Taking the Ph.D. Back Home

August 17, 2001

From a not-very-scientific poll of recent Ph.D.'s, I've discovered that nearly everyone experiences a sense of disappointment after the defense of the dissertation. What should seem like a major turning point in one's life feels strangely like any other day.

Part of this problem is that a completed Ph.D. can never make you feel very special at a major research university. This is not at all clear while you're still in grad school, since for years you are surrounded by scores of struggling A.B.D.'s, some of whom will drop out along the way. Your classmates are a constant reminder of the elusive nature of the Ph.D. But once you defend and receive the doctorate, suddenly the entire enterprise seems far less precious. For starters, you now have one.

The day I defended my dissertation, my wife and I went to dinner with a small pack of grad students we'd known for years. Two of this group of maybe 10 people had defended that same day. In a bar later that night, I ran into an identical group of recently minted Ph.D.'s.

It reminds me of a sensation I often experienced in elementary school. Sitting in a class of fifth graders, every so often I witnessed a sixth grader come into the class on an errand. That kid, just a year ahead, represented an intellectual leap that left me dumbstruck. Yet six months later, there I was, a sixth grader myself, surrounded by 30 others and feeling no different at all.

If, in Madison, Wis., the accomplishment of finishing the degree left me feeling flat, I figured that what I needed most was a quick trip out West to visit my family.

As I boarded the plane, I recalled the many times over the last decade I had made the same trip. How different each of those visits had been from this one. When I first started graduate school in 1991, these trips were marked by a certain degree of pride that I was now working on a challenging advanced degree. But my family, although initially impressed, seemed to quickly lose patience. Two or three years into the program, I started dreading family reunions. "When are you going to graduate, Dan?" they would ask each time, as if I were working on another bachelor's degree.

At holidays, weddings or funerals, my brothers and sisters joked that I was a professional student, that I didn't want to grow up or work. Whenever the conversation moved toward job problems, invariably someone looked at me: "You wouldn't know about that," they'd say. "You're still a student."

I admit that some parts of my lifestyle fueled suspicions that I had opted out of the adult world. I often missed important family events because I was abroad learning languages or doing research. What sibling wouldn't resent a little brother who was hanging out on a Greek island when the rest of the family was burying a grandparent?

Then came the protracted write-up stage, when, to the bewilderment of the family, I spent over five years on the dissertation alone. Summer after summer, holiday after holiday, they heard me repeat myself like a broken record: "Another semester or two," I would promise, or, "I will almost certainly be done this time next year."

High over the Dakotas, I recalled the last time I had gone home, a humiliating trip that sent me scurrying back to Madison with my tail between my legs. At the time, I was still a year away from finishing the Ph.D., and a job search had produced only one interview invitation -- at a community college, coincidentally located not far from where I grew up. Like most community-college job calls, I had to pay my own way to the interview. I closed my eyes and thought about that miserable week, when my entire family witnessed my rejection from a job that few of them thought was even worth applying for. That trip had ended with an almost Old World pathos: On one of those rainy Northwest days when there seems no chance of the sun ever coming out again, I bade them farewell and returned unemployed to Madison, condemned to another year as a grad student, certain my financial support was about to be axed.

But this time, as we crossed the Rockies and headed over the high desert of eastern Oregon, it seemed that my moment of vindication was finally at hand. Yes, I was the black sheep of the family, but now my return would be triumphant. This was the journey I had been eagerly anticipating for years: the dissertation finished, the doctorate in the bag, and the job about to start. The glory I was denied in over-educated Madison would surely be conferred here at home.

My first stop upon arrival was the Jewish nursing home of my 88-year-old Grandma Bess. Among the entire family, I was certain Grandma Bess would not play down my accomplishment. True to form, she immediately took me on a tour of the place, no doubt eager to flaunt my new credentials. We stopped at a card table where four octogenarians were playing a spirited game of canasta.

"This is my grandson Danny, the doctor!" my grandma declared.

