I have, over time, referenced the problems surrounding the end of my graduate career both within posts on my blog and in comments elsewhere. I don’t know that I’ve ever detailed the whole story since – like a few others who also struggled near the end of their graduate careers – the stories seem unique enough to be identifiable.
At this point, I guess I’m ready to write out the details. I just read an email that made me cry a bit. I’ll respond directly, but in the event that anyone else finds my situation useful, I can post it here. The thing is that it’s been a little while. I graduated in December, 2005, having defended that November. I’ve published all of my graduate work. I’ve been successful thus far in the postdoctoral world. I’m not setting the world afire, mind you, but I am not stupid or incompetent or, I think, in any way deserving of the mess I found at the end of graduate school. I’m also one of the stories that eventually goes well and if someone can take a spark of hope from it, then I’m more than happy to suffer publicly.
Let’s see. The beginning… I was sitting with my research group around a table in the conference room. We had weekly group meetings and amidst the bad cookies and progress reports, George reported that he had started writing his dissertation. George started research a year after I had, so I immediately – competitive, little soul that I am – was stunned that he was planning to leave when I planned to stay another year. It was then I started to consider what I wanted to accomplish before graduating. Never being one to just put in time, I met with Advisor and asked about my future directions.
“Start writing.” He said.
“The papers?” I asked. “They’re mostly written. One is currently being reviewed, another is almost revised and the third has one more analysis to finish, then I’ll write it up.”
“Then I guess you should talk to your committee and get going on the dissertation.”
Thrilled, I reported to my parents that I would likely graduate in August since I didn’t want to rush for a May graduation that was a mere four months away. I finished the final analysis, wrote up my last paper and sent everything out for review. I began writing the dissertation, turning in chapter by chapter to Advisor. He commented sparingly, as was his habit, and had me change very little. I spoke to all but one committee member, asking if they wanted to see the chapters as I created them, and all but one agreed to a defense date and said to send the document when the draft was completed.
The final member of my committee ducked my emails, but this wasn’t unusual. He was busy with clinical as well as research responsibilities. I continued to update him on the progress of the papers – he was a co-author on two of them and was, I thought, very familiar with my work and goals. In fact, I liked this man very much. He was young, but extremely bright and personable. He’d offered to pay my way to a conference one year when I ran out of travel money. He revised documents carefully for my prospectus and each of the papers he’d seen. When we spoke, he was encouraging and helpful. I failed to get many interviews when I sent out the CV Advisor had approved. Pete asked to see my application packet and gave me extensive revisions on my CV – format and order and headings and what was included. The next batch of applications yielded nearly 10 interviews. He also wrote me a brilliant letter of recommendation for the jobs I was seeking – some postdoctoral, some in industry.
“July 8.” I reported to my peers at our annual conference that year. I finished my thesis document sitting on the beach, inching my towel-covered chair under the umbrella to reduce the glare on the laptop.
“Is Pete on your committee?” One of the former members of my research group asked while we stood at a bar, sipping mojitos.
“Of course.” I said. “I work with him a lot.”
“He’ll fuck you over.” He said, and I shook my head at him. The very thought was ridiculous.
“Seriously.” He insisted. “I did work, wrote code, analyzed data, and the bastard published it without even putting my name on the paper! If you turn your back, he’ll stab you in it. I promise.”
“I don’t have data worth stealing.” I said lightly. “Plus, I like him. We work well together. It’ll be fine.”
The dissertation went out with Advisor’s blessing and a typical “Looks great!” scrawled across the top of the first page. I checked in with my committee by email as I traveled relatively extensively, interviewing rather successfully. I felt amazing, frankly. I was completing my doctorate in four years, a year sooner than I’d planned, and though I hadn’t found the perfect job, I decided I could choose one of the opportunities and learn a lot. I was convinced I had done all I could in my graduate environment and was eager to begin somewhere else. In my head, it was all but officially over. The actual defense was a mere formality in my department. Everything was lovely.
I returned to campus for a couple of days between interviews, having been traveling from my parents’ city since Chienne was living at their house in my frequent absences. I, sitting at the desk that was in one section of the living room in my tidy, one-bedroom apartment, opened Outlook Express and checked my email. It was two weeks until my scheduled defense date and I just wanted to make sure all the paperwork was in order and details arranged. After confirming the receipt of all paperwork with the graduate coordinator, noting the room reservation for my defense, and making sure the apartment complex had received notification that I would be moving when my lease was up at the end of July, I noticed there was an email from Pete.
