How I Survived Grad School, Part III

Photo by Alaina Abplanalp Photography

Strike 3: Welcome to the Circus

Several months had passed since I resigned from my position when I began a group study for my last comprehensive exam. It was with two Masters students and for five months, the three of us met weekly covering all the major topics, authors and debates.  We were quite proud of ourselves with the time we put in and how ready we felt for the exam by November. After punching out twenty-six pages to cover four essay topics in eight hours, I left the exam feeling REALLY good about myself. I remember sitting by the lake on campus afterward, waiting for the girls to meet up for a celebratory drink for all our hard work, and feeling so proud of the effort I made to ensure I would write a good exam. And I did. I wrote a damn good exam.

A few weeks later, I was called in to sit for the oral defense, which meant that my written exam was good enough to pass – they don’t invite you to sit for the orals otherwise. If you remember from my first post, historically, the orals were just a formality in our department. Yes, they will gruel you on anything and everything you have studied, ideally referring to your completed course list, but at this stage, you will pass with advisement that you brush up on any areas you were deficient on during the orals.  This was the normal expectation of every doctoral student in the program.

Here’s what really happened:

The exam committee consisted of: Professor S – yes, the same one from the earlier post who is a tenured professor in the department; Professor L, an assistant professor on tenure-track; and Professor H, a visiting professor. When I arrived at the office, Professor S announced that we would have to make this quick because he had somewhere he needed to be. So I was drilled on a number of topics, including subjects that I never took courses on, and answered them to the best of my ability. After about an hour, I was asked to step outside and wait for them to deliberate. Two out of three professors in agreement is the requirement for a decision to pass.

Five minutes after I stepped outside, Professor S left the room with his bags and as he passed me, apologized for not being able to stay, wished me good luck and was smiling the entire time. It seemed clear to me what the decision was, so I continued to wait for the others to call me in any moment to finish this.

Another 5 minutes go by, then 10, and 15. Indeed, 20 minutes had passed since Professor S had left the office and I still had not been called back to receive their decision. It was odd and didn’t make sense…until they finally called me in. Here’s what they said:

Professor H: “We want you to retake the exam. It was good, but it didn’t stand out from the exams of the masters students and we were expecting more from you. When I graduated with my PhD in California, I couldn’t get a job anywhere and I ended up here because this was the only job I could get. We don’t want that to happen to you.”

Professor L: “If we didn’t care about you, we would have passed you.”

This was so unbelievable that I couldn’t think straight. I shouted, “I wrote an excellent exam!”

Professor H: “It was good. But it could have been better.”

Professor L: “There were weaknesses…”

Me: “Not enough to FAIL me on this!”

They continued to justify their decision, offering to help me prepare for the next one, yadda yadda. After they had gone around in circles with their reasoning, I demanded that they let me leave.

I fled from the building and fell apart. Over the next few days, I got consolation and more information from my peers. I was told that Professor S was shocked by the decision that Professors L and H made, which leads me to believe that he left that room with the understanding that I was supposed to pass. I was also told that Professors L and H were called in to the chair’s office about this decision, which leads me to believe that they were asked to explain themselves.

This is what I believe really happened:

The original decision made with the entire committee present was a Pass.  However, in the 20 minutes after Professor S left, Professor H strong-armed Professor L into changing her mind. Since they only need two out of three professors in agreement, they felt they could change the decision without Professor S being notified first. If they really meant what they told me, then they lost sight of their responsibilities as professors to evaluate student performance based on objective criteria as opposed to their subjective experiences. Professor H, desperate for a tenure-track position, wanted to show the chair of the department that he had what it takes to make hard decisions. It was a political move at my expense in an attempt to move up within the department. When they were called in by the chair, he was just as shocked with the decision change and berated them for it,  but because it had already been handed out, he chose to present a united front because a reversal would have made his department look weak.

As a result of this decision, my seat in the department was in jeopardy because a second failure on the same exam would have meant an automatic dismissal from the program – yet another reason why I was enraged because I wrote a damn good exam! It was clear from my gut, their responses to me and even their official review that there were not enough deficiencies to justify putting my seat at risk. It is my father’s belief that this decision was made against me in retaliation for escalating the issue of the waived oral defense for the three students the previous year. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable speculation.

My mind was made up: I needed to get out of this program. The department could not be trusted to make fair decisions and this series of events convinced me that the circus I had experienced thus far was never going to end. It was just a taste of more to come and I was already on the verge of losing my mind. I needed to get out.

Find out what really happened in the next installment!

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