The Soul-Crushing PhD

I’ve spent the last 10 years asking myself if a doctoral degree is worth the effort. There was a brief period — when I finally got my parchment — that the soul-crushing doubt subsided. It was delicate joy of “Not That Kind of Doctor” shirts and updated business cards — mass produced and temporary.

My PhD studies spanned my mid 30s. I had always wanted one, the way some folks covet a volvo or a home-full of cheruby cheeks. If I got one, I would mean something. There would be a sudden, unquestionable significance to my existence. I could hold it in my hands, in the witching hours, and repeat: P.h.D.

If you are currently working on a doctoral degree, I will not promise that reading this will make you feel any better. If you finished this year, perhaps stop reading. If you haven’t started, consider reading to the end.

One of the many images I took from the window of the Red Arrow bus, on my way between Calgary and Edmonton.

Year 1

I began my PhD course work the year I received tenure, and while 4 months pregnant. As with most of the significant life decisions I’ve made, I decided to start my studies out of fear: I was worried that we wouldn’t survive on my maternity leave income and, I figured, if I went back to school I could go on a sabbatical instead (with better pay), take care of my baby and, simultaneously, complete my course work.

I gave birth that summer, and in September I started bussing to classes: six hours, twice a week. I had a mechanical breast pump I used in one of my supervisors’ office (he had a fridge), I slept on the bus, and wrote papers while she napped.

Mine wasn’t the romantic beginning I had imagined. I had met my first design PhD candidate eight year earlier, and the moment he walked into our shared graduate lab became etched on my soul. Hyperbole fully intended — I remember sun rays streaming through the window, gently pulsating to the hum of our PowerMac G3s.

He finished his PhD in exactly four years, and published a book, with me as one of the co-authors. It was inspiring.

Year 3

One of the most significant moments of my PhD studies came when I passed my candidacy exams. My interdisciplinary degree combined three fields that were not part of my educational background: electrical and materials engineering, computing science, and digital humanities (I have two degrees in visual communication design). So, passing my comps felt extraordinary. I was ready to write my dissertation and I would meet the self-imposed four-year deadline for completion.

We had steak to celebrate.

Year 3.5

Thanks to a scholarship to attend a PhD workshop at the University of California, Irvine, I discovered the brilliance of Dr. Shaowen Bardzell and feminist HCI. I wrote the intro to my dissertation — proposing a feminist approach to interface design for decision support in manufacturing — and sent it and a draft table of contents to my supervisors. Two weeks later, my passed candidacy was in question, with newly-discovered paper work (previously not submitted but sole-authored by the comp sci supervisor instead of the entire committee) stating that I was barely qualified to move forward. By the end of that year, I had no granting department and one fewer supervisor.

Year 4

I spent the early part of year 4 cycling through the grief process — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I wanted to give up. I couldn’t give up because then I would be letting a small group of tiny men beat me. I needed to give up. Giving up would mean disappointing the Department that continued to fight for my success. I wanted to give up more than I have ever wanted anything before or since. But I couldn’t waste everyone’s time, especially not the 360 hours I spent on a bus instead of with my infant daughter.

I was lucky to have a ton of good will behind me: the graduate coordinator who believed me, the mentor who penned outraged words on my behalf, the professors who lunched with colleagues to find me a new academic home. And, eventually, a new supervisor who took a chance on me. We drank grappa on a sun-drenched patio and plotted the path towards completion. It would mean a new set of courses — this time in comparative literature — and new comp exams. But it would also mean that I could write the dissertation that I needed to write, and that we would salvage almost all of my earlier efforts.

Here’s how I got through those last two years:

  • I googled stats on how many people currently hold PhDs and how many drop out
  • I made an inspirational Pinterest board
  • just keep swimming” was my ring tone
  • I took up embroidery (after my therapist told me to get a hobby)
  • I made lists of things I would do after graduation
My dissertation-writing Pinterest board.

Year 6

On November 5, 2015 I received my parchment.

We had sushi to celeberate.

Year 1 — post

“They” tell you to not make any life-altering decisions the year after completing a PhD. I believe them, knowing too many people who have ended their marriages after graduation (though I am not entirely convinced those were unreasonable decisions). I, of course, didn't listen and we ended up with a 4-month interlude in corn country as part of my healing process.

2009–2018

No one remembers that you have a PhD. When you tell them, they seldom have a reason to care (not blaming them one tiny bit).

Did I learn anything?

Yes. I discovered entire new-to-me ways of thinking about design, including feminist HCI, critical design, critical theory, the reading and re-reading of interfaces, and design as politics. All of this happened in the second round of my degree (while studying comparative lit), but it seems this was the path that needed taking.

What did I lose?

I spend a significant amount of my 30s passing loyalty tests. The computing science curriculum was rigid, mandatory, and held little value towards interdisciplinary study. I was mandated to take teaching seminars, even though I had received tenure at a teaching-focused University. I had to pass candidacy exams twice, even though I had been successful on my first try. Time, energy, health, creativity — all are finite. My academic career began in 2003, so by the time I started my PhD I had a co-authored book, over a dozen publications and conference presentations, and a tenured position under my belt. The PhD actually interrupted my career — I lost several years to check boxes.

What else did I gain?

I will liken this to the 12 hours I spent in labour — having survived this, I have a much greater confidence that I can survive almost anything. And my writing became more thoughtful, more deliberate, and more critical, thanks to the mentorship and feedback of my completion supervisor — Dr. Massimo Verdicchio.

What’s Next

PhD programs need to undergo a systematic overhaul. What you read above is my story. I share it because it is mine; however, it is far from unique. I hold dozens of similar stories from, mostly, female colleagues. Brilliant, talented, capable, beyond hard working, kicked in the shins, burned out, disillusioned women. We are not the problem.

The PhD, as it still predominates, was created to house male scholars — privileged with money, resources, and a female, home-bound spouse. The male scholar thus could pursue his intellectual calling without the distractions that come attached to time-constraints and responsibilities. These romantic conditions haven’t existed for decades — for any of the genders. It is time that academia catch up with mandatory limits to PhD lengths (with a maximum of 5 years), increased rigour on the quality of supervision (and actual supervisor accountability), guaranteed boundaries to work load, and increased access to resources (including publishing credit).

Still Curious?

I teach, design, and research as a feminist scholar, usually located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. You can see some of my work, or find out more about me, at http://milenaradzikowska.com. I am on twitter as @candesignlove.

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