Friday, January 6, 2012

Confessions of a Recovering ABD By Kyle McIntosh

[Today, I checked my mailbox and saw many emails from our first year composition program for the teaching assistants like me, reminding me the semester is about to start. Am I ready for a new semester? Well, not really, but ready or not, it is around the corner. But I'm digressing as usual. In my bombarded mailbox, I saw one of the emails I had been anxiously waiting for, an email from Kyle with his reflections about being a graduate student. He is one of the people that graciously accepted to be a guest writer for my blog. Thank you very much Kyle! Without further delay I leave you with his confessions.
PS. If you are interested in sharing your stories, please contact me at and please check the recent two posts, one by Josh and one about my little project, which I like to call Letters From the Edge of Chaos.]
Confessions of a Recovering ABD By Kyle McIntosh
As I near the end of my life as a graduate student, I find myself repeating the sagely advice given by Rob Schneider’s character in the much maligned Adam Sandler comedy The Waterboy: “You can do it!” Somehow, this simple mantra provides me with just the right mix of positive thinking and total absurdity that I need to get through another day of putting off my dissertation for another day. I mean, think about it: the future depends on me producing a few hundred pages that no one aside from my four committee members will probably ever read (or want to read) in its entirety. Yet, fail to complete this near-Herculean task and my journey ends with nothing to show for it other than a vast knowledge of one of the more obscure aspects of my field and a peptic ulcer. So, if I’m going to ruin both body and mind regardless, I might as well have a piece of paper that validates my suffering.

I’m joking, of course… except about the ulcer. But seriously, I’m getting too old to wait much longer to take these final steps toward my doctoral degree. Perhaps I shouldn’t have wasted 8 years between my BA and MA traveling the world and trying my hand at a number of fanciful careers – photographer, filmmaker, stand-up comedian, writer, and musician – before settling on the slightly less glamorous English instructor. After receiving my MA, I took another 3 years to teach at universities in China and get married on a beach in Macau before returning to the US with more focus, but also with more responsibilities than ever before. To be honest, there were times when working 3rd shift at the Frito-Lay factory seemed like a much better way to put food on the table than teaching Freshman Composition for a pittance… er, stipend.

Oh, I forgot to mention that during my second semester in the program, my wife and I had a baby. So, imagine the lack of sleep endured by your average hardworking graduate student and multiply that by whatever it takes to end up with practically no sleep at all. Fortunately, I learned how to put myself into five-minute mini-comas throughout the day – often during class (how very undergrad of me, I know). I also learned to read while changing diapers and to write while playing “peek-a-boo.” These skills acquired out of necessity helped me to complete the required coursework and pass the preliminary exam. But even after all that, I had to keep reminding myself: “You can do it!”

Of course, I couldn’t have done any of it without the love and support of my beautiful wife, Carol. So, when she decided to go back to school and get her MA last year right after I finished my prelims, who was I to say no? Suddenly, I was the one having to prepare lunch and dinner and take the boy to the playground while she sequestered herself in the library or our bedroom with a stack of books for hours at a time. Yet, in between bouts of complete exhaustion and occasional temper tantrums (from all three of us), I somehow managed to write and successfully defend a dissertation prospectus. This semester, my wife will finish her coursework, and the two of us will begin writing as much as we can whenever we’re not working, taking care of our son, or sleeping. We’ll also be recruiting grandparents to help out.

I guess the point of this personal account is to show that if I can do it, then so can anyone, provided he or she really (I mean, REALLY) wants it. I think that’s the key. No one should pursue a PhD simply because, in today’s dismal job market, there’s nothing better to do. That kind of resignation may be enough to keep you going for a couple of years – I’ll admit, just having insurance was pretty satisfying at first – but it won’t see you through to the end. You’ll need to believe with all your heart that a career in academia is right for you. And I don’t mean the idealized version that I imagined when I first applied to grad school: life of the mind, community of scholars, and all that jazz. No, I mean the one you get to know after spending a few years in a program; it can be as vulgar and self-serving as a career in politics. However, just as in politics, it can also be incredibly stimulating and rewarding (but with fewer kickbacks). I usually feel this most acutely when teaching my students or giving conference presentations in front of my peers. For me, writing for publication remains fairly taxing – I’m more of a social intellectual than a solitary one – but upon seeing my name in print for the first time in an actual journal, I felt like all the toil and trouble was worth it. Finally, I was convinced that yes, indeed, I could do it.

Still, it never hurts to remind myself of this from time to time.

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