, and it is drudge work.  That, and writing the paper at the end.  I torture myself to get it done.

However, the comprehensive exams and dissertation involve more self-directed study, so, big surprise, I floundered.

In academia, the Ph.D. is a rite of passage and a sign of basic competence.  I started the Ph.D. so that I could get a tenure-track teaching job, and it worked: the fact that I had been accepted into the program at MSU was a positive factor during my interview process at Ferris State University.  (I have an MFA, which is supposed to be a terminal degree, although there are many Ph.D. programs in creative writing.)

I couldn’t do the comprehensive exam at MSU, though.  It involved a reading list of about 110 scholarly books and a long weekend of writing.  I couldn’t even get started on the reading list because it seemed impossible: I couldn’t even decide on a notetaking protocol.  So I quit,  just sort of faded from campus.

When I started my second Ph.D., some of the students in my group seemed like they belonged nowhere near graduate school.  They had trouble with basic concepts in the reading and even more trouble expressing themselves clearly.  They had simplistic models of how the world worked, and they often reacted to complexity with resistance and derision.  In fact, I could not believe I was in graduate school with professional adults who considered any slight reference to feminism as “male bashing.” It seemed like  Ph.D. lite, and I even considered the value of continuing past the first semester because the classes seemed so easy.

I continued for three main reasons:  to add “Ph.D.” after my name, to defer student loan payments, and to hopefully land an administrative job with a bigger salary to pay off said student loans.  If the administrative job didn’t turn out, I thought the Ph.D. would help my promotion process in my current job.

It turned out none of those things were enough to make me finish.  As part of some of the classes, we did extensive reflection and self evaluation.  I scored high on creativity and innovation and quite low on practical skills like “follow-through.”  That seemed kind of unbalanced for a career as an administrator.  I also realized my motivation for the whole degree was to run away from problems: defer student loan payments and stop having to grade papers.  And I got promoted without the Ph.D., because of my terminal degree.

In my studies I specialized in faculty development, which means helping faculty become better at what they do.  Being at a teaching institution (as opposed to a research institution), that meant teaching workshops.  I had done many workshops on teaching with technology, and enjoyed that.  However, when I talked about pedagogy I felt like an imposter.  In my teaching, I’ve always been good at coming up with ideas and structuring a course, and not so good at grading papers and getting photocopies done on time, etc. (ahem, follow-through).

Also, doing the workshops was not really the administrative part of faculty development.  The administrative part I experienced involved some significant battling of wills, underhandedness, selling principles short in the name of expediency, all things I despise.

So I got through the coursework and even the comprehensive exam and started on the path to dissertation, but with much lower motivation than when I started.  However, I had a golden opportunity: I had a dissertation topic  handed to me.  I got along with my dissertation chair very well.  She was becoming a strong player in the scholarly community.  She had national data from a grant project that needed additional analysis, and offered it to me as a dissertation topic.  This was timely and important work that would make my name in the field.  Her co-investigator on the research was a pioneer and luminary in the field.  Moreover, since I would be using existing data, I wouldn’t have to do any instrument design or data collection.

Despite some setbacks, then, I was on the fast track to becoming known in the field.  If I could just do the work.

I couldn’t.

I had some initial success at getting the proposal written, but then I got bogged down.  I couldn’t find the time to work on it.  Weeks turned into months.  A few months turned into a year and a half.  The longer I stalled, the harder it was to get anything productive done.  I thought about it all the time, but didn’t get any significant work done beyond the real progress I had made in the first two months.

I had plenty of support, so that was no excuse.  I took a dissertation seminar that my chair led.  When that finished, I sat in on another semester of seminar, which my chair graciously let me attend unofficially.

After awhile, my chair decided to move ahead with the data, and we looked to another topic.  But I saw the writing on the wall and officially abandoned my degree soon after that.

The irony is that some of the people I thought did not belong in graduate school at all had finished.  One woman who I thought would never have the capacity for a dissertation finished it quickly while working full time and while supporting her young son through cancer treatment.

I of course felt humbled and despondent about the experience.  My own idea of what a Ph.D. was changed.  It’s hard to admit to colleagues that I have abandoned at ABD stage and most likely will never finish.  Some of them see me differently now.

