How I Survived Grad School, Part I

Photo by e-magic (Eric)

What sane person enters a PhD program at age 22?!

I uprooted myself from my home in NYC to start an MA/PhD program in Florida in 2005. I know, I couldn’t have picked a nicer place to live. My interest since high school in women and development issues led me to study political science in undergrad with the hopes of working at the United Nations one day. After convincing my father that I was NOT going to study medicine (blog post forthcoming) the compromise reached was that I had to achieve the highest degree in whatever subject I studied.

That was the strategy. Unfortunately, I did little research into requirements of admission to a doctoral program so I didn’t know that reputable programs want people with work experience – not someone like me, who had zero work experience and was still a senior in college. Also, my father was adamant that I complete my entire doctoral degree by the time I was 25 so I could still be under his healthcare. All good logic, I know. No surprise, all the programs I applied to rejected me…except one.

That August after graduating, I started classes, survived three hurricanes and graduated with the Masters in December 2006, one semester ahead of schedule. 2007 marked my first real year as a doctoral candidate when I earned a fellowship from the university and won elections for my department’s newly minted graduate student association. This is where the trouble begins.

Strike 1: Those Who Are Privileged

Our department was small and recovering from a big shake up at the university that devolved the program from a school in itself. To rebuild, the faculty felt an organized student body would help toward that end. The students, however, saw this as an opportunity to voice their grievances, and they had many. In the passion of expressing their frustrations, one of the students flippantly remarked how she and two other doctoral students had managed to pass a qualifying exam without sitting for the oral defense. [Quick note on qualifying exams: they are grueling tests of endurance and knowledge, consisting of an 8-hour written exam that requires you to spill your Starbucks coffee-infused blood and guts on to 20-30 pages of typed content on 4 essay topics. If those efforts are considered of acceptable quality, you sit before a panel who can and will drill you on anything and everything related to the field. The oral defense is completely subjective and whether you pass or fail depends entirely on their whim. Okay, not so quick.]

Qualifying exams are a big deal. You have to pass one in two different areas of concentration to move forward. If you fail the same qualifying exam twice it is an automatic dismissal from the program. So there’s a lot of pressure and stress upon us to do well, especially with little exam prep from the faculty. How do you think we felt when we heard that? PISSED OFF, that’s what! It was unjust that those students moved on with their studies having had the most difficult step of the exam waived!

With a fellow committee member, we escalated the issue to the attention of the department chair. He was furious, tried to deny this happened on his watch but ultimately assured us he would take action.  To be transparent with our classmates, we notified everyone that we spoke to the chair on the matter. That’s when hell broke loose.

A chain of email attacks broke out like a rash, mostly from the students in question who were unsurprisingly upset. The shock, though, was from members of the student body disgusted with me for having approached the chair without their permission. Their argument: as chair of the student organization, I was representing the entire student body when I escalated the issue and since I had not discussed with them beforehand my plan of action, I was somehow in the wrong.  Nevermind that this violated the honor code. Nevermind that it was morally wrong to ignore. Nevermind that it was unfair. What a great lot I was in! To make things worse, the chair decided to call the students to finally sit for their oral defense within a week’s time, ELEVEN MONTHS after they wrote the exam. Rumor has it that the panel grilled the students badly in the defense…but they “earned” their Pass.

To be fair, there were a handful of people who privately thanked me for doing the right thing. But the drama caused stress of unbearable levels. With the support of three great friends I overcame this set back and regained some strength…until the next crisis happened.

To be continued…!

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