It was addressed to 2 members of my committee, Advisor, and someone not on my committee. I was cced. It basically said that he’d looked at the dissertation and it was clear that I wasn’t ready to graduate. There were problems too numerous to mention in a short email, he wrote, and after speaking with Advisor they were in agreement that I would not defend in 2 weeks. Instead, that meeting could be used to define the work I’d do in the next year at my graduate institution. We could then evaluate whether sufficient progress had been made and see if I was ready to graduate.
It’s one of those rare moments of complete disbelief for me. One where – quite dramatically, I’m sure – my world cracks open and I think, “This isn’t really happening. The world does not work like this, so there is some mistake. I will fix it and everything will be fine.” But I was sick and confused.
I called Advisor at home and asked what the hell was going on. “Did you tell him I wouldn’t defend? What’s happening?”
“I told you to talk to him.” Advisor said. “I thought everyone was on the same page – that we agreed you were ready.”
“I thought you all were! I tried to talk to him – I can forward you all the emails I sent! He ignored me, but he knew I was interviewing! He wrote a letter, edited my CV! He can’t just say ‘no graduation for you’ when I’m almost done interviewing! I don’t have a place to live after the end of July! We’re turning off my fellowship early because I was graduating!”
“Calm down.” Advisor said. “We’ll figure it out.”
I met with 1 committee member the next day before leaving to travel home – he was confused and said he’d have to look closer at the document. “Normally we do what your advisor says is appropriate. Now that he’s saying two different things, I need more time to think.” He said. I was to get a plane to travel to my current location to interview and talked to the senior member of my committee on the phone.
“My life is falling apart.” I said tearfully as I sped down the highway toward home. He made a soothing sound.
“Pete is overreacting.” He said. “I’ll talk to Advisor and take care of this. Go interview, forget about this. It’ll be fine.”
I made it home, then sat down with my parents in the living room and told them. And I fell apart.
“But he knows you.” Mom protested of Pete. “You like him better than Advisor!” I couldn’t offer clarification though – I didn’t understand either. I’d been offered no details, even when I shouted at him over the phone.
“You can NOT do this! It’s too late! I’m ready to leave! Why did you wait so long?” I railed at him, knowing it was unprofessional, but uncaring.
“I didn’t have time.” He defended himself coldly. “And I’m doing it for your own good.”
I canceled the interview here, only arranging to make it up when Boss insisted they wanted to meet me. I was ill though, spent the day I should have had meetings, given a talk and toured campus throwing up in my parents’ bathroom until Mom came home from work early, sitting on the rim of the tub and stroking my hair while I cried.
I went back to campus. (This is surprisingly hard to write, by the way. I don’t think about it often and thought I was over it. Goodness, though, I’m struggling here.) Anyway.
I had the first closed-door meetings of my career. Watched 2 members of my committee look painfully uncomfortable and apologetic as they said they could go either way. If Advisor pushed for graduation, they would sign off. But in the absence of said push, the document wasn’t strong enough on its own. Plus, I didn’t have a single accepted publication on which I was the first author. If I could get one or two of the ones under review accepted, that would soothe the committee, they said.
The hatred I felt for Pete was so extreme that I could barely speak to him. I did, though. He didn’t look sorry at all when we met in his office. The publications were important – I should have at least three before leaving. He had some ideas recently that I should do before I left.
“I’d like to hear the ideas.” I said.
“At the meeting we all attend, we’ll discuss it.”
“I’d like to hear them now, Pete.” I said firmly. “If I can salvage this and still defend in a week, I want to do it.”
So he listed ideas, all of which I’d already tried and had failed, and then mentioned vague concepts that would likely take years to learn and implement. Then he handed me the document and said it needed to be completely restructured. He noted his demands for the dissertation and I walked back to Advisor’s office.
“What do you think?” I asked finally. “I need to know why you’re not backing me up when you said I should write the dissertation in the first place. Tell me why you’re doing this.”