Getting a Ph.D. is not purely a measure of intelligence.  I know.  My ACT and GRE scores qualify me for membership in Mensa, which means I measure in the top 2% IQ in the nation.  Some of my fellow students who barely made the cutoff for GRE scores finished their Ph.D.’s in only three or four years.  But, I saw these students develop from workers into scholars, while I seemed to regress.

Indeed, I have felt like I’ve gotten dumber and dumber as the years have progressed.  I graduated from high school as a star student, ready to take on the world.  I performed poorly my first year of college.  I got through a BA and an MFA degree and somehow landed a teaching job at a state university, but have not stood out in any form.  I got award after award in high school, but nothing since.  My writing career has been met with rejection after rejection, which is normal, I’ve heard, but I don’t respond to it well.

Getting a Ph.D. requires intelligence and focus andpersistence, as does success in most fields.  I have no balance among those elements.  Once I latch on to something interesting, my hyperfocus kicks in, and I perform well.  Once something happens to diminish that interest, nothing, not even fear of shame or risk of losing my job or risk of going bankrupt from unpaid student loans, makes me finish it.

I’ve been reading the literature on gifted adults recently and think I fit in that category.  There are the gifted super achievers, who have their own issues, but I fit in the gifted underachiever category.  I had every predictor of success in high school, and have struggled to make my modest career.  My recent experience with cognitive testing has reminded me of the idea I had of myself one time: that I had strong potential and that I would do something important with my life.  My idea of “important” has changed, though.  I do important work in ways that differ from what I once imagined: help out struggling students, give advice to friends, be a good father and husband.

Despite all that I have, though, I have trouble feeling fulfilled, at least professionally.  Writing makes me feel fulfilled in that way.  Being a successful, full-time writer has been the dream I come back to consistently.  It’s not so much seeing my work in print, as the feedback I get.  I had a poem published in a broadside around Big Rapids by The Michigan Poet.  For a few weeks, I had all sorts of people say “Hey, I saw your poem at Pepper’s.  Neat!”  That, to me, is fulfilling.

So is blogging.  The handful of comments and likes have been helpful.  So please, comment.  My vanity will be restored for another day if you do . . .

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First Failure

I gave every sign of being the perfect college candidate.  I earned a high GPA and graduated third in my class (out of 90 students, but still!).  I had high ACT and SAT scores and I got into every college I applied to.  I earned two scholarships, not full ride, but enough, with a little bit of student loan money, to pay for college on my own.  I had been responsible with money, saving half of what I made working since my middle school paper route.  I had never even tried a drink.  I earned seven varsity letters (mostly due, I thought, to the small size of my high school; most warm bodies with at least three out of four limbs attached could earn a varsity letter in something.)

I was ready to go. I had a strong sense of restlessness, which I called senioritis.  I couldn’t wait to leave behind little Vandercook Lake and its little ideas.  College seemed like the city upon a hill, a place where my intellect would be valued, where I would do real work, where we students would all sit raptly and nod sagely while our bearded professors would blow our minds with deep lectures.  I would possibly learn to smoke a pipe. My life would begin at Western Michigan University.

Stewart Clocktower, flanked by Waldo Library t...

The constant reminder of my failure. Also, visit WMU, it's pretty with the mixed media traffic barrier/garden thingy.

I had a couple of worries.  My girlfriend headed out to Eastern Michigan University on the other side of the state.  I had no car, so that would be problematic.  I had a little nagging worry about my procrastination habit.  All through school I got A’s and B’s, but constantly felt, as my guidance counselor would tell me, there was no reason I shouldn’t be getting all A’s.  Any B’s I attributed to laziness.  Most of the work of school seemed boring to me.  It was a waste of time to do a long list math problems after I understood the concepts, or study names and dates that I would forget later.   I did homework during breakfast, late on Sunday night, on the bus, during lunch, during the class before it was due.  My B’s were due to this habit.

In August of 1989 I moved into my dorm.  I shared a room with a good friend from high school .  My friend had been a workout partner in high school. We were on the cross country and track teams together, and rode bicycles competitively (I did triathlons).  We were so giddy with freedom when our parents finally left that we took off madly on our bikes that afternoon and got totally lost in Kalamazoo.

