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Why Am I Doing This? A Dangerous Question During Exam Time for Graduate Students

Published August 17, 2014 by harleyquinnly

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I am a Ph.D. student in History. I am having an existential crisis. This can apply to people in any type of situation when it gets tough and makes you ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Sometimes you don’t have an answer. 

To earn a Ph.D. in history at my university, you must take so many semesters/credit hours of coursework, earning a grade no lower than a B. That is not enough to prove your worth, however. You must take three, six hour long exams over three days, known as comprehensive exams (comps). The three exams are your general field (US history), secondary field (American West), and a minor field (Public History). 

Why are these so daunting? For me personally, I am not good at tests. Sure, I know the information inside and out but when I am handed an exam I can’t even remember what name to put at the top of the page. I will do reviews, projects, or write you a frickin’ book but don’t give me a test. In addition, I am aware that the exam can ask anything that happened in the United States from 1492 until the 1980s. That’s roughly five hundred years of stuff. And you must know what every historian has written about each era as well. 

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Yes, I’m aware it’s a form of academic hazing. It’s weeding out the lesser, supposed to be humbling, etc. As if taking (and acing) history courses for about ten years isn’t good enough. And humbling? What about surviving the professors that routinely made your colleagues cry and whose classes required multiple all-nighters (not from procrastination either). 

What I’m getting at, besides being whiney, is today after I found out I must also submit a dissertation proposal during the exact same time as I’m supposed to be studying (and getting signatures from my committee is like herding cats). I made the mistake of asking myself, “Why am I doing this to myself? Why am I even getting my Ph.D.?”

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Most people go to graduate school to get degrees required for higher jobs. I went for my Ph.D. because I had just gone through a divorce, wanted to avoid a personal life, and only knew of adulthood through the lens of a college student. I genuinely love the classroom and reading, any academic pursuit really. If I had unlimited scholarships I would be happy doing nothing but being a perpetual student. 

But then there’s real life. The place where I had to quit my dream job I went to graduate school for in the first place because it didn’t pay enough for me to survive on. The place where I work a horrid 40+ hours a week job with a verbally abusive boss before going home to stress over these exams. I’m proud to say that through hard work, scholarships, help, and luck I have no student loans, but I’ve paid dearly for that in other ways. Because I work, I am unable to dedicate myself to publishing (which is the only means to employment, if you can even find it). So why am I doing this?

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In addition, where I live, having higher education makes you more unemployable than a felon. I often lie and leave off my higher education on resumes or I don’t receive interviews or are flat out told I am over-educated, over-qualified, etc. Smart people need to eat too. (I’m serious about the felon part-I know of a registered sex offender that has a job that pays three times as much as mine)

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I wish I could end this post with an enlightened, ‘This is what I reminded myself of why I’m doing what I’m doing’ but I’m not there yet. I don’t have an answer. Maybe I’m doing this because I’ve already worked for three years to get this far into the Ph.D. Maybe because school was the only thing I felt I was ever good at and base my sense of worth upon it. 

Perhaps this is why you seldom see sober Ph.D. students when they’re studying for comps.

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Twenty-One Things Academics Hate

Published February 11, 2013 by harleyquinnly

‘Professor, why are we doing this?’

While every job has their annoyances, this post includes those specifically encountered by graduate students and those working in academia. Unless you actually work in this field, do not automatically assume we all have cushy, easy jobs and just like to complain about the lack of coffee packages for our Kurigs. Like others, we also face extreme high unemployment and debt, low salaries, and underappreciation. There have been several articles released lately on how Ph.D.’s are facing reliance on foodstamps due to unemployment or low salaries despite earning four college degrees. So why do we endure this craziness and suffering? Because we love it…and we are slightly masochistic.

Madison Moore, “21 Things Academics Hate,” Thought Catalog, January 13, 2013 (accessed February 11, 2013).

1) Being unemployed. Not that other people don’t hate being unemployed, too. But unless you’re a lucky person who has already secured that coveted mirage of a tenure-track job — and even then you’ve only got six years to get it together — being in academia means that, at some point, you could be an unemployed person with a lot of degrees!

2) REVISIONS. (Everything that is done must be redone at least twenty times before it comes close to being good enough)

3) Ratchet departmental politics. There are always office politics in any career. But in academia, everybody’s heard the story about how so-in-so didn’t get tenure because the department chair kind of hates her or thinks her research is silly. Or has been on a search committee where somebody thinks a candidate who works on anything after 1832 is totally irrelevant. Or how about why we can’t have the department holiday party at Stephanie’s house because Stephanie and Blake do NOT get along.

4) Being in debt — credit card debt — from all those broke ass years in graduate school.

5) “The Administration,” because it seems like they get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to make things as complicated as possible, for everyone, at all times.

6) The “heterosexual matrix” and/or patriarchy.

7) When people ask how the dissertation/book manuscript/article is coming along and you honestly don’t know because you haven’t touched it.

8) Formatting academic articles to the exact specifications the journal requires. And you thought academia was just about ideas — HA!

9) When Word freezes when you’re in the middle of a streak of brilliance and you forgot to save your stuff.

10) Feeling anxious about every interaction with a senior scholar, because senior scholars are the GATEKEEPERS. Do they like me? OMG do they think I’m an idiot?

11) When someone asks a long-winded question during the Q+A that has absolutely nothing to do with what your talk was on, so now you have to maintain your composure, smile and respond WITHOUT seeming like an A-hole.

12) When student papers begin with sweeping claim like “since the beginning of man.”

13) Going on the job market.

14) Tenure reviews.

15) Being underpaid for the amount of work you do. You’re teaching four classes a semester, plus you’re on 12 committees and you have a book manuscript to work on. And if you don’t find the time to finish that, you’re gonna get fired!

16) Overly negative reviews from blind, peer review publications. Because the reviewers don’t know who you are, that means they get to be even meaner.

17) When students email you about the grade they got at the end of the semester, instead of putting the work in DURING it.

18) Anxiety and the diverse medical issues associated with it.

19) When someone has ripped several key pages out of a library book.

20) If someone says that academia isn’t a “real” job.

21) BEING TOLD THEY HAVE THE #1 LEAST STRESSFUL JOB IN THE COUNTRY.

I am working on my fourth degree, have a professional job, and still eat ramen at least once a day

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