A medieval labyrinth, from Nordisk Familjebok’“) (cf. this original image “‘Labyrinth 1 (from Nordisk Familjebok)’”).

What Grad School Meant to Me

This essay is really about what writing a dissertation meant to me. For me, the dissertation process was a microcosm for my entire graduate experience, in which I spent the majority of my 20s (5.5 years).

I have been writing this since a month after my dissertation defense (several days before receiving final approval from the University of Oregon’s Graduate School). I am finishing it now in the hope that other doctoral students may use it as the starting point for discussion, and that it may contribute even minimally to normalizing discussion around the psychological and spiritual consequences of one (albeit of many) flavor of PhD experience.

Throughout this post, I use the word “spiritual” to describe the quality of “soul-impact,” the deep-under-the-skin aspect of graduate work that impacts and shapes the container of one’s self-identity, potentially causing, and requiring, what several have described as a type of mourning process upon completion of the degree. Thus, the “spiritual” quality to which I refer is not about religious impact, but instead is about the same aspect invoked in popular phrases like “one’s fighting spirit.” This brings to mind the word now translated to “happiness” from ancient Greek philosophy, ευδαιμονια (“eu-dai-mon-ia”), which literally means to have “a good demon [inside oneself].”

At once, the dissertation process functioned as a type of mental crucible, a vessel in which part of me was burned away under high temperature and pressure; and a pilgrimage, in which I progressed toward a known endpoint along a circuitous, spiraling path, in which logistical issues, mental and emotional blocks, and interpretation questions came up repeatedly, each time with a different flavor and in a slightly different context of understanding than the last time.

Completing the dissertation included the experience of re-embodying, or feeling again, the major emotional and intellectual “themes” of each of my years in the program: the imposter syndrome of the first year, the confusion and interests-identification of the second year, the slight but increasing competence-feeling of the third and fourth years, etc. I remember remarking to friends at the time that it felt as though I was experiencing each of these states again, but in the time-span of minutes or hours instead of months and years.

One base truth from this process is that the dissertation took on a much larger spiritual significance as it progressed. When I finished, the aspect of graduating wasn’t the largest one on my mind. I felt dissociated from that aspect: I recognized rationally that it was an accomplishment, but it felt distant, as though I had watched someone else perform for and attain it. Rather, the most emotionally salient aspect of the dissertation process was that I had completed a public ritual of change, an experience of initiation in a moment of constructed public vulnerability.

For me, the biggest part of the dissertation defense was not the presentation itself; that went smoothly. I had prepared enough extra slides (and extra analyses) to talk for an additional 1.5 hours beyond my alloted time, just in case; and I had given the presentation four times before to patient family members, research labmates, and alone to myself. Rather, the weightiest aspect, that which felt most like being out on the edge of my knowledge and ability, was a series of half-seconds between when Committee members or other friends, colleagues, and members of the public who had kindly decided to attend raised their hand to ask a question, and when they began the asking.

It was in those small moments that I felt the greatest vulnerability of the process. Earlier, as I had been writing the dissertation (including 45 hours spent just debugging code for running “zero-inflated beta regressions” on multi-level data,

Zero-inflated beta regressions simultaneously run two statistical models for a dataset that is beta-distributed (that is, where the outcome variable ranges from 0 to 1 (like percentages) but does not actually include either 0 or 1) but that does include values of 0 in the outcome variable. The 0 responses are modeled as Bernoulli (0 vs. 1) distributed, and the rest of the data as beta distributed. This allows running a beta regression, which better acknowledges the possible range of outcome values than a normal linear regression, in which the outcome variable is at least theoretically assumed to range from negative infinity to infinity, without breaking its math when throwing values of 0 into the mix. I eventually came to the conclusion that, for largish datasets such as mine, which contained ~144,000 obituaries nested in ~800 newspapers, the options for this type of analysis that were at the time available in R were not currently practically useful. Instead, I logit-transformed my Dependent Variable, allowing a more traditional multi-level modeling approach.
I would come to moments of confusion and even momentary despair – if I couldn’t figure out this analysis, how would I finish the project? If I didn’t address every contingency in my code and write-up, how could I pass my defense? Were my analyses even valid, useful, and responsible? I felt the growing knowledge that I was the person who knew the most about my project, moreso than my Committee members. In those moments, though, there was always an opportunity to reach out for advice – from my Advisor, from any of my other mentors, from other student-colleagues. Before the questions at the defense, though, I was wholly alone, the boundaries of my knowledge bare for mapping in front of all those present. Those were the moments of transformation, of initiation. The moment of showing competence to field whatever questions were raised. In advance of my Defense, I gave my advisor a four-page list of the questions I was most afraid of being asked – from ________ to _____________, and talked through each with him. The experience of not knowing what would be asked next, though, in the moment, was unique and, while able to be prepared for, not able wholly to be simulated.

2016-12-23-phd-graduand.html on labyrinth metaphor.

“meant to humble you”