Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Graduate School Trauma

Every few days, I get an email from a particular organization. The organization's name and the emails' subjects are not important. It's the name of the sender that causes my heart to sink every time I see it. The woman's first name is Andrea, and her last name is the same as the last name of my former dissertation advisor, who was partially responsible for me not receiving my Ph.D. If it were just the last names they had in common, it probably would not be an issue, but said dissertation advisor's first name was Andrew. Each time these emails pop up in my inbox, my heart sinks as I always misread them as my former dissertation advisor's name. Only one letter differentiates their names. It's only for a second, and then I realize my mistake. However, it makes me realize just how traumatized I was by that former advisor. His emails always brought some fresh new hell, and eventually, I became paralyzed with fear every time I received one of his emails.

Most of you know that I pursued a Ph.D., but I never finished it. There were many reasons for that: funding and the need for me to get a job. I ended up teaching 7th-12th grade social studies and English at a small private school, and teaching six different preps a day and dealing with challenging students left me with no energy when I got home at night, not to mention the amount of work I took home each night. Once I began working full time, I no longer had the time or the energy to continue researching and writing my dissertation. 


Before my teaching job, I had taken a year to devote entirely to finishing my dissertation, moved back in with my parents (trauma in itself), and had developed a set of deadlines to complete the chapters of my dissertation. I got the plan approved by my then dissertation advisor and moved home, and began to write. I met all of my deadlines within a week of their due date, but I felt I needed my advisor's feedback before I could move onto the next chapter. Before I was assigned this advisor, I had an advisor that I had worked with closely throughout my graduate career. I knew what he expected, and he was excited about the research I was doing. My first dissertation advisor continuously encouraged my efforts. Then, he got a job in North Carolina and left. The department decided that this other professor, with whom I had never worked with and never took a class with, would replace my old advisor. This was a disastrous decision, and in hindsight, it is one that I should have fought and objected to, but back then, I was not assertive enough to do so. I am not a very assertive person today, but I was even less so back then.


My new dissertation advisor not only wasn't familiar with me nor I with him, but he also hated my dissertation topic. He had been on my committee before as a minor member who was just supposed to offer some advice here and there but was not supposed to have the final say. I should have known there would be a problem with him as my dissertation committee chair when he held up my dissertation prospectus's approval for over a year. Everyone else signed off on the proposal and was encouraging, but he insisted on certain changes. I will never understand this because he was the only member of my committee who was not tenured, and the other members should have overruled him, but they did not. I submitted one revision after another, taking into account his various criticisms. What was most annoying was that the final proposal was almost identical to the first one I submitted. I have always felt he gave me the runaround because he was insecure in his position and took it out on me.


Therefore, when he became my dissertation advisor, we agreed on deadlines that he and I would meet to keep the writing of the dissertation moving. He was supposed to review the chapters as I submitted them and suggest changes. If I remember correctly, he was given several weeks to do this. He took several months, and when he did return the chapters, I went through revisions similar to what he had put me through with the proposal. I was very frustrated. I seemed never to do anything to his satisfaction, and he repeatedly criticized my work when other professors did not. He held up my dissertation for so long that time was beginning to run out on my ability to finish. Finally, I got an email from him saying that he would no longer be able to be my advisor. He blamed me for the delays and said he could no longer work with me. In reality, I found out the university had denied him tenure, which was a requirement for him to sign off on the final draft of my dissertation. By university regulations, he could not be the chair of my dissertation committee. The department's thought process had initially been that he'd have tenure by the time I finished my dissertation, and all would be fine.


At this point, I had to move on to my third dissertation chair. My final chair is who I should have begun with in the first place. I remember attending a conference at the University of Alabama that she'd also be attending so that we could sit down face to face and discuss my dissertation. I told her the problems I had with my previous advisor. She sympathized with me and told me two things. First, she apologized on behalf of the department because of all the turnover of faculty they had experienced during my time in the Ph.D. program. I had been lost in the shuffle. Second, she said that she had faced a similar situation where her dissertation advisor had balked at her dissertation topic. She said that she had persevered and wrote it anyway, winning them over with the final product. She told me not to give up, and she'd be behind me the whole way. This all sounded great, but that's not how it worked out.


