Sunday, November 13, 2011

Permanent Head Damage

I am in my last academic year of taking being a full-time PhD student.  This means I have 3 graduate courses this semester and I will have another 3 next semester.  Next semester, I will be taking my comprehensive exams as well.  After that, I will be relatively free to collect data for my dissertation.  So, in a sense, this semester is the last "normal" semester.  But the past year hasn't felt normal at all.  If there is a supposed to be a psychological transformation that goes along with the PhD process, I am certainly feeling it.  I've heard a colleague or two mention this as "Permanent Head Damage," the alternate meaning to PhD.

Since I've been reflecting on my psychological well being for the last year, I can discuss two effects of the PhD process that are most unpleasant.  The first is the feeling of isolation.  My feeling may be more exaggerated than my cohorts as I have no social life apart from my wife and young daughter.  I do not have time to socialize with cohorts and I live in a city that requires a day trip to see my closest family and friends.  During the academic year, I can only arrange such day trips once a semester.  My interactions with people are dominated by child rearing, sitting in classes as a student, teaching a course, and the occasional conversation with my wife.  My isolation is contrasted with spending half of my life these days on a large Midwestern university campus where many undergraduates and some graduates focus on socialization.  A little jealousy creeps in.  Is this jealous feeling mutual?  Do any of these freewheeling undergraduates wish they were in my shoes nearing the end of my higher education in one field?

Usually the isolation is at its most unbearable at the end of each semester.  That's when I realize it's more difficult to relate to others.  It's also at the end of the semester where the second effect is most noticeable as well, and that is the obsessive-compulsiveness on one's own research interest combined with completing homework assignments.  The more and more engrossed I become in a class, the less and less engaged I am with what's going on in the real world most immediate to me.  I start to become oblivious to local events, and my wife needs to constantly remind me that there is something interesting going on in town.  (She would like a social life with me too.)

PhD studies differ from MA studies in that I felt that I shared the same interests and desire to learn the specific subjects with my classmates when I was an MA student.  As a PhD student, my interests have become more specific, so that only a few share the same interests, but almost nobody has the same level of desire to learn more about that interest.  In a way, this is another kind of isolation.  It's just me and my research topic in the room together and nobody will care until it's done.  I get very excited when I learn more about my research interest and my research interest benefits from the attention I give it and hopefully the added attention it will receive when "we" get published.

The benefit of being a PhD student/candidate is that at least you have your research committee to support you in terms of honing your skills, but they will be gone after the dissertation is done.  Then I will depend on the kindness of peers for review, but not to the extent of support.  Fortunately, I have chosen a research interest that requires me to meet new people and help them if needed, so I expect to find some social purpose to my life in that arena.

I've heard about the love-hate relationship PhD candidates have with the research topic they chosen, but to me it almost feels like another marriage.  Here I am developing a familiarity with my topic that I begin to lose appreciation for it.  This metaphor rings true in that my wife gets upset when I prefer to spend my time developing my research than with her.  There are times when I would like to tell my research to go away, but I need it to finish this PhD process.  When I get in moods like this, I reflect on how easy life was with jobs that require only an MA.  However, most of the years were spent childless as well.

So I have three commitments: my daughter, my wife, and my research.  One of these is temporary, but it is this one that has been receiving more money and attention from me.  But I have put myself in this situation, and I do not regret doing so as long as I do not suffer any permanent head damage from it.

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