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When Interests, Expectations Collide

When Interests, Expectations Collide
Who says the path to the Ph.D. has to be universal?

Two years ago, I was a semifinalist for the Walt Whitman Award. And for that brief period between the time I was told my little book had survived a cut from nearly 1,200 to less than 40 manuscripts and the time the top five winners were announced, I was a woman transformed.

I tend to be pretty reticent about the stuff that I do — from shyness or stupidity, it’s anyone’s guess. But about this — the most prestigious first book award given in poetry — I became downright voluble. I told all my family — even the ones who couldn’t pick a poet out of a police lineup. I told all my friends. I told neighbors who hadn’t read a Black poet since Paul Laurence Dunbar. I told strangers I met in the grocery store…
But I didn’t dare tell anyone from my department.
Now, to friends who weren’t in the academy, that seemed strange. “You guys teach English, right? ” asked one friend who, bless her heart, is merely a top-flight lawyer at a Fortune 500 firm.
I nodded — I’m a Ph.D. candidate breathing the rarefied air at a highly regarded program in a highly regarded Southeastern school, so, yes, teaching was a big part of what I was doing at the time.
 “Well, isn’t that …” she groped for words,
then faltering, simply said, “English?”
I groped for words in turn. I wanted to say: “Yes, but English is the concern of the English professors in the same way that religion is the concern of the pope. You need to think of professors as high priests and priestesses of the Word. They love it and guard it jealously. They don’t allow it to be touched by profane hands.”
I settled for the short answer: “My adviser told me to stop writing poetry three months ago. If this shows up in the departmental newsletter, I’m toast.”
Of course, I’m not sure now what I thought my adviser would or could do to me for disobeying what seemed at the time to be a direct order. All I know is that by that point in our relationship I had come to regard my adviser with a stomach-churning dread. And I had a bone-deep knowledge that while some professors and graduate students would sincerely congratulate me — particularly those who, like me, had MFA’s or an interest in creative writing — others would regard me the way they had a departmental secretary who had published a novel and garnered rave reviews — as if I had grown a third head.
My experience is anecdotal, to be sure, and I must be clear what I’m about to say is in no way meant as an indictment of my adviser or anyone else in my department. In general, I like the professors in my department a great deal — the crusty old characters, the young hot-shots and everything in between. Ishould also note that in the time it’s taken me to get to this point — not quite nine years, the median time to degree in the humanities — there’s been a marked cultural shift in my department.
But I’d have to say that, before that shift occurred, there were few who understood my background — in journalism, performance and creative writing — or my aspirations. The surveys I’ve seen seem to indicate there are plenty of graduate students who share my dilemma. In the studies by the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students and the Pew, among others, graduate students report receiving little information about alternate careers. Indeed, they say they’re quite reluctant to express interest in such, lest their professors drop them like hot rocks.
Indeed, there appears to be nothing more unsettling to a certain type of professor at a certain type of a doctoral program than the prospect of a graduate student who doesn’t regard being an academic as something of a modern-day Holy Grail.
These professors tolerate only one aspiration from their graduate students: They must intend to become academics, preferably of the hot-shot variety most often to be found at highly prestigious research I programs.
To be admitted to such a professor’s confidence, graduate students must be seen throwing themselves into their fields with brio, settling on an area of specialization as rapidly as possible and distinguishing themselves with brilliant original research, conference presentations, fellowships and even publications. To fail in any of these areas is to court that most dreaded of fates — that of becoming invisible.
When you’re invisible, professors don’t call upon you in class — or they purse their lips with barely concealed impatience when forced to. When you’re invisible, it’s impossible to attract mentors to help you navigate the process or advisers to help you finish your dissertation. Other graduate students regard you with pity. Even the secretaries put your copy requests on the bottom of the pile.
Am I exaggerating? Totally. But I’m also attempting to convey, with humor, the feelings of paranoia that can begin to haunt even the healthiest ego after prolonged exposure to the atmosphere of a competitive graduate program.
Looking back on my own graduate career, I can see that I gave great evidence of potential. I competed to participate in funded research projects and won. I won prestigious fellowships, presented at conferences and even published in a refereed journal. But I also can see that my missteps were legion.
I took classes outside the department — frowned upon in the regime under which I began my adventures in graduate education. This is no longer verboten. I stumbled innocently into a departmental turf war between two professors whom I didn’t at first realize hated each other. There was the lese majeste of the Walt Whitman Award — not to mention my decision to forego the paltry teaching stipend and began working at Black Issues.
But hindsight being 20-20, I can see now that, given my needs for autonomy and freedom in my working conditions — needs that were amply satisfied in the freewheeling worlds of journalism and creative writing — the structured, linear hierarchy of doctoral education was destined to make me suffer.
Compounding that difficulty was what I now see as my worst failure — passing on the opportunity to connect with professors who liked me, who accepted me on my own terms, and instead seeking the approval of a departmental “star” who respected my intellect but who could not accept my “outside” interests.
Not surprisingly, that relationship did not endure. And while I regret the pain we caused each other — not to mention the years I lost struggling to make things work — I couldn’t be happier with my new committee. They’re smart, supportive, and I’m on the third of my five chapters with them. I’m also still writing and reading my poetry — with not a peep from them.
Two weeks ago, I learned I’d been accepted by The Southern Review — one of the toughest poetry markets in the nation to crack. Two nights before I sat down to write this essay, I was on a national radio call-in show, reading my work and fielding calls from Manhattan, Long Beach, Calif., and all points in between.
And no, I’m not rocketing to the academic stardom that my erstwhile adviser wished for me. I never wanted that life. I want — and love — the life I have now: writing journalism, writing poetry, writing my nonfiction book (a.k.a., the dissertation), interviewing interesting people, researching, traveling.
The Ph.D. will be an ornament in this life I’ve created — not life itself. I’m not sure if that’s as it should be, but it sure as heck works for me.
— Kendra Hamilton is assistant editor of Black Issues In Higher Education.

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