He avoided my eyes and said I needed to rewrite the thesis and hope it satisfied Pete. Since I wasn’t sleeping anyway, I rewrote the nearly 200 page document in 2 days.
I sent it out. One member asked why I’d done so much unnecessary work – it was fine before. Pete said I needed 3 publications accepted before graduating. Someone else said one was enough. Another said this process was cruel – they all needed to meet and decide what they wanted. Jerking me around wasn’t fair. Keep in mind that Advisor didn’t say that – someone else did. Senior member was out of town and I demanded they wait for him to have said meeting. I was informed the morning of that I was not allowed to attend.
I waited at my desk. Everyone knew what was going on – people stopped by my cubicle to check on me, offer sympathetic glances, sent emails to make sure I was OK. After about an hour, Advisor came to fetch me. From the look on his face, I realized that Senior member had let me down. I wouldn’t be defending on July 8.
He closed the door and we sat down. He sighed and looked away.
“The document is fine as is. We’ll discuss minor revisions when you defend. Pete said he’d attend a defense on the 8th but would treat it as an actual defense. One you could fail. Everyone else said that was inappropriate – we don’t do that to anyone, and would not do it to you. But we think it’s in your best interest to have at least one publication before graduating. You won’t be able to get jobs-“
“I have offers already.” I said. “People asked for the papers, read them and decided they were fine. I have jobs!”
“Well, later it could be a problem. And there’s no guarantee that they’ll get accepted. Publishing isn’t fair.”
“Publishing isn’t fair?” I asked, incredulous. “What is this?!” (I was nearly hysterical and not behaving well, obviously.)
“We want one paper accepted – even if they ask for revisions – when one is accepted, you can set a defense date.”
“I want to leave now.” I said flatly.
“I asked them about that and they’re worried that you won’t ever defend. But I asked that you be allowed to start work at one of the posdocs – whichever you choose – while you wait. Of course, you’re welcome to stay here if you’d like.” We'd discussed this many times and I said that I couldn't stay, regardless of the outcome of that meeting.
“I won’t work for you after this.” I stared at him, and he looked away.
“Then you can leave. But I do hope you’ll come back to defend.”
“I’ll get each of those papers published – I promise you that.”
“You can’t promise that – it’s not really in your control. I’ve written good work that never got published.”
“That’s your failure, not mine.” I said, determined to do as much damage as possible. “I will get published and I will be back to defend. But I would never work for you again after this.”
Then I got to call my prospective employers.
“Good God.” One of them said. “I can’t believe it. I’ve read the papers, looked at your CV. You’re fine. Wow. Well, it doesn’t bother me – we’d love to have you here. I just can’t believe anyone would do that.”
“What the hell is wrong with those people?” Another said. “Do you mind if I call Advisor? This is ridiculous!” He called me back, disgusted. “I told him it was insane to expect you to base your future on some two reviewers who only were evaluating a single piece of your work, abdicating responsibility of your career when the people who know you best should be deciding such things. Absolutely ridiculous. Let me check on the funding situation here and make sure it won’t cause problems that you won’t have a PhD. But it’s fine with me.”
“It happens.” Boss said kindly. “We’ll do whatever we can to support you in finishing as soon as possible. If you need to travel back and forth or do work here, that’s all fine.”
I stupidly had hope that one of the papers would get accepted in those next couple weeks and I would defend in late July. They were all three rejected as I finished up interviews, packed up my things, accepted Boss’s offer and moved to my current location. (My parents – worried – came for the weekend around July 8. We went shopping and they bought me presents I called “sorry you’re a failure” gifts.) As I bought a house, arranged the move, started work, I was miserable with the knowledge of my defeat. Pete had known me and my work nearly as well as Advisor. Yet both clearly found me inferior at the end. So how was I supposed to know who to trust? Was failure inevitable? Cruelty waiting around every corner? What if I couldn't publish those papers after all?
I sent one paper – the one least likely to get published, I thought – to the worst journal I could find. I think it was a 0.2 impact factor. I was vacationing with my family in a rented house in Destin, Florida, in late September when I got an email saying they would like to see revisions of that paper. In an upstairs bedroom decorated in yellows and blues, I frantically used the borrowed wireless connection and forwarded the email to Advisor.
