How I Survived Grad School, Part IV

Photo by Marvin Lee

The Home Stretch

The drama behind my comprehensive exam was the last straw for me. I knew I had to leave but now it became a question of when. What I wanted to do was delay retaking the exam and find a job and withdraw from the university before having to retake it, and thus avoid giving them a chance to fail me again and kick me out which I was terrified they would do. I wanted to be able to leave the university on my own terms, not theirs. But after explaining what happened to my dad, he was convinced that if I left without retaking the exam, I would regret it for the rest of my life by letting a failure hold me back. Or something to that effect. He said that if they want to kick me out, then they would do it no matter when I took it and it would be better to know sooner than later. I still wasn’t convinced with his argument, but then he promised that if I still wanted to leave the program after retaking the exam then he and my mom would support my decision (please keep this in mind because it will be important). He also promised to give me $3,000 to “travel across the world.” So I agreed.

The four-month period between these comprehensive exams was the most stressful time of my life to date. I was tense and anxious all the time. I became borderline paranoid, no longer trusting most of my fellow classmates; I felt that anything I told them would go back to the professors and therefore they could not be confided in (there was at least one known “Big Brother” in our group, so this paranoia wasn’t completely unfounded). I’d break down crying seemingly out of no where. In hindsight, it was mostly while re-studying for this exam and reviewing my twenty-six pages that I was so proud of. I’d get enraged all over again because it was STILL such a DAMN good exam and then I’d get upset because my hard work, sacrifices and time had been wasted and I had no reason to believe that the same effort would be rewarded again in this program. I still don’t.

As ordered by the chair, I got in touch with Professors L and H who were supposed to go over my exam with me and help prepare. While Professor L worked with me, Professor H never even responded to my email requests which leads to Lesson #1: Always CC your superiors when dealing with a hostile co-worker, they’re more likely to pretend you exist that way.

Then came the morning of the second exam. When I showed up at the exam room just before we were to take our seats, one of my classmates pulled me aside and told me confidentially that Professor L had said it had already been decided I was going to pass this exam no matter what happened.

Are you kidding me?!?!

I appreciated my colleague trying to ease my nerves before game time but it actually just made me even angrier with the circus going on. I had to wipe it from my mind in that instant so I could do my best on the exam. Turns out, two of the three essay questions from the previous exam were essentially reworded, including the mandatory question, something that had not been done before. So I re-wrote half of the exam I “failed.” The third question I chose was essentially one that answered the topic I prepped with Professor L in the aftermath. So that was three out of four essays that I nailed. The fourth essay becomes moot at this point because it was clear that I was set up to pass this exam as easily as possible.

It was even clearer when I was called to sit in for the oral defense. I’ll admit, I was very nervous because I still didn’t trust the department’s intentions and as I waited my turn while a colleague was ahead of me, it wasn’t helpful that he too came bursting out of the room upset with poor news.

My turn ended up being a joke. Again, it was Professor L, Professor H, and a new third professor who focused on topics related my dissertation. So we ended up spending half the time talking about my dissertation topic, having nothing to do with theory or the exam at all. The second half, Professor H and L just talked to me about general topics and the only question I was asked did not require anything beyond a high school education to answer. I was given a Pass and told it was one of the best exams they had ever read. When they were finally done talking, I asked to leave and that was the last time I set foot inside that building.

With the exam behind me, I could now finally focus on moving on to the next stage of my life as quickly as possible. But I soon learned that to do so, I now had to face a different obstacle just as formidable an opponent in my life as the department had been: my dad.

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