Contributed by Gráinne McEvoy
Do you consider your PhD to be a job or a vocation? Like medicine and the holy orders, it’s a vocation. As evidenced by the on-call hours, the modest income, and the conviction that no other job is nearly as important.
In 20 words or less, tell us why you decided to do a PhD? In the most positive sense possible, and without a shred of irony, I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.
Gráinne’s Diary: I fully agree with Tomás Irish in the last PhD Diary who wrote that he views doing a PhD as a vocation but tries to treat it as a job. Indeed, I have to dispense with modesty and commend myself for generally sticking to a nine to five routine, even if my workload too often requires an additional seven to eleven nightshift. For some reason, though, and despite the fact that my family and close friends are immeasurably supportive and proud of what I have chosen to do, I still feel the need to prove to my non-academic loved ones that while my career choice may appear self-indulgent and airy-fairy, I still have a routine and responsibilities just like a real grown-up. I repeat ad nauseam that I have teaching responsibilities, I don’t watch daytime TV, and I work at a desk in a grey cubicle complete with hand lotion and pictures of my nieces and nephews. Before you advise me against protesting too much, I should point out that I am a sort of academic emigrant; I’m pursuing a doctoral degree in Boston. As such, the self-indulgence of my career choice has increased exponentially with the longevity of an American program.
The length of time it takes history graduate students in the U.S. to complete their PhD varies widely, but even if we go with an average of seven years that’s still considerably longer than it would have taken me had I stayed in Ireland. It is perhaps no coincidence that this is precisely the length of time it took Harry Potter to defeat Lord Voldemort, and I’m tempted to speculate on J.K. Rowling’s possible use of extended metaphor. Before doing so, however, I should probably clarify that those seven years are somewhat broken up. Most programs involve a period of four or five semesters of course work and extensive reading. This culminates in the qualifying/comprehensive, oral exams (the dreaded “comps” as we call them at Boston College). Once you recover from this two-hour grilling, and spend one semester writing and repeatedly rewriting a dissertation proposal, you have earned “A.B.D.” status, which stands for “All But Dissertation” for official purposes, “All But Done” for the jaded. Unfortunately, I can not yet enlighten you on life as an A.B.D. I am just two years into my PhD program, and so for the moment my dissertation project is more of a mirage; I can fantasise about what I’ll do when I get there, but at this point it doesn’t really exist. My comps are pencilled in for this coming December, and so most of my energies between now and then are going into preparing for what an older and wiser BC faculty member has encouragingly referred to as an “academic hazing ceremony.” Admittedly, I am enjoying this stage of the preparation for comps. I basically read all day long, and isn’t this partly what we sign up to this gig for?
That said, I’ve witnessed numerous colleagues go through this process in recent years, and I know the panic will set in at some point. Reading and recalling 300 or so books is no mean task, but I’m comforting myself with the knowledge that I will be discussing this material with four demanding but fair faculty members who I’ve gotten to know over the past two years, and with whom I’ve become as comfortable discussing Aer Lingus in-flight meals and BBC costume dramas, as I am the nuances of American immigration policy. As for archives, chapter drafts and research trips – you can check back with me in January.