“May I defend now?” I asked at the end. We had spoken again before I left, but neither of us apologized. He let me down, withdrawing support for a reason he never explained. I was completely out of line with my comments, but felt at the time they were deserved. But we didn’t speak often and when we did, we were polite. He replied to the email and noted he would make sure everything went smoothly and that I should schedule a date.
My parents – between July and October – had bothered me nearly incessantly. Each time we talked, I was asked what I’d do if I couldn’t get published. Why I didn’t file complaints. Why I didn’t go to the Dean. Why I didn’t get something in writing as to what the rules were. Why they could make up rules not in the handbook. I didn’t want to talk about it or think about it. I just wanted to wait until I could make it OK. It had to be OK. I would finish and be grateful I hadn’t burned bridges. It would somehow be made reasonably OK.
I went to campus in October for my seminar and was greeted kindly. Advisor took everyone to dinner afterward in celebration of my talk. Most students had a defense dinner – and I would have had I defended in July – but we instead dined and talked of how my talk went well and that I would come back in November to defend.
I arranged the meeting for 8:00AM on a Friday morning in November. I actually don't remember the date. I arrived in town on Thursday afternoon and checked in to a hotel near campus. I went shopping, buying a couple of university t-shirts for Christmas gifts, a book from Borders and a little red purse from Dillards. I picked up a sandwich from my favorite shop, a piece of chocolate cake from the grocery store I used to frequent and some soda from the gas station next to my former apartment. I then holed up in my hotel room, practicing the talk I’d perfected at interviews and had since forgotten in my eagerness to avoid thinking about the defense that might never be.
I spent Thursday night in and out of the shower. I was absolutely sick, shaking with fear and wide awake despite 3 Tylenol PM. While I tried to convince myself it would be fine, there was now a part of my brain that knew there was a possibility that the world could crack open and swallow me whole. There was reason to fear these people – they’d shocked and humiliated me before. I didn’t think they’d do it again, but I didn’t know for sure. In an interesting twist, I finally fell asleep after reading an erotic story. I’d read somewhere that people afraid of flying should read pornography on planes since it’s distracting enough to ease the fear. The story I read was about a woman who met the love of her life online, finally meeting him (hence the erotic parts), then marrying him. When I met Peter, I was convinced that the world was paying me back for the dissertation hell by offering my own version of the love story that might have saved my sanity. Sad, isn’t it?
Anyway. I dressed the next morning and arrived at the huge lecture hall I’d been forced to reserve. I hadn’t brought treats or coffee. It was me and my laptop, standing in the hallway outside the room, trying not to shiver.
Advisor arrived first, smiling and asking how I was. “Terrified.” I answered and he laughed weakly. Senior member then arrived, asked the same question and received the same answer. We went in the room and I set up the laptop, waiting for the other three members to arrive. One did, apologized for being late, then settled in. I hadn’t invited anyone to attend. For the July defense, I assumed the entire group would be there. My parents would have come so we could’ve celebrated afterward. Dave - another friend - had planned to make the trip back to campus. It would have been a big deal.
The actual event was treated like a secret. I wanted nobody to know in case something went wrong. So it was me and 5 faculty members. Well, four in the beginning, actually. Pete didn’t come. After waiting for 15 minutes, someone called him and said we were waiting. I started without him, he arrived a few minutes later, then asked a single question. Senior member asked another question. They were both easy and gentle, then I was asked to step outside. Advisor followed me out not more than 2 minutes later to congratulate me. I went back in to shake hands as the four other men filed out, unhooked my laptop and packed up my things.
I returned to our office space and began completing revisions so I could print a final copy for approval while I was still in town. I found a quiet lobby of the hospital to call Mom, then Dad, (both were at work) to tell them it was over. It went fine. Nothing was wrong. I’d be home that evening.
My dad went back to campus with me over Thanksgiving to print the 5 copies on the right kind of paper so we could turn them into the graduate offices. Poor Dad was worried about me and had the day off. So he drove me to and from campus to wrap up the details. We turned a copy into the various offices, I got my packet of alumnus materials, paid the final binding fees then drove home. We stopped for a cheeseburger on the way.
“I wanted to buy you something special for lunch.” He said, frowning. “To celebrate.”
“Sometimes things don’t go the way you want them to.” I said. “I just wanted it to be over, Daddy. And the cheeseburger is actually pretty good.”