27 September 2010

Three Questions

Once people learn that I am a graduate student they usually follow up with three questions.
  1. What do you study?
    1. Which comes with a subliminal request, "please keep the answer short and comprehensible; if I'm actually interested and understand your short answer, then I will ask for more details."
  2. When are you going to be done?
  3. What do you think you'll do when you're done?

I've often compared the last two questions to asking:
  1. When are you going to die?
  2. Do you think you'll be going to heaven?
In both cases graduate students are likely to commence an existential crisis of Kafkaesque proportions. Our first step is to retreat to a room heated by a stove, preferably with an abundance of comfort food, like chocolate. Our second step is to revisit first principles. Finally, we arrive at the incontrovertible base, cogito ergo sum, which translates roughly to "I dissertate, therefore I am." (According to DeathTimer I'm good until 2058, and according to DeathForecast I'm good until 2063, so I've got plenty of time to flip my Pascal's Wager coin.)

In the interests of diverting conversation away from the existential crisis inducing questions, I'm going to blog my answers. I'll work through the three questions in reverse order.

What next?
I am always in the process of reevaluating what I want to do next. I've recently had a brainstorm of something I can pursue that doesn't involve more school (which has been my default selection for years). I'll blog about this new idea in detail at some later date. In the meantime, here's my CV. If you have an interesting career opportunity, please email me.

When will you finish?
This is the question that I get asked the most often. By my supportive supervisor who knows exactly what I'm going through, and by my colleagues who are fighting the same battles, or by concerned friends and family who are convinced (by my existential crisis reactions to their questions) that I'd probably be better off if I was finished already. To appease all of these people I've come up with a handy visual: Dissertation Progress. At the bottom of the page is my checklist. I should point out that not all things on this list are equal; some took under a week and others occupied over a year. The check marks don't entirely convey the sense of satisfaction of completing the task, but it's an efficient information delivery system. At the top of the page is a visual demonstration of my current progress on my current task. I will update this page when I get a chance, so check it as frequently as you find yourself wondering, "is he almost done yet?" In the past 24 hours, for instance, the meter has gone up by a page (commence congratulatory chocolate celebration).

What do you study?
Short answer: the history of defence research in Canada during the Cold War.
The more involved justification is that there hasn't been a history of this activity for over 50 years and that my dissertation will improve our understanding of the government, the military, international relations, science and technology, scientists and engineers, policy makers, politicians, generals, etc. I cover everything from where we store our mustard gas, to the invention of the pacemaker and open heart surgery. I even get to write about Gerald Bull. It really is important and fascinating stuff. Watch my Dissertation Updates for more details.

Why I wish people would adopt a different line of questioning
I know that 'graduate student' includes the word 'student' and that these three questions are the same that we ask of any student. This is unfortunate, because ABD PhD candidates aren't really students. I don't take classes, and I don't get grades. I am researching and writing a book; I have a supervisor, and I get paid. Writing a dissertation is a job. A full time job with terrible pay. The pay is so poor that we take on part-time employment as teaching or research assistants just to keep our heads above the poverty line. These part time jobs are convenient, because we don't have to look too far afield for income, and because, theoretically, we are training to become professors.

So I would rather that the response 'ABD PhD candidate' to the question 'what do you do?' invoked the 'gainfully employed' series of questions.
  1. What are your responsibilities?
  2. Do you love what you do?
  3. What do you do in your spare time?
And for the record:
Yes, I absolutely love what I do. I would probably be a graduate student even if I didn't get paid at all. I love learning, and trying to explain what I've learned in a coherent way. I also love my part-time teaching gig. I will be melancholic when I finish, but I'm sure that I will find something else that I love. With any luck it will be something that I enjoy and that pays a little better than being a graduate student and that provides more opportunity for spare time (for sports and music and movies and family and books and ...).


  1. Jon, I'm just starting to write my dissertation. I like the Dissertation Progress report you compiled and have two questions:

    1. What program did you use to make the chart?
    2. Besides pleasing (or shutting up?) interested parties, how effective is the chart for your own work? Does it work as a motivation tool?

    I've been searching for a way to organize all my notes, files, chapter breakdowns, etc., before I settle down and begin writing in January. So far, I have the simple filing system, but I don't always remember to put a piece of paper in the correct file (i.e. it sits in my bag for months until I spill coffee and curse myself for not being more organized).

    Any advice on this? Thanks!

  2. Jai, I use Google Sites, and one of the page layout options is list (with checkboxes as a sublist option), so that accounts for the bottom of the page. The little meter is some Google Code (http://code.google.com/apis/chart/docs/chart_wizard.html) that I used the wizard to create and then embedded into my site.
    I have no clue how motivationally effective it will be. I just created it yesterday, and so far it's been pretty good.

    Perhaps I should blog about organizational advice sooner than later? Unfortunately, I seem to have misplaced my 'navigating the archives' powerpoint slides, because I know I covered note-taking and organization (imagine that? Losing my notes on organization!). I might have a hardcopy around that I could give you ...