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.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

3 responses to “Graduate School Trauma

  • Beau

    The trauma is real. As I read your posting, I could only think of my former partner whose PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago left him so traumatized that he was perpetually angry below the surface. One of the learnings from two master’s degree programs completed is that the universe sends one at least one professor from Hell for every graduate degree program. I am glad that you can revision your path to see the good in it. In itself, that is a spiritual journey and, as real as the pain still is, you are stronger for it. Thanks for sharing this experience.

    • Joe

      Thanks, Beau. Probably just as bad as the emails I always mistake as coming from that professor is that LinkedIn and Facebook keeps suggesting that professor as a person I might know. Yes, I know him, but I want to forget him. The problem with many graduate programs is that they want to put you through hell to test you, when they should be nurturing you into the profession, and if you’re on assistantship, they want to hurry you through the program, but if you’re paying yourself, then they will do all they can to prolong your time in the program. Graduate school really need some reform.

  • Excuses, Excuses | The Closet Professor

    […] Wednesday, I wrote a post about my “Graduate School Trauma.” I wasn’t trying to make excuses for not finishing my Ph.D., but I wanted to tell my story so […]

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