Yesterday, for the first time since I finished grad school, I had a real taste of what it's like on the other side of the doctoral fence. I am on the committee for a student in another department, and she had her oral comprehensive examinations. (Her school requires orals of all students. For us, orals only happened if the written exams were dubious and needed defending. So this was actually my first-ever experience with them.)
It went... okay. She passed, although there were some interesting discussions behind closed doors. Still, just like the saying a good dissertation is a finished dissertation, all comps go well that end with a pass.
We walked across campus together afterward, chatting about next steps, and she reflected a little on her exams. She's a woman in her fifties, in a solid career, and based on our conversations she's not intending to pursue a full-time academic career when she finishes her degree. She's very enthusiastic about her field and research, but that hasn't quite panned out in terms of doing a lot of focused reading and writing. She also didn't go to college right out of high school, but went back in her forties, and is now going straight through to the doctorate. My sense is that it's more for the sense of accomplishment than anything else, although it's certainly a credential that will help her in her field.
She acknowledged her weaknesses, but in a way that suggested she didn't give them much weight. Mostly, she was very proud of herself for her accomplishment. "When I was writing my exams, and reading them over afterward, I felt so good!" she told me. "I was just glad to know that I could do it."
This sounds very healthy, right? And I'm sure it is. Yay, self-esteem and sense of accomplishment! I'm sure that, after a lifetime of more or less veiled discrimination for her lack of any kind of a degree, finding herself successfully completing a PhD must feel very validating and empowering and all that. I don't want to sound dismissive--I went back to school as an advanced grownup, myself, but I didn't face a lot of internal demons when it came to academic achievement. That was something that felt natural, and although of course it was a lot of work and self-doubt and neurosis, it also felt like an organic extension of my core essence. The schoolhouse is my wheelhouse, and has been ever since I taught myself to read when I was two.* Anyway, so I returned to the fold later in life, but it was always something that felt sort of inevitable, almost destined. I suspect this was not the case for yesterday's doctoral student.
For me, the comparison is with running. I have never been a runner. I've had sporadic bursts of quasi-athleticism throughout my life, but running was always something I hated. I didn't get it. It was boring, and hard, and did I mention boring? I preferred sports like diving and gymnastics and martial arts, where you were always learning to do new stuff. Running was just about continuing doing the same thing, faster and/or longer. A thing that wasn't that interesting to begin with.
But a couple of years ago, I discovered that running has a strange power (aside from being pretty cheap to get started in, unlike many of my favorite pursuits that require expensive equipment and/or gear). For one thing, you can count on the fact that if you just keep doing it, it will get both easier and more enjoyable, and you'll get better at it. I mean, there's no room for doubt: keep running, you'll be a better runner. You may never be a champion racer or a marathoner, but you'll be faster, have more endurance. Guaranteed. This stands in stark contrast to most activities (and careers) I've undertaken in my life, in which you can quite easily invest scads of time and effort and yet never improve, or never manage to do certain things. It's comforting that, with running, all you have to do is do it.
Despite this assurance, I've been spotty in my training. It's hard to maintain a regular running schedule when the semester really starts kicking my ass, and sometimes I'm too tired/cold/lazy/whatever to get out there. And a few weeks off means more or less starting over from scratch (although the improvements come a lot more quickly).
A few weeks ago, I ran my first 5k race. I'm super slow, and have been back in a "starting from scratch" Groundhog Day loop for a while now, as I start and stop. As a result I set myself some very basic goals: a) show up, b) finish, and c) don't walk. I met all of those, had a lot of fun doing the race, and at the end felt a massive sense of accomplishment. (And a renewed enthusiasm for running, which hasn't quite panned out in terms of, you know, actually running a whole lot.)
Someone who's been a runner their whole life, and for whom this sort of physical activity comes naturally, probably secretly thinks this feeling of achievement is a bit overstated. I mean, come on, it's only a 5k, and I didn't even get what would be considered a good time. I'm sure they'd be polite to my face, because hey, a completed 5k is a good 5k, right? And maybe I'll eventually work up to something a little more impressive, or at least get faster at the short runs. You go, girl. But the politeness would just be a pleasant veneer over a core of (probably involuntary) condescension.
What I hope such a person would eventually come to understand, as I finally am, is that when someone has spent years seeing themselves as not X, definitely not someone who does X, and has encountered plenty of people and situations in which his or her not-Xness was highlighted (usually in negative ways), it takes some guts to decide that, goddammit, I can be X! I can just go out there and do X, and the doing will make it so. And after a while, I'll magically transform into one of those X people. I may never be a star at it, but that's okay: meanwhile, X will have become just as much a part of me as anything else. I'll embrace my X-ness, revel in it, because I didn't just go with the flow and let myself live an X-free life. That would've been the easier path, but not as fulfilling. Because if I can do X, then what's stopping me from becoming one of those Y-doing types as well? Nothing.
And that feeling, of knowing that you can just decide who or what you want to be, or at least try being for a while? That's amazing. That's real power. It's the magical power of being a late bloomer.
I'm running another 5k this Saturday. It's a trail run, which I've never done before. I also have been busy with end-of-semester stuff, and haven't been running for a couple of weeks. But I'm going anyway, and I'll finish (although there may be some walking involved this time), and I'll feel good about myself. Maybe I'll become a trail runner next. It could happen.
* Apparently it all started with a book that began, "Quack Quack is a happy duck. Quack Quack knows that he's in luck." I think my sister can still recite the whole book from memory, just from hearing me read it out loud over and over again as a toddler. (Back)