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A 12-Step Ph.D. Recovery Program for Academics

by Nancy Roth Ph.D



Hi. I'm Nancy, and I'm a Ph.D. I know I'll always be a Ph.D. But with your support, I'm learning to control it. Now I can listen, sometimes with real pleasure, to people who couldn't possibly advance my career- like, say, students. I can laugh again at all kinds of ridiculous things-- the concept of "my career," for example. I sometimes read for fun. On a clear day, I can even write.

1. KNOWING WHEN YOU'RE MISERABLE
One of the things people often notice on their way to or from a Ph.D. is a divorce. In my case, it was the standard boy-leaves-girl scenario, but I'm sure there must be girl-leaves-mother or boy-leaves-goat versions as well. It was amazing. All of a sudden there was no one around to be angry at me all the time, and it was REALLY PLEASANT. I began to notice that other people had ordered their lives in such a way as to achieve these conditions permanently. I know, this doesn't seem like rocket science. But for some of us, it's a major step.

2. ASSESSING "FRIENDS"
Friends are people who do NOT make you feel miserable. It is worth reviewing your acquaintances case by case, because if you are still a little hazy about the first step--knowing exactly when you're miserable-it can get tricky. Here are some guidelines: That person who hasn't really read what you've written very thoroughly and still feels obliged to judge it, who is telling you that what you have still to do is vast (but he or she can't quite explain WHAT IT IS), who is confirming your oldest fears about not knowing enough- this person is probably not your friend. On the other hand, the person you just snapped at for pointing out that you've been looking miserable and acting crazy lately may turn out to be a solid ally.

3. NOTICING KEEN DISINTEREST AND OVERT HOSTILITY
If we assume that doctoral study is a basically positive cultural value, surely a student's efforts will be universally welcomed in a comradely spirit of advancing human knowledge. So why is it that when you try to visit, say, someone's personal archives, the heirs so often start defending Uncle Henry's letters like they were vulnerable babies about to be ravaged by some beastly intruder? And why is it that your supervisor seems to have such difficulty reading what you've written, or even hearing what you say? If you can honestly say to yourself "This is making me miserable," you're firmly on the road to recovery.

4. THE RELATIONSHIP OF EFFORT TO REWARD
The intractable fact is that it is entirely possible- and increasingly likely- that the product of literally years of sustained effort can be quite completely incomprehensible or uninteresting to all but a very small coterie within the Ph.D. industry. One may debate who or what is at "fault" when this happens. But the first step is to recognize that IT DOES HAPPEN. (See 12, below)

5. TEACHING (Maybe you DO know enough)
Students genuinely do not care how much you know, and terrible things happen almost immediately when you start talking Ph.D. in front of them. One day, when you're dropping names of famous scholars, or going off on some possibly fascinating, but utterly obscure train of thought, you may suddenly understand what it must feel like to be an astronaut with a bad connection to ground control, looking wistfully back at Earth. Teaching may well be the best antidote to the Ph.D., however. It certainly is a fine way of monitoring recovery. Glazed eyes and silence in students are bad signs. Strive for whole sentences, from THEM, about what they've read, seen, experienced.

6. ACTUALLY GETTING THE DEGREE.
One wise friend, who recognized signs of misery in himself long ago as an undergraduate, left the whole thing behind and proceeded make very large amounts of money. When I finished the degree, he congratulated me on having now become ABSOLUTELY unemployable. And I still don't know enough. "I really like your work, but I don't think we can sell enough copies to cover production." This is the theme; you know the variations.

7. REALIZING THAT PUBLISHERS ARE IN BUSINESS TO SELL BOOKS
Don't embark on this step until you're quite well progressed with Step 2
(assessing friends). You are more than a Ph.D. If you weren't, you wouldn't be reading this. Still, it's safer to face the possibility with a safety net, namely people who actually like you in spite of it all.

8. ENTERTAINING CALMLY THE POSSIBILITY THAT IT WAS ALL A TERRIBLE MISTAKE

9. ACKNOWLEDGING UNSEEMLY TRAITS
As you recover, you may notice yourself indulging more often in behavior you would once have rigorously repressed, such as spontaneous expressions of enthusiasm, illogical transitions in speech, undignified dress and gesture. This is good. You know you're really getting somewhere, though, when you start calling these things "distinctive features" rather than "faults."

10. LEARNING TO WRITE AGAIN
OK, it's true. The longest thing you've ever written is a flabby, repetitive paean to somebody else's ego. It's no cause for despair, however. In fact it may be a good reason to feel relieved that the thing never was published. You are blessed if one of the unseemly traits in 9.) above is the impulse to write in some other way.

11. SAYING "NO."
Whatever else it is, the Ph.D. degree is a certification of advanced hoop-jumping. We get the abstruse issues and clumsy, pretentious language to sort out, and we can usually be trusted not to get overly concerned about what the ultimate point might be. We sometimes display a positive zest for taking perfectly silly, irrelevant propositions seriously. We can absorb almost unlimited amounts of "advice" without resorting to violence. We seem to flourish, intellectually, under terribly bleak conditions, like polar bears in the educational establishment. But that doesn't require us to LIKE it. Many of us still haven't come to grips with point one- what makes us miserable. Polar bears probably wouldn't mind if arctic air was a little warmer, the food a little more plentiful, and social life a bit more, well, noticeable. You CAN say "no" to interminable meetings, turgid texts, dubious "initiatives," rude students, etc.

12. THE PROBLEM IS BIGGER THAN YOU .
A corollary might be "Don't take it personally". That's easy to say and hard to take, given that the whole project may have occupied the better part of, say, six to ten years of your life and left you more confused than ever. Think of it as a historical problem- it's the kind of thing Ph.Ds are supposed to find such reassuring. Once upon a time, doctoral degrees were an unabashedly snotty, exclusive business. It is said, for example, that the art historian Erwin Panofsky used to require participants in his seminars be competent in German, Italian, French, Spanish English, Portuguese, Dutch-and of course Latin and Greek. Of course. Why do I immediately suspect that this requirement assured him of a suitable audience for HIS inimitable erudition, as opposed to the cultivation of theirs? But of course those doctors found suitable work in institutions who would take Dr. Panofsky's recommendation as the Word of God. The club took care of its own. It also kept the likes of us out of the picture. Now we've gone egalitarian. It's entirely possible for someone who's been a auto mechanic or a homemaker for 20 years to get a Ph.D. Obviously this Ph.D. is not quite the same thing. Nor does the supervisor's word normally carry anything like the same clout. We prepare for one kind of world and land abruptly in a completely different one . It reminds me of a short I saw years ago called "Bambi meets Godzilla." Only of course it isn't short. Recovery goes on and on, in excruciatingly slow-motion. Stay tuned

© Nancy Roth 2000

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