My PhD

My working life was spent in academia — in fact my life from the age of 18 to 62 was spent in the world of universities. Even my non-teaching job was doing PR for a private college of law. I recently worked as editor — and, it turned out, adviser — to a woman who’s big dream in life is getting a PhD and being “academic.” She has no aptitude for this whatsoever, though she does superlative work in her field. I personally do not understand her drive, especially as, all the way through school, no one compelled her to learn academic skills.

I’ve hated this job but because I believe in her project, I persevered.

But it made me think about my own PhD.

I was essentially ejected from my masters program after two years. Those they felt had talent (or fit in the department) got a third year to dedicate to research. I wasn’t offered this. I was told I was not a “good fit” and that was that. A third year would have been nice since it meant another stipend and two classes to teach, but I found a full-time job. I’d gone to grad school in the first place because I wanted to write my thesis. I had a subject and I loved it and that was that. I managed to attract the attention of the best possible thesis adviser (for me) Dr. Robert D. Richardson, Jr. and we worked together very, very well. He understood me. But, when I asked him if I should go for a PhD, he said, “No, not you. Do you want to spend the rest of your life grading student papers?”

Well, actually, I kind of did. I loved the classroom and I loved teaching writing. Crazy, I know.

“You’re a writer. You have talent. You’re not an academic.”

The way he said it felt like a compliment. And, then, too, my dad always said there was nothing a person with a PhD could do that a person with an MA couldn’t do — and he proved it throughout the course of his life. What you get with the MA are skills to do research and practice whatever art you’ve pursued. My dad didn’t stop learning when he walked down the aisle with his light blue liberal arts cape and neither did I.

The department head — who’d thrown me out — had expressed surprise to see I’d finished my thesis. I got my MA, my family came all the way from Montana to witness the event, I had a great time at the graduation ceremony because my job at the law school meant I knew the mucky-mucks of the university. The best part — for me — was my dad had earned his MA at the same university and our theses would be cataloged next to each other in the library.

But it stuck in my head, “You’re not an academic. You’re a writer.”

The thing is, I had to earn a living, and in the passage of time the question of a PhD came up again. I went back and took the GRE. I didn’t do great. It hit me in the middle of an incredibly absurd multiple choice test on literature that the exam was bogus. At a certain point I sped through the thing, answered all the questions I knew, filled in the ones I was somewhat sure of and then marked the ones I didn’t know. I spent 30 minutes on a three hour exam and still scored an 85%, high enough that schools did look at me.

As they were looking at me, I was looking at them. I had no burning project pushing me back to school. It was just a matter of getting that “terminal” degree and hopefully a tenured job. I was admitted to a university in San Diego, and looked at the program. I saw from the course offerings that the study of literature no longer had any meaning to me. I was not the person to study the critical analysis of this or that critic. I was never going to be a post-modernist or a deconstructionist or any of the current trends in wanking. I didn’t have $30k, least of all to spend three or four years incarcerated with Derrida and his ilk. I was always going to read beautiful poetry and weep at its beauty and truth. I would never ‘get’ Kafka or Heidegger. I would always want a “story” and care about the sounds of words. I would always find history more compelling, the lives of people more intriguing, than I would ever find “literature.” All the things that had made me a misfit in my masters program were alive and well inside me, still. And so I closed the door on that adventure knowing I would write.

I still didn’t know what, but the most unlikely series of events led me to THE STORY.

A few years ago I presented a paper on the Medieval Leper at a conference. My then boss — a fantastic guy — read it. He said, “Wow. This is masterful. Why don’t you have a PhD?” He had one and, I guess, felt that a PhD was a requirement for doing “masterful” work. I said I just hadn’t had the funds at the time I wanted to pursue one. Only partly true, but just as I do not want anyone disrespecting me and my hard won achievements, I would never negate his.

And so my friend is a step closer to her PhD and I helped. I hope it make it easier for her to achieve the things in real life that she hopes for.


17 thoughts on “My PhD

  1. What an incredible story. When I was younger, I couldn’t decide whether to teach English or be a nurse. I ended up choosing nursing and often times wish I could simply write for a living. I love writing with all my heart although I’ve been a nurse for more than 20 years and in the field for nearly 30 now. Life sometimes steps in the way and makes the choices for us, doesn’t it!

  2. I was ejected from college because I had too many credits to stay. I wanted another BA because the one I had wouldn’t let me do any graduate work that interested me. They said no, even though the heads of both associated department (sociology and philosophy) personally said they wanted me. I haven’t wasted away with sadness at not being able to continue on for a higher degree, but I think I would have made a great academic. But not being one was also fine. Turns out, we can be lots of things. At the same time.

  3. Dear Martha, I think in my non-academic mind that you were/are probably better off that you did not get a PHD. You have done and seen many things that most people will never accomplish. I think you are far smarter than most of the academics you have encountered and I am almost certain that none of your old or young professors could even scratch the surface of your writing ability.

    I never went back to school to get a BS in nursing, simply because I hated school and did not have the ambition to teach or to supervise. I was content to merely be a staff nurse and I think that I did make a difference in the life of many of my psych patients.

    You have your education and no one can take that from you. Keep on writing and you’ll continue to attract attention with your books and your blog.

