“Why does it take so long to complete a PhD?”
I have an angry response for this. And a funny one. A screaming one. A death-stare one. A self-deprecating one. A non-response. But when it is asked by a smart, well-meaning person truly interested in my work who just happens to not be from academia, I can’t use any of those.
The best metaphor I can give you is that of a bodybuilder. There is that first stage, when you stuff your face and bulk up and get as big as you possibly can. Then there is the training phase, when you work your ass off and get that mofo in shape and a nice form emerges that you fine-tune and finally show off.
I am in that training phase. The thesis isn’t allowed to get any fatter, only leaner. I am streamlining and cutting things out. This will be a separate paper. This is awesome, but it has no place within these five chapters. This piece of tricep-fat has got to go because it’s fugly. Oh, my beautiful thesis, will you check yourself out in the mirror? See how it’s all coming together. Yeah, flex that. Aren’t you happy we busted our balls over that one now?
Then there is that other remark, “Wow, you’re the shit. I could never do what you’re doing.”
My response to that is, not a day goes by that I don’t question myself on that same issue, my friend. There is wisdom in knowing what you can and cannot do, and I envy those who know they can’t. I know I should be able to do this, because this is how my brain is wired and it’s what I’m good at. I know I get off on it and there is nothing I would rather do with myself. But you don’t always feel like getting up in the morning for that warm-up session, and sometimes you can’t get the definition you want no matter how hard you crunch. Self-motivation is a bitch, and you wonder if, somewhere down the line, when the trophies are handed out, it will be reward enough.
Six full years into the process, I couldn’t really tell you why it’s taking so fucking long. I can only tell you how I got here, and how it feels.
It takes maturity. A ripe, sharp-shooting, juggernaut human mind and a heart that’s been around the block. How I write is just as important as what I write. There is that tongue-in-cheek remark by my boy T.S. Eliot about needing to reach beyond oneself into the totality of history if one is to be a poet after one's twenty-fifth year. Many poets (read: pompous asses) take offense at that because they believe that their poetry is solely an expression of their person and that the world is irrelevant. Well, I don’t know anyone in the humanities who got their PhD before the age of thirty, and if they did, I can guarantee you that their work wasn’t ready, that they probably just dipped their big toe into History and the world, and their supervisors conveyor-belted them out as the academic landlubbers that they are. Like them, I was a puppy six, five, four, and three years ago. It just wasn’t coming together sooner.
It takes ages to weed out the sucky books, and there are soooo many. I read at my desk, in bed, in libraries, in bars and cafés. Upside down, sideways, every which way. There are days when your mind is one massive solar flare, and days when you wonder if someone shouldn't just put you out of your misery. You keep looking for the right regime of note-taking and daily schedule, only to find there isn’t one. This thesis could be the single most important thing anyone has ever said about this subject, or a total fucking embarrassment. It’s a thin line between genius and crazy [mediocre being worse than both, of course]. Is everything you love supposed to bring this kind of joy and pain at the same time? Gah!!!
And it does take a village. One of the main reasons I will not only own this mofo but knock it out of the park is because it was never just mine to begin with. The thank-you page will not even begin to acknowledge the hours that other minds – supervisors, professors, colleagues, librarians – have put into this. No diary could number the times that Mom made coffee and lunch, that Dad ran errands for me, and that my sister took me out for a beer and a laugh when my brain produced nothing but farts. How many times can your friends and your partner be amused by your gift of gab about deterritorialization and minority and sedentary vs. nomadic travel and legitimacy? Apparently, infinitely. They feed you and put your pants on the right way around. They take you by the hand when you are lost in thought. They put you back on track when you get off course. They correct, and groom, and love. And they should celebrate and be celebrated.
There are no experiments, formulas or machinery to my work. It doesn’t glow in the dark, blow anything up, or cure cancer. I don’t have a finite answer to most anything. But I can cure ignorance, and create a multiverse of humans treating each other better. That just might be what saves this goddamn planet.
*I borrowed the title from one of many PhD-related blogs out there, The Thesis Whisperer.