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.