The Ph.D. Student and the Alternative-Academic

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My wife keeps reminding me that an unexpected gift of this horrible pandemic is the opportunity to live with our adult children. And of course, she is right. 

Our youngest daughter is now back at her university. She is a junior. Classes are still remote. But she is happy to be back on campus.

Our oldest daughter is a first-year PhD student. She and her boyfriend (who is fantastic) have been living at home since March. We got to watch her finish her senior year, graduate, and start grad school at a different institution – all remotely. 

As a student of higher education, the opportunity to observe a grad student as she navigates the first year of a PhD program feels like some sort of research gift. The sample size is admittedly a bit small (n=1), so generalizing may be problematic. Still, maybe there are some things to be learned.

First, I’m amazed how little PhD programs have changed. I was a first-year grad student 29 years earlier than my daughter. If you took away the internet (and all the Zoom – which I’ll get to), the experience looks remarkably unaltered.

The first year of a PhD program seems still to be filled with astounding amounts of reading. I look back on my experience of starting a grad program in the early 1990s with exhaustion. There was too much coursework reading to tackle. The amount of reading left no time for pleasure reading or much of anything else. 

Beyond all the books and articles she is reading, the pace of presenting and writing also seems intense. There seem to be presentations in every class and short and long papers due throughout the semester. 

I keep telling my daughter that grad school post-comprehensive exams (we called them prelims) are nothing like the first two years. Once your coursework is done, then everything becomes about the dissertation. (In addition to whatever work you do as a teaching or research assistant). 

The PhD stage is when most grad students falter. There are more ABD’s (all but dissertation) than PhDs. But at least there is more flexibility.

As an alternative-academic, I work less hard than a (or at least my) first-year PhD student. Or at least I work less hard than she does when the semester is in progress.

The first year of grad school seems like a sprint. You run incredibly hard to get everything done during the semester.  And then you try to catch your breath between semesters. 

Alt-ac work is less of a sprint and more of a marathon. The work is constant, sometimes spiky, but not nearly at the intensity that early-stage PhD students seem to endure.

Back to Zoom. Maybe my kid’s grad school Zoom experience is unusual. I don’t know. What I do see is that her professors have decided to treat Zoom like their face-to-face seminars. A seminar class scheduled to meet face-to-face for 2.5 hours meets on Zoom for the same time.

Of course, being a student of learning, this drives me crazy. Nobody can pay attention on Zoom for that long. My daughter’s attention span is much longer than mine, and she seems to be managing. 

The Zoom sessions are not lectures, but discussions and presentations with the professor and her fellow students, so seminar-Zoom is okay. Plus, she says it’s nice to have this class time concentrated (and then done with), as she needs the time to read all those books and articles and write all those papers.

What I find interesting is that minus Zoom, my seminars 29 years ago were exactly like hers. 2.5 hours of discussions and student-led presentations. It was during these seminars that I fell in love with academic life. Much of my alt-ac career has been an attempt to recreate those grad school seminar debates in my role as a non-faculty educator.  This effort has been only intermittently successful.

Next year I hope (and expect) that my daughter will be on campus to experience her second year of grad school. It is so strange to me that she has never been. Grad school, for me, was such a place-based experience. We spent all of our time in one building (Maxcy Hall) and in one seminar room (in Maxcy Hall). Many of us lived in the basement computer lab. 

How grad school will look after COVID is unknown? I will not be surprised to see some seminars and events stay on Zoom. We will see.

Overall, in watching my daughter’s first-year grad school experience, my overall thought is that “wow, that’s hard.” There is no way that I could go back.  

Alternative-academia might have its challenges, but it is nowhere near as hard as being a first-year PhD student.



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