How I came to write a doctoral dissertation

If you’ll permit me a short indulgence.

The “story” of how I came to write my dissertation begins in 7th grade. I was never what you would call a “good” student. In fact, if I received C’s or a C+ I was doing well. I had always been an average student throughout my secondary school career. I was an even worse student when I first attended Broome Community College in the fall of 1987. But then, it was the 1980s.

My love of reading was instilled in me by my mother. I remember her getting into either my brother’s or my own bed to read us from an illustrated book of bible stories. It wasn’t so much the “power” of religion that captured me as it was the stories. I remember being completely engaged in the story of Noah, Samson, and even the frightening story of Abraham. It was, I believe, from those quiet moments before bed that my love of literature began to take seed. Many years later I recall being scolded for bringing my comic books to school. Every teacher who caught me took them away. It must have been far more important to learn my times tables than read. But I’m not bitter about that.

In seventh grade I was assigned to one of two reading groups in my English class. My group was the lower level reader group. The book we were reading was The Island of the Blue Dolphins. I thought at the time that the upper level group was reading a far more interesting book. I asked my teacher, Mrs. Bernard, if I could switch groups. I informed her that I read a lot at home and that I was up for the challenge. She looked me straight in the eye and said that I wasn’t up to that level, and I was better off in the lower group. I was mortified and terribly hurt. Yet, I did read The Island of the Blue Dolphins and I did enjoy it immensely. I did well on the test. There was a look of proud satisfaction on Mrs. Bernard’s face—at, I suspect, self-satisfaction in placing me in the “appropriate” group. I resent her to this day.

Flash forward nearly ten years. I am in the Arizona desert drying out from an alcoholic soaked week in Los Angeles. I am reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It was this book that really turned my whole world around. Eco has been my mentor ever since. I mention all of this not to display some Brandoesque flair for self-indulgence, but to inform you that I was the most unlikely of future Ph.D. candidates. My SAT scores were abysmal, and neither of my two parents attended college. In short, I was climbing a very steep hill.

The dissertation itself doesn’t really begin until near the end of one’s course work. I prepared for my exams under the pressure of a TA position in Comparative Literature at BU and working a 30-40 hour week as a bartender. The exams were taken in three successive weekends, with the fourth weekend off and the fifth for the oral exam. The oral exam was pure hell. I was grilled (by my dissertation advisor) for over two hours. I passed with an A-, but I would now rather submit myself to a prostate exam than go through that again. During the two years that it took me to complete the writing of my dissertation I taught five classes at two different colleges and worked as a bartender.

In addition I also served as part of an editorial collective for an academic journal published at BU. I planned a wedding (actually my wife did most of the work) got married, defended my dissertation and had a child. Each in successive years. All while taking on the Herculean task of the job search (which should be the focus of yet another blog post like this one). A word about the job search: It’s horrific out there. Most doctoral students do not get jobs right after defending their dissertations. In fact, according the MLA the average job search (once the dissertation is successfully defended) is 3-5 years. The job search is about networking more than any other aspect. It’s not how smart you are, it’s who you know, and where you went to grad school. I know of at least two adjuncts from the English Department at my grad school who landed jobs at the MLA conference, or as a result of the MLA. It does seem to be getting better. The dissertation can be completed while carrying a full teaching load or simply having a busy life as well. Perhaps the key to the successfully completion of the dissertation is finding a topic that is interesting to you. This is not to say that you won’t at some time, find yourselves questioning your reasons for undertaking this madness—you will, and I think that’s normal. The dissertation should, at least practically, be thought of as a task (or a series of tasks) that must be completed.

I’ve never regretted getting my Ph.D. and putting myself into debt. I am proud of having worked so hard and come through it all. The bitterness I felt toward my primary and secondary school teachers is beginning to fade, and I now realize how much there is that I don’t know. The pressure of making a name for myself is still there, but it’s now different. I have a good job at a wonderful university in a desirable part of the country. The pressure to publish is, I feel, a necessary part of the job, but I feel like I am now able to confront it on my own terms.

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