    • Thank you! I never regretted not getting the PhD. Like you, I felt that where I was truly useful to the world was in a classroom with freshmen and sophomore college/university students teaching them a skill they could use forever. Working with this friend has reinforced that. No student in my class would ever have left with the lack of skills this woman has. I also hated being in the classroom as a student. I got nothing from some guy up there talking. I’m a “doer” not a listener. I think the world changers are the people like us who fill a niche in the lives of others and maybe make things work a little better for the next guy. I once thought it was the job of heroes and leaders, but now I think it’s the job of the person who’s willing to hold out their hand and take the tool that God has given them and do the best they can with it. That’s me at 64. 🙂

      • You put this into words that I could not. I once read or someone told me that there is a need for lots of “braves” and fewer “chiefs.” Sad to say but I’ve encountered so many nurses that wanted to be chiefs and they stepped all over the other nurses to get a coveted position. I’m sure you saw that type of behavior as well, while you were teaching.

      • All the time. And I believed one could succeed by doing their work well. That wasn’t it at all! It was about manipulation and contacts. Oh, and physical appearance.

  4. Universities aren’t called ‘ivory towers’ for nothing. I grew up in one (my father was Vice Chancellor, not an academic though he had a D. Phil) so I knew a lot of academics, some truly great, a lot so out of touch with the real world and real people it was funny in a bizarre sort of way. So I guess that made me cynical about higher degrees, and annoyed that they’ve become a prerequisite for jobs where commonsense, humanity and the ability to communicate would be far more useful than an intimate knowledge of Chaucerian theory. You have guided and enriched far more lives than thousands of those who have degrees coming out their earholes and no clue about modern society and its participants.

    • I remember my first sense that a PhD in English was not for me. I was playing pool in a local bar with a classmate at lunch time. A couple of the senior professors were sharing a pitcher. They didn’t play pool. They sat together. And they watched my ass. One of them was the prof in a Hamlet seminar I attended — right after lunch! We did not read the play. We did not watch the play. We read criticism about the play. He had skinny, useless looking upper arms — he seemed kind of dead. 😉

  5. “Rommel drives on deep into Egypt. How’s your ass?” Love it. Martha, Marilyn, and I can write the book on the closed doors to What-Could-Have-Been’s. Just too Scary. Nice Story you wrote about me. Though you forgot the part about the multiple choice exam in a graduate Shakespeare course! I got outa there, switched my major to American Studies, and wanted to read Darwin and Chardin for the rest of my life in some ivory tower. Soon I learned that would not feed the kids…. No, I really wanted to be a doctor. No, a priest. No, a high school principal. No, a school superintendent. No, a college teacher. No, a… Sounds like a book like The Giving Tree. About the pool players? Nah! We college profs (then) went to have two Southern Comfort Manhattans and a giant burger, then back to class to show that “malt does more that Milton can to justify the ways of God to man.” God, I loved that Milton class, with 73 students in that tiered classroom after lunch. I was great–I think, from what I can remember, teaching those undergraduates, with my hard-won MA. Oh, the memories. Thanks, profs. More later, I am sure.

    • I always wanted to be a writer, an artist and a world explorer. Becoming a teacher was a stroke of luck since I loved teaching, but I knew the truth all along and maybe it was obvious to everyone “she’s not like us.” I think my profs just drank pitchers in that dim little dive as a way to watch the asses and titties of the grad students. They were a poor lot, that bunch. I shudder. I also have more stories…

  6. Indeed you CAN write, Martha. Words and thoughts flow together so compellingly, and with such clarity. And you tell a good story. Like you, I did a masters degree (in my case social anthropology) and for a long time felt fed up with myself that I had not continued. When, somewhat accidentally, I became a writer I often wondered if I wouldn’t have made a better academic. (A bit late now). But I can see too well my tendency to over-think, intellecualize things instead of letting imagination forge the way ahead. Ha! My Achilles heel. Reading your post has made me take a look at it once more. Useful, if uncomfortable. Cheers!

    • Faculty members were always giving me advice about my life. Seldom was this accompanied by a “how” or even a “what.” I understood how a passion for learning (and then writing about it) didn’t make me an academic. I really didn’t fit in but I never understood why. When I left academia, I had the idea that one requirement was disdain for students. I never felt that until the last two years. I think enjoying the company of other people who were blinded by an idea was another requirement — when I was on the university senate, I saw that all the time. But I could be completely wrong about all of it. The whole time I was working I always felt that “they” were “letting” me teach. My students constantly said, “You’re not like the other teachers.” Again, I have no idea why or how. I do know that many of my colleagues would first go at a student essay with a ruler to make sure the margins were correct. I think the answer is in there somewhere 😉

      • In English universities in my day there were definitely two sorts of academic – those who loved their subject so much they just wanted to impart their knowledge in the most accessible way possible (certainly the minority) and those who were there to further their research credentials. Obviously the latter were the ones who had the least regard for students. I remember feeling very disillusioned as an undergraduate – I thought I had come to a place of learning and wisdom, and to have my mind expanded, but it wasn’t really like that most of the time; only when one was working on one’s own dissertations.

      • I think the same is/was true of US universities. When I transferred from a woman’s college of 600 students to a major university, a good professor who loved teaching and his field was the exception. I had TWO. It was clear that for most of them the classroom was a nasty evil place. Grad school was worse because they tended to look at us as future competition. I hated it, though I had a few good professors. Three. It was also clear that my classmates had very different motives. I was there to write a thesis I’d determined on before I’d even applied. Most of the rest of them viewed the thesis as a necessary evil and had no idea what to write. When it was all over and I paid for and presented the university with two bound copies (as I was supposed to) one for the library and one for the department, I kept the one for the department. I felt they had no right to my work and I couldn’t afford a bound copy for myself. Ugh. Glad I never have to do that again! 😉

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