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Prop 8, Prop 2, and The PhD Tell-all Post

Dateline: Brisbane, Australia

So the downside of the election is that voters in California, Arizona, and Florida trounced gay-marriage rights. Sandy and I have received very sympathetic mail from friends. I am still turning it over in my head. I gave my first talk yesterday and to my relief it went well (Lizanne was terrific), so my brain is no longer singularly locked onto the idea that I’ll get up in front of people from another country and make a complete fool of myself.

I have an essay, “The Outlaw Bride,” coming out in the next issue of Ninth Letter. This essay is about our experience in 2004 — being able to marry, and then having our marriage invalidated. I just saw the proofs a week or two ago, and they are beautiful — literally beautiful, laid out on what looks like wedding stationery.  I was hoping the essay would be ancient history, but sadly, instead, it is timely response and advocacy.

Meanwhile, in the “where do I begin” category, I received this non sequitur of a comment on an earlier post about the election:


Instead I think you should consider yourself as a chicken with an asterisk concerning the lack of candor (aka lying) on your resume. When will you admit what you were doing at the University of Michigan. Is it really all that embarrassing to flub a PHD? Free range what?

I don’t know Zeke, assuming this person exists, but this puzzles me, as I have been quite direct with anyone who needs or even wants to know that I successfully completed one semester at UM in 1995 and then dropped out.  Who is this person, dragging around all this misplaced righteous indignation? (We could say “apparently a Roadrunner user in New York,” though even that could be misleading.)

Yet “Zeke’s comment,” small and angry though it is, rocketed me back to a tough time that turned out all right in the end — one I am asked about now and then. Since it is part of my pre-blogging history, here goes.

(Needless to say, as with my other blog posts, you’re still only getting part of the story.)

The academics were not the hard part. In fact, this will sound all wrong (all “tall poppy,” to be Australian about it), but the academics weren’t even hard — they felt like just more graduate-level library work. (I’m sure I would have hit a tough class later on. However, I have met enough low-voltage PhD students to think my assessment is largely on target.)

UM was just the wrong place, wrong time, wrong PhD topic, and a few more “wrongs.”  Sandy and I were apart (the plan was she would join me later), my elderly cat was dying, a family member was seriously ill, and I rented a room from a woman who turned out to be a distracting wack jobby whose hooting voice and shrill giggle regularly woke me up in the wee hours.

I was alone and miserable and suddenly realized I had no idea why I wanted a PhD.

I walked away from a fellowship, and later, at SUNY Albany (where I also taught as an adjunct), I took Tom Galvin’s advice and didn’t formally pursue a PhD in that program. Sandy and I weren’t sure how long we would be in Albany, and Tom said I could afford to drop out of a PhD program once — just not twice.

Just Because I Could, I took information technology policy from Tom. Add info policy to the list of classes that should be required for library students. Add taking a class from Tom (RIP) as something not to be missed — he took a potentially deadly topic and made it edge-of-the-seat important and fascinating.

I inevitably provide my UM transcript to my employers even if it’s not required, as my performance speaks for itself.  I’m just another PhD dropout, but I did all right (and ACM published one paper I wrote during the program).

On the fatal topic — freenets and community networks — as soon as I closely examined what then appeared to be a hot topic, I realized freenets would be largely extinct very soon, and that the topic was at best ancillary.

I might have stayed in UM’s program if I had been better-equipped to ask for and make the changes I needed. But then I surely would never have gone back for an MFA in writing, which was the academic experience of my life — scary, boundary-pushing, crazy-making, wonderful.

I’ve off-and-on pondered LIS PhD-ville, but there are faster and less expensive ways to retool, if retooling is in order. For one crazy scheme I have in mind, I’ve pondered a CAS in digital libraries, to better equip myself, but again — I’d want to be sure I was leaping onto the right streetcar (and at the moment, I don’t have the fare).

In a twist tying all of this together, our decision to hit the undo button on Michigan was a defining moment in our life together, one I mention in “The Outlaw Bride” — a moment that says, regardless what the state thinks, Sandy and I are nonetheless married.

Posted on this day, other years:

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  1. Joe Janes wrote:

    Not that it’s going to make any difference, given Karen’s usual fine prose and candor on the matter, but as someone who was there (on the faculty), I can confirm that Karen’s departure from the PhD program at Michigan lo these may years ago was as she described it. In addition, it made me and others very sad, as she was–and is–obviously eminently capable of doing a PhD program and doing it well.

    I’ve seen a lot of people leave such programs at all stages, from the second day (really), to post-defense but not finishing the final stages of completion. So much of it, as Karen says, is about fit rather than capability, and if the fit ain’t there, the sooner it’s over the better. Karen was wise enough to recognize it wasn’t there for her, and more power to her.

    Happily, our paths have crossed lots of times since then–yay for me!

    Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 6:48 pm | Permalink
  2. Joe, that’s sweet. And I remember how you were a bright spot — students hove to you like flies to honey. You even held breakfasts for us!

    Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 6:51 pm | Permalink
  3. (Post-defense?!)

    Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 6:51 pm | Permalink
  4. “Post-defense?”

    It’s not uncommon in some departments to defend before your final dissertation draft is done. That’s what I did (I at least had a first full draft by then, but the final draft didn’t get signed off until some months afterwards). I’ve known people who’ve defended but never completed the dissertation, and didn’t get the Ph.D.