I began my classes with a little nervousness but a lot of enthusiasm.  In December, my grades came, and I got a 2.75 (barely a B-).  My parents gave me a pep talk in the garage and sent me back with the aim of earning a 4.0 the next semester.  (But without their $50 a week spending allowance.  They reasoned if I spent $978 on clothes in one semester, probably I didn’t need the extra money.) If I didn’t raise my overall GPA to 3.0, I would start losing scholarship money.  The next April I opened my report card to a 1.92 (a low C), mostly due to my earning an F in Digital Logic.  “What, are you on drugs?” my exasperated mother asked.

Now, having a tough first year of college ought not to rank in the great failures of the 20th century, like New Coke or the Clinton health care plan.  But to go from award-winning college-prep high school achiever to mediocre college student in one year required significant adjustment in self image.  The biggest failure, in my mind, was becoming average and insignificant.

I spent the summer in Germany as an exchange student and came back as an English major, transformed and ready to go, and did reasonably well the remaining three years of my B.A., though I never got that GPA above a 3.0.

What happened?  Here is the list of things I have told myself over the years:

  1. It was my professors’ fault.  Most of the freshman classes I took were “weeder” classes; big lecture halls, difficult material, designed to whittle down the true majors from the merely hopeful.  Or they were general education classes taught by disinterested professors waiting to get to their real work of research.  (I particularly remembered Heroes and Villains, a class in mythology, taught by a professor from the Medieval Institute who sat in front of 150 students and read from our book into a microphone with a monotone voice for two hours each week.)  No one was particularly interested in my failure or success.
  2. It was my parents’ fault.  They never prepared me for the rigors of living on my own and managing my own finances.  I didn’t know, for example, that one could take out a loan to buy a car or a house.  “Mortgage” was one of those big words old people used (you know, like, people in their thirties and forties).  And they never let me drink, so I never knew how to do so responsibly.  Plus they brainwashed me into the whole college/career conspiracy thing (see #4 below). And, and, and.
  3. It was alcohol’s fault.  You know, for being so fun and available.
  4. It was my girlfriend’s fault.  She spent an entire semester dumping me by increment, rather than letting me down quickly.  It was like having a band-aid pulled off my hairy leg over the course of three months.
  5. It was society’s fault.  My high school and American culture pushed me to pick a major that would earn me a good living.  I decided in my sophomore year in high school to major in engineering, specifically electrical engineering, with some vague plans to work on computers or other kinds of gadgetry.
  6. It was my friends’ fault.  I had the sort of friends where we looked out for each other in the sense of “perhaps it’s bad to lean out of a fourth story window to shout across the quad when you are roaring drunk,” not in the sense of “perhaps you should open a book if you want to continue being a college student.”  I thought college would be the great academy, and it turned out to be high school without parental supervision or accountability.
  7. It was Taco Grande’s fault.  With 39-cent tacos right next to campus, I gained 40 pounds in one semester.  That’ll sap your energy right there.

I went from the respectable and eminently practical electrical engineering field to the possibly subversive and definitely unemployable goal of being a poet.  (Ironically, my friends who stayed in engineering often bore the brunt of layoffs and downsizing these years since, and my career has been stable.)  I did reasonably well, good enough to get into and finish an MFA and get a job teaching.

But my freshman year more than twenty years ago shook my confidence severely.  Tainted, I no longer measured up to the idea of me.  No amount of success since then has erased the self-doubt that developed that year.  I was so sure I would succeed at whatever I decided to do, that I had to employ all sorts of mental gymnastics in order to explain my failure.

I never found a truly satisfactory explanation until I read about ADHD and the transition to college.  Particularly, I am thinking of Delivered from Distraction by Hallowell and Ratey:

[P]arents and teenagers alike should know in advance how different a college or university is from home.  The most glaring difference is that in most homes there is someone, like a mom or a dad, who deeply loves and checks up on the high school student every day.  No one loves you at college, and not many people check up on you ever, let alone every day.

In my dorm, the Resident Assistants kept the damage to a minimum, but no one was there to tell me to go to bed, to get up in the morning, to go to class, to consume in moderation, to exercise.  I imagine that telling my roommates that they needed to pay more attention to nutrition and sleep hygiene would have gotten me a kick in the balls.

What Hallowell and Ratey recommend is seeking a mentor, a senior faculty mentor if possible. I often say the reason I became a creative writing major was that there were no Friday classes, but it turns out the more potent reason was the professors I had.  A couple in particular took genuine interest in me, stayed after class to talk to me, took me seriously, did not see me as a mere distraction.