3. You don’t need to feel like you’re succeeding.
There are some days where you’ll feel successful, but not many. Again, you may have completed 1-2% of a project, but often it’s tough to see where that piece fits into the larger whole.
The other part of this is that there are simply very few milestones. You pass your comprehensive exams, your candidacy defense, and your dissertation defense, so during graduate school — a five to six year process — you have three markers that tell you you’re doing well. Apart from these, the only real professional currency you can acquire is publications, and to put it simply, you don’t want to rely on the publication process to tell you if you’re doing well professionally. That’s not to say the work isn’t interesting or rewarding, because it often is.
One thing that professors told me again and again early in graduate school: you absolutely must condition yourself to fail. Constantly. For every small success I had in graduate school, I am certain I had at least a dozen failures: rejected articles, brutal conference reviews, discovery of a flaw in something I’d just spent days working on, etc. (In truth, were I to tally these up I’m certain the ratio would be higher, but just writing this it seems implausible, so I’ll leave it as is.) These iterative failures are, at a very deep level, the essence of creating new knowledge, and are therefore inseparable from the job. If you can’t imagine going to bed at the end of nearly every day with a nagging feeling that you could have done better, academia is not for you.--Daniel McCormack "Some Lesser Known Lessons from Academia" [HT Dailynous]
A recent dinner with friends from graduate school and Daniel McCormack's useful post (see also this moving piece by the late Josh Parsons) brought to mind a painful memory: my equivalent of what McCormack calls the "candidacy defense." I am pretty sure that at Chicago this involves a proposal, which is basically an extended summary of each proposed chapter and bibliographical essay/partial literature review, and, if my memory does not fail me, a draft-chapter. For me this exam came in my fourth year.
I knew my draft-chapter was not very strong because I had started from scratch after dropping the idea of a PhD on the puppet image in Plato's Laws, which had been the subject of my 'Preliminary Essay" (a qualifying paper that's kind of equivalent to a MA thesis and was demanded in lieu of a comprehensive exam (which had been abolished some time before). My Preliminary Essay evaluation process had not been a happy experience because the committee was very divided about the quality of my work (about that some other time). But the two supportive faculty members were two members of my dissertation committee (including one of the co-supervisors).
I don't recall much about the actual candidacy defense, except that it was in my supervisor's office, and that after, I felt like a total intellectual idiot/nitwit. (The more recent jargon would be imposter.) It was clear that my project relied on half-baked assumptions and badly understood distinctions. Even though none of them had any special expertise on my topic, they had seen right through the project and honed in on its weaknesses. They were not mean, and I sensed no ill-will toward me (and this made it worse); it was strictly business, and I was left holding unsaleable shmattes. While they were conferring on my fate, I recall sitting in the hall-way too numb too feel, but contemplating if I should apply to law-school at once or move with my Bullmastiff to Red Lodge, WY, and spend the rest of my life in exile from the world. (No way I was going home having proved myself such a failure.) Before going to graduate school, I spent a year working in corporate America researching by phone what kind of Linotype printers European print-shops owned, and I was not eager to go back to such mindless drudgery.
Perhaps I missed the cues, but I did not come away from that exam thinking that my project was worthy or original. So, I was truly dumbfounded when my supervisor came out of his office and warmly congratulated me on being ABD. I went back into the office, thanked my smiling and kind examiners, and left; I don't recall any festivities that night.
So, of the three formal "markers that tell you you’re doing well" the first two were not unambiguously encouraging. (I spent seven years in graduate school.)* Interestingly enough, genuine depression only set in (recall) near the end of the dissertation when I could see that I would complete it (recall also my response to Peter Railton here) [and this post]. In fact, once the dissertation was under way, I had gone back home for six month. It had been a mistake; I was in my thirties and had really nothing to show for my life. I struggled with loneliness and made no progress on the dissertation. One day, a box with dissertation related books arrived out of the blue (I had sent it with surface mail). It contained a six volume set of Hume's History of England. In my languor I found myself taking hot baths and diverting myself by reading Hume's History from the start. This did not feel like work (I had a kind of absurd image of myself as a comic character in a late nineteenth century novel). I wish I could say at what moment during the War of the Roses or Tudor volumes it occurred to me that if I stayed in academia I could read Hume's History and books like that for a living, but I don't recall. In addition, I missed dog-park.
Let me explain. I am pretty sure I would not have completed my PhD, or stayed in academia, if it weren't for (a) my dog and the twice-daily dog-park conversations. For, in dog-park [Nichols Park for Hyde Park aficionados] and (b) the reading groups that I was incorporated into by various professors, I received daily informal markers of progress. For, dog-park was not just a source of distraction, fresh air, and camaraderie even the source of life-long friendships, it was also an open-ended conversation with brilliant minds (professors and fellow graduate students from all walks of life and intellectual orientations). And I did not feel a nitwit in their presence; rather I felt that I was taken seriously as an audience-participant day in day out by world class scholars and peers that I respected enormously; and when I talked about my own findings and projects, I could sense my own enthusiasm and liveliness in the presence of their critical interest.
I guess the moral is this: there are, indeed, very few formal milestones during graduate school, and much of academic life is a career in delayed and partial gratification (even with encouraging and warm supervisors--I really warmly recommend mine who were encouraging when it mattered to me at key moments). It can be piercingly lonely, and often solitude is emphasized in descriptions of scholarly life (in the Humanities and many social science). But for me it also has been a means to have open-ended, overlapping, stimulating conversations. So, while it is true that iterative (I am tempted to say, Popperian) failures are the essence of creating new knowledge, and are therefore inseparable from the job, it is equally true that these failures are embedded in (to use highfalutin words) discursive practices that often make all the rejections worth it; well, that's true for me often enough to stick with it.
* I did publish two very insignificant articles in Dutch on the history of cartography and I had work jointly authored with an undergraduate teacher accepted by a very good history of science journal (for all kinds of reasons it's still not appeared in print).