I had spent several years dreading emails from my previous advisor, wondering what fresh hell he was going to put me through. I was traumatized, and my psyche could not handle looking at my dissertation anymore. I was mentally and physically exhausted from teaching full-time at a private school that did not support me either, but I had financial troubles that were barely being held at bay with the meager paycheck I was getting from that job. At the time, I had issues, and maybe a good therapist could have worked me through those issues, but I lacked health insurance. During these years, I was also suffering from the worst headaches of my life, but I was not in a job that allowed me to take time off for being sick for any reason. I continued to teach whether I had a common cold, whooping cough, or the flu. As a teacher early in his career, I caught every disease the children brought to school, and for the most part, the school's administration prevented me from taking sick leave. So, having a "little" headache was not an excuse for not coming to work. They never sympathized with just how much pain I was in.


I do not blame the circumstance surrounding my failure to finish my dissertation solely on a difficult dissertation advisor or with the lack of support from my graduate program. Although those two things were a major contributing factor, the blame also falls on me. In recent years, I have come to realize that while I was a great lecturer and could keep a college class enthralled to the point that they wouldn't even realize that we had gone past time for class to be dismissed, I was not cut out for to be a middle and high school teacher. If I had received my Ph.D., I would probably be teaching at a community college or maybe even a university somewhere, and I would not likely be happy about it. I hated grading. I hated dealing with difficult students and cheaters. I hated the politics of academia. I would probably be miserable in a job teaching the same subjects semester after semester and if at a university continually trying to get published because of most universities' publish or perish mentality. And if I had gotten my Ph.D., I would have never moved into the museum field and focused on public history. I still get to lecture and give presentations in my current jobs, but I no longer have to grade. I get to write and do research that I find exciting and rewarding. I get to do all the things I loved about teaching without having to do all the things I hated.


Cody said...

I teach 7-12 social studies and adjunct at a community college as a history instructor. I have heard similar stories about Ph.D programs and it breaks my heart. I am scared to get a Ph.D in History at this point, but I also want to become a permanent faculty at the community college. Oh, the dilemma.

Joe said...

Cody, don't be scared to get your PhD. You just need to find the right program, and the right professor to work direct your dissertation (and maybe have a back-up, just in case). There are also other options if you want to stay at a community college. You an get a PhD in Humanities, a Doctor of Arts, or as a friend of mine recently did, a PhD in Education. She is now a professor and administrator at a community college. Id' be happy to discuss it with you more, if you ever want to do so. You can always email me at

I think my situation is somewhat unique due to bad luck. We had a president of the university who was a tyrant and caused a lot of professors to leave, causing me to consent to work with someone that I did not want to work with. I think as long as you stand up for yourself, like I should have done, and have a plan for completion for your dissertation, then you should be fine. Please, don't let my tale discourage you.

Coop said...

I don't know if I should say "thank you" for sharing that story, Joe. But ... please don't feel too bad.
I've heard plenty of war stories from PhD friends about working like slaves, 'proving themselves' to the department faculty to attain tenure, etc.
As much as I had been tempted, I'm glad I didn't to it.

Heck, ten years ago I was convinced I'd be a librarian in academia. And I'd never catalog books period, let alone in the Dewey Decimal system.

God must have gotten a laugh out of that.

Cody said...

I appreciate your encouraging words, Joe. I will email you and discuss further soon. I like the way you think. I have considered an Ed.S and/or D.ED. I have a couple of friends pursuing Ph.Ds at the moment. They have told me horror stories and I have watched their mental health decline. You experience did not discourage. Thank you for sharing. :-)

RB said...

Does a PhD do anything for you in the museum world? Suppose you wanted to move up in the museum world -- like move to an institution in NYC or Boston. What would you need to do to be competitive for those kinds of positions?

It sounds like this job is ok for you, but in this location you are isolated. You might be happier in a bigger city. At some point you may want to move on from here.

Joe said...

RB, a Ph.D. really would not do me much good in the museum world unless I wanted to become a director, and even then, it's not essential. Most museum professionals in the United States who went to graduate school for museum studies have a master's degree or a certificate in museum studies like I do. A Ph.D. in public history might be helpful in a larger city, but experience is often more important than a doctorate. A master's in public history would likely do me as much good as a Ph.D. in public history.

I am isolated here, and I probably would be happier in a larger city. I think I would enjoy having a job in Boston, New York City, or Washington, DC. I do know that I like living on the East Coast/Eastern Time Zone.