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Anatomy of a Disastrous PhD Experience

Ask and ye shall receive. What happened during my PhD.

May 30, 2013

In the comments of my last post, it was asked how it was that I managed to be “shunned” by my program during my PhD. I have held off addressing the subject because, despite the fact that my experience within the politics and dynamics of my particular program were toxic and destructive, I love and appreciate all that the institution itself did for me. I also didn’t want to burn any more bridges than I already had, but seeing as how one of the key players in the entire saga was revealed to have been working at two different institutions at the same time without either knowing, well, I really don’t think I can make things worse by writing here about my experiences.

I choose my PhD program, as well as the person I wanted to work with, carefully, but also a bit naively. I already knew what my dissertation topic was going to be, and thus sought out the most appropriate person (who happened to be where I chose – and was accepted – to go) to supervise it. Even before I started, there were warning signs. A former MA student from the program I was currently in had left the PhD program I was heading to after only a year, and he had full funding. But he also skirted around the question of why he left, simply saying that a PhD wasn’t for him; he had a wife and a young child, and they wanted to be close to their extended families back “home.” I was single, not particularly attached to my family at that time, and had a clear picture of what my dissertation was going to look like. I was accepted, I received funding, so I left.

When I arrived (which was September 2001, a particularly difficult time), I discovered that my intended supervisor had upped and retired, vowing never to have anything to do with the department or program ever again. When he passed through one day to collect something, I was introduced to him and he looked me straight in the eyes while shaking my hands (he had impressively large hands) and said: “Get. Out.” Now, this was a bear of a man with deep voice that carries with it impressive weight and power. I was a few weeks into my semester and I finally thought to myself, what the in heck have I gotten myself into?

What I had gotten myself into was a department and a program that was in disarray. We were the Department of Comparative Literature, Religion, and Film/Media Studies: a make-shift, unnatural department, and the many separate parts were getting restless. But I didn’t know that yet. I came into the program with a group of wonderful fellow graduate students, I had a class of my own to teach in my field of specialty, and managed to find another supervisor outside of the department who was enthusiastic and supportive of my dissertation project. And the program itself was still well-respected and renowned. We were even able to hire a new, replacement professor in my field, which I thought bode well for the future.

And then, they took away the department. The Dean of Arts, for any number of valid and invalid reasons, eliminated our department. Religion joined the History department due to some strong ties, while Film/Media Studies found a home in the English department. Comparative Literature, however, dug their heels in the sand and took the position that they were either their own department or nothing. So for a whole year, we fought. The graduate students largely kept their heads down and tried to make the best of it, but we were all worried about our status and positions. What would happen to our funding? To our program requirements? To our committees? Finally, it was decided that a new Office of Interdisciplinary studies be created and we were to be “housed” there as a program without a home department.

Of course, no one was paying any attention to what this meant to the graduate students. Many of the rules and guidelines concerning funding issues, awards, and program requirements were dictated by the necessity of having a home department. None of us were particularly reassured when our concerns were dismissed with a “don’t worry, you’ll be fine” platitude. So, I decided to run for the position of Graduate Students’ Association President. I was already a representative in the larger GSA council, and had brought our concerns as that representative to the GSA. But I thought I could do more if I learned the ins and outs of the university system. If it was too late for our department, then at least I could make sure that it didn’t happen again as badly as it had. As GSA President, I advocated for the concerns of the graduate students of the program (among many, many other things), which didn’t endear me at all to certain members of the faculty who thought that I should instead have been sacrificing myself to save the department (rather than what I was trying to do – preserve the program), which I understood as never going to happen.

This move was compounded by the fact that my supervisor (who was an associate dean in the Faculty of Arts) was seen as the enemy and one of the people responsible for the department’s demise. I received a call late one night from that same prominent professor who had retired (but couldn’t now stay away, inspired by the dismantling of his beloved department he couldn’t wait to get out of) telling me I needed to change supervisors. Being that he was retired, he could not be my sole supervisor, but was willing to co-supervise with someone else. I was beginning to hear horror stories from other PhD students about this particular set-up in that personal and professional politics were being taken out on the students through conflicting advice, endless rewrites, and general dysfunction and lack of communication. I liked my supervisor and politely declined his offer.

The moment of truth came at the end-of-the-year party for the graduate students which also marked the end of my term as GSA President. The program coordinator went out of her way to thank every single graduate student ... except for me. Everyone in the room noted the slight. No one in the room thought it was an accident. From then on, I wasn’t put forward for any award, merit, or other possible accolade. It was the tradition in the program that after three years of teaching, you would be put forward for a graduate teaching award; despite stellar teaching evaluations, I wasn’t put forward. After serving as GSA President, I wasn’t put forward for any university awards for graduate student service.

At this point, I lost my patience and admittedly did not behave very maturely. I burnt whatever bridges I had left in the program. I then used whatever capital I had left in the larger university system to secure some funding so I could follow my soon-to-be husband to the States. I took a year off completely, coached swimming, and worked sporadically on my dissertation. Then I started adjuncting, got pregnant, began applying for tenure-track jobs, and furiously worked to finish my dissertation (which I did mere days before my daughter was born). She accompanied us to my dissertation defense when she was just 10 weeks old, and had a lovely, audible bowel movement in the middle of it.

I certainly made some mistakes during my PhD, but leading up to that moment, I had been trying to make the best of a bad situation not just for myself (which if I had been smart, that’s what I would have done), but for all of the graduate students in the program. That said, I also made decisions that were best for me (like sticking with my supervisor) that might not have been smart (career-wise) in the short and long-term. I was, however, one of the first people caught in that mess to get finished, so I guess that’s something.

A bunch of us reunited last summer at a conference; I hadn’t seen most of them since I left in 2005. Most of us came out ok: some got tenure-track positions, others are in fixed-term sessional positions, and some are doing alt-ac jobs – but we all got our PhDs, and can appreciate what we endured and survived. I don’t regret doing my PhD and there were parts that I genuinely enjoyed. I started swimming again. I discovered a passion for university administration. I met my husband. But none of that had anything to do my PhD (which is the point, I guess). I also understand that my situation (and the situation of my peers who went through it, too) is quite unique and extreme, not to mention that each of us, in different stages of our lives and careers, experienced it differently. We all agreed, however, that what we went through was pretty terrible and stressful, made worse by our instinct to (and sometimes from outside sources, open encouragement to) retreat from the community we had formed.

But the departmental/program/university/professional political games that were played out, and in some cases inadvertently taken out, on graduate students happens more often than we think; if anything, being GSA President revealed to me how dysfunctional some of these relationships become. Graduate students often came to us somewhat clandestinely, for fear that their supervisors or department chairs would find out they came to talk to us to mediate a dispute, some of which were quite ugly. But many refused to file formal complaints, and many more never came to talk to us, for fear of retribution.

And I was living proof that, rather than speaking out or speaking up and doing what was right, it was sometimes best to stay silent.



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