    As Joe Janes points out above, lots of people start a Ph.D. program and don’t finish it. Some of them realize pretty quickly that it’s not for them. Some go for a while and then find something else they’d rather do. Some drive themselves to continue longer than is good for them.

    I’ve been through it from start to finish. It was a long journey for me, for various reasons, and sometimes was rather a slog (though I enjoyed lots of it too). I’m glad I finished, but I also know lots of folks who didn’t, for various reasons (most of which had *nothing* to do with whether they could “cut it”.) I don’t see any dishonor for folks who step off the road to a PhD. Nor do I think they are obligated to pretend that the PhD-seeking phase of their life didn’t exist (whether on a resume or elsewhere).

    I’m pretty sure Karen’s seen it already, but Dorothea Salo’s written some useful advice about the problems one can encounter in grad school. Readers considering grad school, or considering leaving it, or feeling guilty for leaving grad school, might find it of interest.

    Friday, November 7, 2008 at 12:31 am | Permalink
  5. Genny wrote:

    Don’t tell me you … too … left grad school?

    I left the graduate linguistics program at Berkeley after falling in love with what was then called “library automation” and serendipitously getting a job in it. MELVYL system 1, linguistics 0!

    Friday, November 7, 2008 at 4:24 am | Permalink
  6. Jon Gorman wrote:

    Zeke seems strangely familiar, as if I’ve seen him troll somewhere else…

    In any case I’ve struggled with some of the same decisions myself. I’ve been encouraged as long as I’ve been around Urbana-Champaign to enter the PhD program. (Got my masters here and started working for the library on graduation.)

    There were a couple of issues, one I just couldn’t afford it, another is I still lack confidence in my ability to do substained research project, and finally I’m still not sure if that would help or hinder what I’d like to do. Of course, I do admit I enjoy the teaching aspects of it and might even be good.

    I guess technically I’m still enrolled in the CAS program in digital libraries here at UIUC. I’ll admit I took two courses and I’ve stopped. Most of the coursework that’s part of the “program” I either have taken or quite frankly I already know the material. There’s been a few popping up again lately that look interesting but I don’t know if I want to give up that free time for a degree that might not be an asset and may even hinder me.

    And the final straw? Group work. I just had to stop taking course for a while because the group experiences were the worse I’ve had in academia, period. Given my some of the groups I’ve worked to get my undergraduate degree in computer science, this is saying something. I’m not going to say more because I’ll start melting down.

    (Besides, this is your blog after all ;) )

    Friday, November 7, 2008 at 11:04 am | Permalink
  7. Jon, you cracked me up… another great plus of the MFA in Writing: No. Group. Work.

    Feel free to play that violin… I haven’t done group work assignments as an instructor, because honestly, I know I’d be grading the efforts of one or two disgruntled folks. I’d much rather grade individual effort. They can have the group work “experience” when they go to a library and are put on their first committees (har har).

    Friday, November 7, 2008 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  8. Nann wrote:

    Remember, “don’t feed the trolls”!

    Friday, November 7, 2008 at 7:02 pm | Permalink
  9. Nann, to “feed a troll” means to engage on the troll’s terms. It doesn’t mean to generate dispassionate but engaged discussion in re the troll’s original point — which wasn’t very trollish, actually. In this case, I have had some queries in the past that suggest these comments haven’t just been made online. So this was a great opportunity to correct the public record (with the caveat, there is always more to the story).

    Saturday, November 8, 2008 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
  10. I don’t know how I missed this earlier.

    While I have never entered a program, I constantly toy with the idea of getting some sort of doctorate so that I can teach in Library School. I was very close to applying for an EdD program in Educational Leadership in Bridgeport before I left, and it came up again during my recent job “haitus.” This last time, the geography was not right. You have got me thinking again, and while LSU does not have a PhD in Library Science, they do offer an EdD…..hmmm

    Monday, March 23, 2009 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  11. angela wrote:

    I’m a bit late to the party (wound up here from your “painted ponies” post!), but I feel absolutely no shame at being a refugee from a PhD program. In fact, the two years I spent in a PhD program has bought me a LOT of credibility as a subject liaison in an academic library. I may not have finished, but I was in long enough to have some familiarity with the way research is conducted in that field (anthropology) and what sorts of library supports grad students need.

    While in grad school, very few of my classmates felt that the courses were academically that hard. Of course, you need a certain level of intelligence and academic preparation to succeed, but that doesn’t mean you need to be a genius. The real factor that my classmates saw as determining success or failure in a PhD program was willingness to jump through hoop after hoop after hoop. One of my professors referred to it as “ritual scarification”. Now that I’ve dropped out and seen others do the same, I recognize that the factors you mention — life circumstances, fit, etc. — are a better way of putting it. But I’ve only known one person that “flubbed” grad school, while I’ve known many that have walked away because the payoff was not worth the sacrifices, the fit was bad, life happened, etc.

    Wednesday, June 20, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink
  12. Thanks, Angela. While walking away it felt very lonely. It helps to hear what you have to say.

    Wednesday, June 20, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. Free Range Librarian › Painted ponies go up and down on Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 11:44 am

    [...] I blogged in 2008 about dropping out of a PhD program. There’s another part to that story, which is that the morning after my arrival, I woke up with the unshakeable conviction I should immediately turn around and go home–not one of those brief moments of insecurity common to many endeavors, but a flashlight-bright understanding of my circumstances, like those brides who, standing at the altar, pick up their skirts and flee. [...]

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