Another PhD Candidate Goes Over the Edge

“Here’s an object more of dread / Than aught the grave contains – A human form with reason fled / While wretched life remains.”

Abraham Lincoln, letter to Andrew Johnson, Sept. 6, 1846


A heavily armed man explodes a gas canister in a theater, then opens fire,  killing a dozen, wounding many more.  Again, Colorado and the nation are in shock.  The eternal gun debate, which Obama had been keeping quiet, explodes, four months before an election.  There’s very little that’s known about him, but one of the first facts to emerge is that he’s a PhD candidate.

Chilling fact

I find that chilling, because I know how difficult and demeaning the process can be.  It tests your mettle and sometimes your sanity.  Some people never finish, and for the rest of their lives, they're tormented by the lack of closure and thoughts of what might have been accomplished.

First, there’s a bunch of course requirements, at the end of which, in many graduate programs, you have to take a PhD qualifying exam, which also confers the Master’s degree.  At this point you are ABD (All But Dissertation), a plateau from which many never ascend.

The dissertation is a major hurdle, psychologically, intellectually, and physically. It’s long.  It’s supposed to be an original contribution to knowledge, but it’s typically whatever your advisor says it is.  This is how you’re supposed to learn intellectual independence?


That’s what happened to me.  Living and teaching in Hawaii, I took a course at the University from a visiting prof, an eminent linguist named William Labov, who had developed novel field methods that were now possible with battery-powered cassette recorders instead of bulky, plug-in reel-to-reel recorders.  Now field linguists had a method of conveniently capturing significant quantities of people’s natural speech, instead of just transcribing subjectively the linguist’s list of phonetically differentiated words.

Well, my advisor back in Chicago was having none of it.  He was an old-school dialectologist.  He had a beagle named Darwin (get it?).  He fired me.  Where was my list of words?  I’m still 4,000 miles away, remember, and I just learned a new way to do research. 

I wrote an aggrieved letter to the Department Chairman, imploring him to let me use the latest field methods, because isn’t that what the progress of science is all about?  He let me switch advisors, to James D. McCawley, an eccentric genius and compadre of Chomsky’s, of Scottish descent but an Oriental gourmet who’d spent many years in the Far East and could order a full meal in Chinese.  I had taken several courses with him, and he was on my side; he wanted me to get it done. 

Sugar cane and cockfighting

After that, things went smoothly,  I drove my little VW Bug out to remote plantation areas, where I interviewed people about their immigration and plantation experiences. 

I captured a lot of natural speech.  I learned much more about sugar growing and cockfights than I ever expected (or needed) to know.  I transcribed meticulously, analyzed, wrote, and typed out a final draft which I then gave to a typist (no word processing – you had to have a professional typist at $1.80 a page).  I showed how the interviewees' speech varied when they addressed each other and when they talked to me.  I made the Observer’s Paradox work in my favor.

The advisor rules.

Did I mention that you are your advisor’s slave?  You do it the way he/she says or risk severe consequences.  I was lucky.  Advisors can jerk you around, be unavailable, constantly raise the bar, treat you with indifference, disdain and contempt, block you at every stage of the way.

But somehow you get it done.  Now you have to defend it.  I flew from Honolulu to Chicago (nine hours), and in the throes of jet lag, defended my work before a panel of profs from various departments.  One asked me if this wasn’t just another way of displaying the data.  I replied that even if he were right, which he wasn’t, the display itself can reveal new information. 

A few minutes after a closed door meeting, McCawley came out and told me I was in.  I had a University of Chicago PhD – and, as the song goes, they can’t take that away from me.

The cost

But at what cost!  And nobody paid me for it.  I did the whole dissertation on my own time and my own dime.

Lucky for me I had a strong success drive and belief in what I was doing.  Weaker people have died from this process.  By their own hand.  I’ve heard of one (reliable informant). 

The process wears at you.  Months, years go by, you’re getting older, and you get nowhere. Your thesis topic gets stale and boring.  You doubt yourself.  You judge yourself harshly, whereas in reality getting a PhD is just as hard as getting an MD, if not harder, because so much of it has to be done on your own, usually with the indifference or outright opposition, not the support of your superiors.

And for what?

The academic job market has been dead for three decades.  The tenure system keeps stars and dead wood in place.  More and more teaching is done by miserably paid grad students and adjuncts.  Some science and research departments in corporations and government prefer (and often require) a PhD.  But in the humanities or social sciences?  Forget it.

So I am utterly creeped out by the fact that this latest mass murderer is a PhD candidate. I will be an information junkie, until I find out what, if any, contribution was made to his murderous insanity by his PhD studies.  Maybe none at all.  I hope.



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Comment by Alan Perlman on August 5, 2012 at 10:50am

To S/B and Loren...I know about each and every recent academic shooting.  I have the same reaction every time, as posted above. 

The grad student is working his/her ass off, trying to manage a myriad of requirements (forgot to mention, I had to be able to read at least two foreign languages), and insterad of encouragement, encounters indifference, arbitrary rule-changes, micromanagement, and sometimes outright opposition.  

The frustration level is so high that the more unstable types will take up arms against their tormentors.  So yes, they represent the extremes (others turn the hatred on themseves), but there is, as with almost any hierarchy, some kind of hazing and a build-up of anger and resentment.  Fulfilling requirements is not enough - there must be suffering and humiliation.  I have no idea why, except "they did it to me, so I'm doing it to you."

Comment by Loren Miller on August 4, 2012 at 5:11pm

Right off the top, all I have is a lousy B.S from Case Tech in Electrical Engineering (and at that, I graduated at or near the BOTTOM of my class, I'm sure), so I don't know squat about going through what appears to be the gauntlet of a PhD candidacy.  However, from everything I'm hearing here, my impression is that, despite the necessity of wanting certainty when adding new knowledge to the base, it strikes me that there is a degree of hazing and/or bullying going on here which is almost certainly not conducive to the candidate, and possibly not to the process, either.

Anyone else (especially anyone with a "Fudd" after their name) think this is the case, or am I just fulla beans?

Comment by Alan Perlman on July 29, 2012 at 12:17pm

S/B - I admire your rational acceptance of what cannot be changed, along with the realization that life us not fair.  We tend to personalize injustice, but if I look dispassionately at my own life, I see that I've had advantages that others didn't - stable home, paid-for education, being white and male, and more. 

But it is jarring to find, over and over, that institutions that pride themselves on probity and fairness are rotten to the core (Penn State).  But whaddaya gonna do  - be a cynic 24/7 about everything?

Comment by Alan Perlman on July 28, 2012 at 10:37am

To S/B...Incredible that you didn't earn a tenure-track position with all you'd done...but maybe not so amazing when you realize how cost-efficient it is not to have too many people pursuing a tiny handful of tenured positions...or how fanatic academia is about "diversity."  Women, blacks and Hispanics -- probably not as qualified as you -- got those tenure-track positions.  That's what they mean by "Equal Opportunity" - what a joke.

My compliments on your two doctoral studies.  You have really been through the wringer.  I still maintain that there's nothing in a doctor's education that corresponds to the formidable monster of a PhD thesis (but staying up 56 hours comes close). 



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