In other words, in 87.5 hours I will begin my doctoral general exams, the first of the two major hurdles in my PhD program (the other forthcoming: my dissertation).  I’ve been staying up later and later, dragging myself out of bed, not leaving my house, missing my workouts, binging on food, reading a shitload, watching not so much but occasional long stretches of tv, and feeling generally anxious and like I might need the Jaws of Life to pry my shoulder blades apart.

Hence the sporadic blogging this week, both in quantity and quality.  At least, I scheduled my exams towards the end of the semester when the rest of the academic universe is aslo entering the miserable crunch period.  My more pleasurable breaks have been talking the M.A.S. off the ledge about his assignments and irritations, and chuckling over Professor Zero’s lamenting re: grading and her students’ and their families’ less than stellar – and rather hypocritical – commitment to their studies – a devastating mini-series in her usual excellent cataloging of all that is insane and intolerable about the Ivory Tower. 

For some reason, her blog invites just long, confessional commenting from me – I am not sure what it is about her virtual encouragement towards my streams of consciousness ramblings, but when I click through my Google reader to her site every few weeks of so, I end up chatting away as if we’re long lost friends.  She, like so many, maintains an anonymous blog, which in hindsight I wish I’d done, but I’ve never been very good at concealment, for better and definitely worse. So, if you are interested in the mental unraveling going on over here at The RP HQ’s, here’s some excerpts from my comments at her site re: not going completely bananas:

I think that my relatives keep me grounded, or provide another version of reality, at least.  I often feel like the black sheep everywhere, with them, in Cambridge, etc. One cousin told me the other night she does not see me that way at all, and I think it is maybe because she equates the status of MIT with her status as the youngest officer ever at her company, and with another cousin’s achievement of the uber-fancy Pottery Barn-esque suburban home and lifestyle.  It seems we are all strivers in different ways, this is the word I have been thinking of when I have been thinking about my family of women lately.

As for the non-reality of academia, my boyfriend last night, who began the program one year after me, was all pissed off over the futility of being a grad student and trying to have some power in the fractured, factional, and exploitative dept. life that is academe. I sympathized, because I’ve been there, but not in at least a year. I have dis-engaged pretty strongly from the dept. When I hear him rant from a position of involvement, I wonder if my head down approach will be problematic eventually. I assume yes, though I hope my productivity will make it harder for others to screw me over (isn’t it a shame I anticipate this) too overtly for both my “doesn’t play well with others� personality, or my gender, though high productivity in itself can be threatening, as I keep learning.

Sometimes I think I would really like to teach because I do find in academia at least more people who like to argue and debate ideas (there are enjoyable moments in the process of everyone expending so much hot air), but then I wonder if I could honestly handle the gossipy, incestuous, infantilizing culture that academia seems to breed. I have worked for for-profit companies and non-profit organizations, and now here, and I find the former to be the least emotionally f*cked up of them all so far, though clearly I had problems with working towards the single monetary bottom line. Who knows, I’m always wandering off after 2-3 years from most places anyway.

I am certainly reporting from a diff. perspective as a grad student still, but my dept. prides itself on being the “largest planning dept. in the U.S. (if not the world)” and we are certainly rife with politicking, though perhaps varying degrees of misery, actually…When I listen to my man complain about out dept., it always sounds like he has a point of comparison (maybe his Master’s program at UCLA?) but I don’t know who else to compare us to.

I spend a lot of time at Harvard and they are much more mentoring and nurturing of their students, but because of that and because they are not interdiscpl., I find the students there to be much more rigid and timid in their thinking, more afraid to step outside the discipline’s boundaries. I do find MIT to be very freeing in that sense, both because planning is interdiscpl. and because the entire Institute has a culture that encourages entrepreneurship, discovery, innovation. The ugly flip side of that is you are totally on your own, with very little mentorship, guidance, and clear guideposts as to what the hell you’re supposed to be doing. Most of the time, I enjoy that freedom, but right now, for my general exams, to be specific, I feel like I am piecing together enormous literatures and figuring out intellectual traditions more or less on my own. That it’s mostly a formal hurdle and I’m not likely to fail, since so few students do, it feels even more frustrating, because even though I can see the benefits of finally learning how different strands of thinking come together, I wish it…mattered outside myself.  But I suppose I should be thankful for the personal growth of it all.

The thing I’ve found most jarring about the academic endeavor is how totally isolating and autonomous it is, if that hasn’t come across loud and clear already. As for the false reality, that is what my guy complains about from a grad student perspective, that we are encouraged to participate in shaping the dept. when in actuality we have no power.

So I don’t know how to compare MIT to elsewhere, and I know I’m certainly referencing a pretty elite tier. I’ve heard rumors my dept. graduates students others find totally unprepared for research (for instance, we offer no methods courses for PhDs except for a few x-registered with us taught by faculty from other depts.; most of us take our methods courses in other depts or at Harvard). We are very geared toward our large Masters’ students populations, so PhDs are more or less on their own; they admit 12 or so of us yearly and fund ~5 of those admits, and usually the funding packages are only 3 to 4 years. I know elsewhere places don’t fund at all, but we’re losing many applicants to places much more generous than us. This is why I always say I snuck in the back door of MIT, because my acceptance letter said (paraphrased) “Congrats! You’ve been admitted to this very fancy place but we have no $$ for you so we will only let you enroll if you can PROVE you have 2 years of external funding.” No one ever checked, and I ended up getting some $$ for a research project at the biz school and then picked up some dept. $$ in my 2nd yr earmarked for 2 students in front of me who ultimately didn’t come, so I’ve done ok. But I remember when I mentioned to a faculty member that no one checked my papers before I enrolled, he was mad, and promised to crack down on future unfunded admits. Relatedly, I was also almost forced to TA a course that I was not really a good fit for, and when I suggested someone else, I was told that that person had done her share for the dept. and it was my turn. I pointed out that this person was accepted with full funding and didn’t have to work and that’s why she had the time to join committees, etc.  I was not required to TA that course.


*Originally this was all one long and cool looking messy title, but it totally screwed up the blog layout.  Foiled again.


2 Responses to “Homestretchlighttunnel…”

  1. 1 Z
    November 29, 2007 at 11:47 pm

    The key to passing those PhD exams though, *I* found, was keeping my health up – something I do not do now, and would do well to do. I stay up too late and do not do enough yoga. On the other hand, my friend claimed she failed hers because she did not look tired enough to the committee. Mine said something similar – I did not look as though I were suffering enough – but had I been suffering more I do not know I could have kept it together to write the exam. Anyway now I am the rambling one – saying get at least one night of sleep!!!

    And then – show off – I’m sure you’ll do very well!

  2. November 30, 2007 at 1:08 am

    I am hoping for exercise this weekend, starting tomorrow! Thank you for the well wishes!!!!

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