Comprehensive Exam

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Standing at the cliff of the educational brass ring, I pause.

"What's it like to do your PhD?", I am asked. A Lot. Followed with "Is it hard?" and then "How do you find the time?".

Sit down with me. I am going to tell you some things. Some things you might believe and others you may dismiss outright as lies and fabrications.

School, for me, was never hard. It was, in fact, blessedly easy. Once you figure out what the people want, giving it back to them is simple. Since 90% of information in the academic milleau lies within text, my ability to read,decode and analyze like a mother trucker comes in handy. It is the gift of the bookish child, of the observer, to take in words and the nuances behind them and then recreate the story in your own words.

The work isn't more in a PhD program, at least not in the way you expect. You take the same classes as the students doing a Master's degree program. I was oddly insulted when I found this out. I think I expected a small wood paneled room, with large leather chairs where myself and my PhD seeking brethren would convene to share knowledge. Here at McGill, I only had 4 courses that I had to take. Anything beyond that was looked at oddly. I took six courses, as there were a couple of others outside of my department that I was interested in taking, and I had to get special permission to do more than was required.

As an adult, the courses were relatively easy. I mean, if you have had a real job in the external world then time management should be a skill that you have successfully acquired. If you have had a real job and a spouse and a child, then squeezing in ANYTHING, let alone reading journal articles on a timetable has become second nature.

No, it isn't the work - as designed by others. It is the ember of YOUR idea which is what becomes difficult. I suppose it is different in the physical sciences, the world of hypothesis and scientific method. You try it, it either works or it doesn't and you write a paper describing the process. PhD DONE!

In the social sciences, it is a different process entirely. You are expected to walk in with a rough outline of what you want to study. You should already somewhat know the question you are going to start to investigate. You have to tell the University what that question is, with a proposal - BEFORE they accept you.

And that question? That proposal? Well, you can't just replicate someone else's work. (Actually you can, but I am of the opinion that this does not rise to a level or academic rigor required in a PhD). You have to show that your question has not been addressed in the academic literature. You have to prove that you are looking to find out something new, something different, something which "adds to the scholarly field of inquiry".

THAT is the tough part. Your question becomes an extension of You. It will be, after all, your first major mark in the field in which you study. It will dictate your future employment and writing, therefore you want to make sure that your question is something about which you are truly passionate....because you are going to spend a heck of a lot of time with it.

And I mean A LOT of time. As I prepared to hand in my Theory and Methodology Comps in December, I reflected on how much Time it took me to get to this point.

Now, here is where I must admit that there is something in my nature which is perfectionistic and obsessive. I couldn't Stop reading. And as I read more, I wandered down other academic pathways and alleys. Which worried me that I didn't know enough about my topic, so I read More. I ended up in Neurochemistry, Cultural Psychology and Bahktinian Discourse study. All of this panicked me, so I read more.

I would not advise this method for most people. It took me nearly two extra years to be ready to write since I was so absorbed in my pursuit of MORE. However, on the up side, I have a theoretical base for my argument which weaves some really interesting threads of other fields into education, perhaps for the first time. I am fortunate that my supervisor encourages me to stretch in this manner, as I am using the arguments of fields in which I technically do not "belong" to make my argument stronger, more cohesive.

The payoff for me is having my supervisor, my committee members sigh after reading my writing. A contented sigh. A "That was enjoyable" sigh. Too often academic reading is self inflated and needlessly dense. A field where stinging nettles are planted up front in order to make it painful to enter.

My writing? Much like my writing here. Narrative.  A story to be told, to be enjoyed, to be absorbed.

Tomorrow at 2:30 p.m.,I enter a room and defend my idea to a jury of my committee.  I do not fear it, for this thing I have woven from an idea I saw in Ms Deb's kindergarten classroom in 2005 has blossomed inside my brain. I know I am right about this idea, because all of the pieces make sense to me, and to the people reading my writing.

And once that part is over, my PhD is down to what I do best - watching children and making sense of what they experience.

6 Baleful Regards:

Raymond said...

Good luck tomorrow with your thesis defense.
I surely wish I had take the academic path.
Unfortunately, managing time is what I've never been able to manage!


Amira said...

Congratulations on making it this far and although you probably won't need it, the best of luck with your presentation tomorrow. Let us know how it goes!

Gurukarm (@karma_musings) said...

Dawn, for those of us who've read you for awhile, what's most impressive about your arrival at this point is not that you got here; I think perhaps on many levels that was a given. Rather, it's that you got here while living life with a great many ups and downs and obstacles and challenges. So, many many kudos to you!! (And to Terrance and Emily for their love and support and placing of obstacles :-) )

madge said...

It sounds strange to write it, but I am so proud of you. This is amazing, and not in the overused sense of the word. You actually AMAZE me. Congratulations!


Nancy said...

Best of luck today on your defense. Can't wait to congratulate you for real later!!

MarciaAnn said...

I wish you well

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