Nobody's suggesting Ph.D.s should be something you can send away for after collecting so many cereal box tops (if wishing made it so...). But let's just take a moment to quantify the level of difficulty involved in one aspect of attaining this terminal degree: the exams doctoral students in my program have to take, apart from regular end-of-semester exams.
The first thing you need to know is that there are a lot of them. There are FOUR before you even get to dealing with your dissertation proposal defense.* And these milestones are deceptively branded. The "First Exam" is really two exams in one. The "Second Exam" is really four exams in one! And if you think these grading events (a term I adopted from a favorite college professor) assess graduate-level theatrical knowledge, you're only partly right.
Sure, a successful examinee has determined what information she needs, sought it out, acquired it, memorized it, and become fluently conversant in it---over and over and over again in the course of exam prep, as moles of ignorance keep popping up, asking to be whacked-a.
All of the above effort is only meaningful to yourself and the exam committee if you can access it in such a way that also demonstrates that you're a badass motherfucker who deserves the institution's resources in pursuing your Dream.
And that is my struggle.
This is not necessarily universal. J. K. Rowling's version of the folkloric Boggart is probably the best metaphor for program exams. Here, in the interim period between the two parts of my First Exam, I am becoming acquainted with the shape of my own exam experience, and graduate school experience overall. And it's really a long time coming.
The hardships I dealt with on the way towards earning my bachelor's degree at twenty-four? Positively Dickensian.** Okay, they weren't that bad, but just off the top of my head: I had jury duty,*** a car I was borrowing got repossessed, and I missed a crucial financial aid deadline because I was busy being treated for wanting to kill myself.**** So it was more Dickens than Disney Channel.
I could go on and on but the point is, this would be a list of the things I overcame.
And the circumstances under which I've been attending graduate school seem so much less oppressive, even with a relapse of major depressive disorder thrown in last year.
But still the smallest setback infects me with a sluggishness that's hard to shake. And lately, I've often found myself wondering why I'm even doing this. In more resigned moments, I wonder what it was that got me through my bachelor's degree, and if I can somehow access whatever it was.
I think I know the answers to those questions! It might be more accurate to say that I remembered the answers to those questions.
A dude named David Rees reminded me.
You can watch Mr. Rees on the National Geographic Channel show "Going Deep with David Rees" (also mostly on Hulu if, like me, you wish to limit your business dealings with Time Warner Cable). It is superb, and its initial ten-episode run is oeuvre enough for anyone looking to make a good impression on the aliens picking up our broadcasts. But he first drew my notice a couple years ago thanks to his book How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening, with Illustrations Showing Current Practice. I walked over to it in a bookstore because it was a nice shade of yellow (think about it). And I left the bookstore with it because of its epigram:
The simple physical artifact
multiplies the power of the individual.
---Henry Petroski, "The Pencil: A History
of Design and Circumstance
Henry Petroski's pencil book is a revelation. I came across it shortly after graduating from high school. My formal education was on hold, and I glommed onto this book for dear life. I sped-read it. Then I went back and read every single word. Then I just carried the book around for awhile, as if it were a security blanket. And the work is totally worthy, in a way that thick description can only cheapen.
I mean, this is a book whose eighteen-page index includes six entries under "'Best,' relative meaning of."
Blows me away.
And Mr. Rees' pencil book makes a thoroughly earnest companion to Mr. Petroski's pencil book.
Over the course of watching Mr. Rees' television show, it dawned on me...
The imaginatively rigorous spirit of inquiry manifested in Mr. Petroski's book? That is what I was responding to with every cleared hurdle as an (aspiring, if un-enrolled) undergraduate. I was moved by a bottomless and indiscriminate interest in the world.
For example: I could have taken any old math course to satisfy my school's requirements. But I signed up for calculus. At least twenty students were there on the first day, and by the last day, there were eight of us---just me and some science majors (this was before I transferred to a school with hardly any math courses but an abundance of performing arts courses). I stuck it out because it was a good opportunity to practice making my integral symbols more consistently attractive. And because calculus is damn near the most fun I ever had with graph paper. And maybe also because it was calculus, and it was okay to get a "B."
Graduate school, in my experience, is a good place to go if you're into being shackled by a fear of failure.
Thing is, it's also a good place to go if you've got a bottomless and indiscriminate interest in the world.
But funnily enough, graduate school is not absolutely necessary in order to exercise that interest.
So, especially as I continue to study for the oral portion of my First Exam, I'm going to try (and fail, and try again, probably all within the space of several minutes) to let go of outcome-obsessed fearfulness. According to Mr. Rees, this is a lesson pencil sharpeners must learn. Under a section headed "The Importance of Maintaining a Healthy Attitude Towards One's Practice in the Face of Broken Pencil Points, Physical Exhaustion, Societal Disapproval, Sexual Impotence, and Financial Ruin," he has the following advice to offer:
We must learn to live with---perhaps even savor---the uncertainties and imperfections that attend every pencil point, even as we continue to strive for their ideal form. This is not an admission of futility so much as a considered reflection on the vagaries of human experience and the importance of appreciating one's circumstance even as one seeks to improve it.
It is in this spirit that I invite the reader to heed the following words, not in my capacity as a pencil sharpener, but as a friend:
The only perfection available to you without compromise is that of intention and effort. If you endeavor to be the best pencil sharpener you can be, and tailor your actions accordingly, you can be certain all else will be forgiven in the final accounting.
With these words I have solved all psychological problems.
My goal right now is to assiduously work towards being able to talk about theatre history with as much humor, verve, and awe as Mr. Rees displays when talking about lighting matches.
This upcoming oral exam is merely a chance to say, "Hey, I know this really interesting thing, and it's so cool I've just GOT to tell you all about it!" And were my graduate studies to end here, it wouldn't be my last chance to excitedly share what I know.
Now, I'm going back to digging up good stuff to spout at my professors!
*You read right---they make us defend the dissertation while it's still just a twinkle in its parents' eyes. And let's just skip ahead to the part where I'm forced to admit that that is the least apt expression for this situation.
**Band name. I call it.
***Actually, I got to be foreperson and it was awesome.
****Unrelated to the car.