The ladies looked up, delighted. "What kind of medicine do you practice, Danny?" asked a woman named Hennie.

"Um, actually, it's history." I admitted, dashing the hopes of all in the room.

Nearby, a hitherto listless old man suddenly took an interest in the conversation. "You aren't a doctor, son. You have a Ph.D. There's a difference."

"I know," I said, hoping for rapid forgiveness.

"You have a Ph.D.?" a woman asked from across the room.

Before I could answer, my grandma replied, beaming, "Yes, he does."

Without missing a beat, the woman shot back, "My son has two Ph.D.'s!"

My grandma got in the final word, an emphatic, "Oh, really?" We continued wandering around the nursing home, though from here on out, my grandma introduced me as follows: "This is my grandson Danny. He has only one Ph.D."

So much for Grandma. But this is a big family, and there were plenty of others to impress. I proceeded to drive around the Northwest, visiting family members at their homes, playing with my nieces and nephews and accompanying them to the beach or the mountains. To my chagrin, the recent Ph.D. rarely came up. More often, we gossiped about the family and people we knew in common, joked about our memories of growing up -- the usual.

The week ended with my graduation party, complete with a cap and gown cake, tubs of ice cream to keep the kids happy, and plenty of Hallmark cards with lines like, "Congratulations, Graduate!" Most of the decorations were recycled from my niece's junior-high-school graduation the previous week.

After I blew out the candles on my cake, we all just milled about for a while, catching up some more and reminiscing, talking endlessly about all the kids. To my surprise, everyone treated me more or less as they always have, the recent milestone totally lost in the excitement.

Before long there came the expected shout from one of the youngsters: "Hey, Uncle Dan! How about a show?"

The "show" is my comedy juggling show, an unchanging, very unprofessional routine I have been performing since 1975 -- a show originally created for my brothers and sisters and now delivered to their children.

"Yea, let's see the show!" the chorus sounded.

And so I did the show, with all its cheap Catskills-style vaudeville humor and the novelty-store props -- the exploding after-dinner mints, the enormous comb I use to primp before the crowd, the squirting ice-cream cone, the fake rock that I pretend to sneeze out of my nose -- and with the still-polished technical features -- the ever-popular apple-eating bit, the knife routine, and, finally, the flaming torches. I juggled right up until it was time for everyone to leave. And that's how my week in Oregon ended.

In the plane on the way back to Wisconsin, it occurred to me that I had been wrong all along. My professional ups and downs are of no consequence to the people who know me best. They never thought less of me as I struggled through the dissertation, and they think no more of me now that I have a Ph.D. This was both a revelation and a comfort. I realized how much I had projected my own anxieties onto the rest of the world.

Getting back to that unscientific survey, it seems that the projection issue is among the most common and insidious long-term effects of graduate school: you start to think that your family has the same opinion of you as the gatekeepers of your professional field. Living on $10,000 a year, removed from the main economy, the world of a graduate student is focused on the minutiae of academic life -- adviser-advisee relations, seminar evaluations, professional meeting presentations, submissions for publication, and, of course, the annual job conference. In all of these endeavors, most graduate students will experience more failure than success. The process invariably convinces you that your academic deficiencies are the only defining characteristics anyone takes notice of.

Thirty-three thousand feet over the Plains, I suddenly remembered my favorite moment of the graduation party. At the end of the day, as I was walking the final group of kids to their minivan, my youngest nephew looked up at me.

"Hey, Uncle Dan," he said. "I wish you were my teacher. Then I could see your juggling show every day."

Looking back, I realized that his comment had nothing whatsoever to do with my new day job, but everything to do with who I am. It was a happy thought, something only a kid would say, and a pleasant reminder that for the people who really matter, a Ph.D., whether just started, just finished, or abandoned altogether, couldn't matter less.

Daniel Kowalsky, a Ph.D. in modern European history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has written about his search for a tenure-track job this academic year in a regular column for Career Network. In the fall, he will begin a one-year appointment at Washington University in St. Louis.