It’s been over ten years since I completed the course work and passed the qualifying exams for my Ph.D. from University of Washington. Over ten years since the graduate school sent me that little certificate saying that I had been advanced to candidacy for my doctorate. But over the years, one thing after another seemed to get in the way of my finally finishing the degree. I sometimes wondered if I’d ever escape the doldrums of being ABD (all but dissertation).
What took me so long?
Well, first of all there was intellectual burnout and disillusionment with academia. Five years of graduate level coursework is a major push. Not that I didn’t find it educational and rewarding at some level, but you go into graduate literature study primarily for the love of reading and that tends to get burned right out of you. Yes, I read, and read, and read some more. But I didn’t read very many novels. And the novels I read were more for edification than enjoyment. I mostly read a bunch of philosophy and theory and “secondary” criticism. After I finished my coursework and exams, I don’t think I read a book for pleasure for a full year, and that’s probably the first time I’ve gone that long since I learned to read.
Interestingly, when I finally started picking up books for fun again, I found myself reading mysteries and science fiction.
The second big delay for me was falling in love with Petra. Okay, so I’d been in love with her for a long time, but I mean that we finally started a relationship together and I moved to Portland to be with her. Nothing distracts you from the other cares of the world quite like a new relationship. And this was a good one. She’s the love of my life to this day.
Third, I was broke and needed to make money. The joke had always been that every temp job I worked during grad school ended up offering me a full-time job. But when it came time to find a way to make decent money, I landed in a field I’d never expected. My “soft skills” scored me a position developing an on-the-job training program in medical research administration. But the longer I stayed, the more I started to become a valued resource in the office where I worked. By the time I left seven years later I’d moved up to senior manager level. It was good work and I was blessed with wonderful co-workers, but in the end it just wasn’t my calling. I realized I wanted to be a literary scholar and not a hand maiden to medical researchers. The money was hard to walk away from – top researchers can afford to have MFAs and humanities PhD’s as their underlings, drafting their email and writing their grant applications – but in the end it just wasn’t for me.
Fourth, once I decided to finish, I had to get myself back up to speed. Figuring out how to read and to write scholarly discourse again was like learning a foreign language. It took an incredible amount of time to catch up on the research into Poe and his work. Plus, I needed to get current with textual studies and immerse myself into psychoanalytic theory. Fortunately, I’d been teaching adjunct all along and my academic peers at Marylhurst University proved to be remarkably generous with their time and knowledge. Endless conversations and academic discussion helped me find my way back into the fold. Both Dr. David Denny and Dr. Meg Roland were absolutely invaluable to me as intellectual peers. Without the two of them, I never could have gotten my dissertation done.
Fifth, I had a remarkably patient and persistent advisor. My committee chair, Dr. Mark Patterson never stopped believing that I could finish my dissertation. Even more inspiring, he expected me to produce important work that demonstrated the true extent of my grappling with Poe’s vexed position in the American canon and the depth of my insights into how Poe’s poetic theories informed his fiction and poetry. With Mark’s constant encouragement, I discovered truly innovative ways of understanding Poe. In short, I found the core of my academic career. My admiration for Mark’s intellectual rigor is surpassed only by my gratitude for his kindness and generosity. He’s truly a scholar and a gentleman.
Sixth, it’s a lot of work. No really. I don’t think you quite understand. It’s a lot of work.
Seventh, life tends to get in the way. Just when you think that you’re in the final stretch, your plans are derailed by financial worries or a family emergency or a sudden health crisis. We had more than our share of bumps in the road. But then again one of my favorite quotes is from John Lennon: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Truer words.
Eighth, you decide to just get it done. The final push isn’t pretty, but when you’ve been working at it long enough and hard enough, there comes a moment when you tell yourself and everyone around you that this time you’re really going to get it done. And one way or another, you do.
Here’s nearly 80,000 words on how Poe’s poetic theories give rise to the horror in his poems and stories.
Here’s my graduation selfie.
Petra wasn’t able to attend my graduation ceremony. Our basement flooded the weekend before and someone needed to stay home to deal with the plumber and the contractors, but we were used to these minor setbacks along the way. The victory was sweet anyway. And we had a toast together when I got home.
Boy, am I glad to be done.