For those of you who have never completed a PhD program, which statistically speaking is most of you, there are a number of tasks you have to complete before they turn you loose and call you Doctor.
The most obvious, of course, is the defense of your dissertation – a strange experience where you sit in a room with your committee, most of whom have read your dissertation and repeatedly offered criticism and advice by that point, and they grill you on it for a couple of hours. It’s the final hurdle, and while it is a pile of work to get there and a fairly intense experience while you’re going through it, the fact is that your main advisor won’t let you walk into that room unless they’re pretty sure you’re going to pass. Plus, the simple fact is that you’re the expert in the room – you’ve spent several years researching a fairly narrow issue and become the foremost authority in the world on it by that point – and you really should be able to handle whatever they throw at you.
Comps are different.
Your comprehensive exams are the final hurdle before you embark on your dissertation, where you need to demonstrate that you’ve learned everything there already is to know about your subject so you can go out and find something that people don’t already know and write about that for your dissertation. In history this means reading – lots of reading. I got three lists of books and articles from my comps committee members and then spent slightly more than a year reading a book every other day, on average. And then they test you on all of it. It’s a gate-keeper assignment – everyone who wants to move on to the next level has to go through it, and if they don’t think you’re up to that next level they will take the opportunity presented here to shunt you off the track and into some other career. It is entirely possible to fail, in other words.
How they test you varies from place to place, but where I went for graduate school the standard format was three take-home exams, one for each list, spaced over a two-week period. You showed up at the department office around 8am, picked up your exam – usually three broad, integrative questions designed to get you to synthesize your readings around some of the more important issues in the field – and went back home to work on them. You spent the day writing essays – maybe 25-30pp total – and then returned the lot of it to the office by the time it closed at 5pm.
The rest of the day was yours. There was an oral exam on the lot of it a week or so after the last written exam was turned in, but that was so far into the indefinite future as to be unimaginable while the written exams were still going on.
Each time I would walk out of the office secure in the knowledge that I had nothing left of any importance to do until the next morning, which was good because my brain was pretty much mush by that point. So I’d walk slowly up the main drag there in Iowa City and randomly poke through the shops along the way, because retail is soothing sometimes.
This was back in the early 90s, when CDs were still relatively new and wonderful, and there was a nifty little CD shop on the second floor of one of the buildings that I would stop into on my way home from the exams. And after each exam I would buy one CD as a reward. The first one I bought more or less at random – I went into the general section labeled “Music Dave Might Like” and leafed through the bins until one caught my eye. For the other two I just cleaned out the remaining two CDs by that same artist, since I liked the first one.
I’d never heard of Kirsty MacColl before that first exam.
Clearly I was missing out.
There were a lot of great songs on that first CD – which turned out to be something of a Greatest Hits collection for an artist who tended to hang out somewhere off to the side of the Top 40 charts and therefore could be construed as either ironic commentary or just hopeful marketing – and there are a couple of songs from that CD that stick with me even now, but the one that I make a point of pulling out every year around this time is the duet she did with the Pogues on a song called Fairytale of New York. I've been listening to it a lot this week.
Fairytale of New York is perhaps the greatest Christmas song written in the last few decades, a sad, bitter, and oddly comforting story of two outsiders at each other’s throats and the dreams they had once. Not everything works out.
“I could have been someone.”
“Well so could anyone.”
It’s a story of love and broken dreams and cherished memories, and it is, as Michael Brendan Dougherty once said, “a salve to the soul.”
Happy Christmas to all who celebrate it, and to all who would just like to have a good day even if they don’t celebrate it.