Thursday, February 04, 2010

A few posts back, my mother in law (hi, mom!) left a comment asking about my schoolin'. I believe she specifically asked when I would be done (with coursework, I think) (I'm too lazy to go back and check to see what she actually asked, so slander intended). And I found that question rather impressive, because it showed a basic understanding of graduate studies that the common person lacks. Um, that's meant as a compliment, by the way.

What I mean is this: the details that make up my academic life (what I do every day, for example, and what goes into my degree as far as work and preparation) are so clear to me and to other people in my degree program, but to most people outside academia, it's a great big mystery. To many people, saying I'm a grad student has as much currency as saying I'm an international man of mystery*.

And being a graduate student in English is very different from being a graduate student in engineering or law or business, or even German or philosophy or history, which as other humanities bear at least a faint resemblence to English. And, as if that's not enough, graduate studies in English at my university is most likely different in some small ways (and sometimes in rather large ways) from the same program at a different university.

So, I can't speak to graduate studies across the board, and I certainly can't speak to other programs at other universities, but I can tell you a little about the requirements at my university for my degree program.

The PhD in English at my university** has, essentially, three primary components. The first is required coursework, which consists of a minimum number of credit hours (18, in my case) to be taken from graduate course offerings in my department (and, in some cases, from other departments if the subject matter is appropriate to a student's area of interest). There are some stipulations, here: courses have to be at the 700 level and above, and must include at least two (I think) 900-level seminars. You have to take an intro to grad studies course if you haven't taken one elsewhere in addition to the 18 hours (I had taken one before, so I didn't have to do this). You also must fulfill the FLORS (foreign language or research skill) requirements, which I did by taking graduate reading courses in Spanish (done during my MA) and German (finished in the fall).

The second component is the comprehensive exams. Students must make a reading list for each of three different areas. The areas are time periods, major authors or movements, critical theory, um...rhetoric and composition, genre? I don't know. Something like that. There's a bit of flexibility. So, you pick three areas (again, there are stipulations that I'm not going to get into here) and make a list for each that can be considered comprehensive in the sense that you are hitting the major works for that area (plus usually a bit more that "caters" your list to your own particular interests). For the comps, you also have to assemble a panel of four professors, one of whom will act as chair. These people will be your examiners, and will also help you put your lists together, and must also approve both the lists and the rationales. The rationales are three separate documents of about six pages each that detail your "rationale" for the texts you've included on the list. These documents are meant to show your thinking about the list area as a genre/time period/whatever, how it all fits together and works, how it has been thought about historically and contemporarily. So, you put together your reading lists, you write your rationales, you read everything on the lists (which usually run to many, many pages...a dozen or so over the three areas), and then you put your academic career on the line and go sit in a room with your panel and answer their questions about the works on your list and drip flop sweat down your face and hopefully, hopefully pass.

So, once that excitement is over, it's time for the third component, the dissertation. This is a major piece of writing, typically book-length, and usually composed of five or so chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. It needs to be written about a relatively innovative or as-yet unexplored topic within the field of literature (or composition, if that's your bag). It needs to be written in a professional, academic manner, of course. This process is also composed of several steps: assembling your dissertation committee and finding a director from among them, writing and defending your dissertation proposal (something my friend Kristen is doing tomorrow! GOOD LUCK!), then proceeding with writing your dissertation, chapter after painful chapter, followed by your disseration defense in front of your committee. The dissertation stage is often the most difficult part of a PhD program, as you're not actively taking classes during this stage, and are sometimes working in what seems to be a bubble of unpleasant and unhealthy isolation. It can be paralyzing, and many students lose steam at this stage, ending up with a title of ABD (all but dissertation) instead of PhD.

And through all this, if you have a GTAship, and unless you're fortunate enough at some point to receive a fellowship or some other funding, you're teaching classes and grading papers and holding conferences with your own students, which, of course, just adds to the time frame.

Where am I in this process? This semester I'm taking my last required class for my coursework, and I'm currently assembling my comps lists and asking profs to be on my committee (three of four so far!). This summer I will be reading my fool head off, and I hope to take my comps next fall, possibly the beginning of November. Some people take longer to do their comps, but I really would like to get this over with so I can move on to the dissertation stage and have more time for writing.

So that's my academic life in a nutshell. This is an almost ridiculously bare-bones explanation of the process, but I think it answers at least the major questions.

*which is how I plan on introducing myself from now on
**I'm trying to be a bit discreet here so that this blog doesn't show up on search engines. If you know me, you know where I am. If you don't and you are DYING to know, email me.


Queen Bee said...

I've been wondering what Joey's been doing at school....

Just kidding. I think this is a great idea and he probably ought to do the same on our blog. I got a question from my mom the other day wondering where we get any money. I had to explain things a little :)

Good luck with you program! It's a long haul.

Perpetua said...

Your process sounds pretty similar to mine, except for your comps. We do two written and an oral.

Anyway, big ups to you for entering the coursework home stretch! If you ever feel like writing about your writing process (like how you finished course papers while raising kids), this dissertating turtle would be glad to read. :)

Anonymous said...

So when is the estimated time of all being completed and looking for that full-time job?

Jana said...

Anon...I admit that, although you probably didn't intend it to be read this way, I bristled a bit when I read that question because it seems to insinuate that what I'm doing now *isn't* full-time. Oh, ho ho, but it is! And more.

But to answer the question you really asked: I hope to finish my diss. no later than May 2013, but ideally Dec. 2012. So 4 1/2 or 5 academic years, then, from start to finish, which is pretty good.

Jeff said...

A-non: we look forward to her having a full-time job, so we can see more of her.