June 9, 2007

All-but-Dissertation Tucker Dummychuck

Filed under: General Me, Literati and Cognoscenti — tomemos @ 1:31 pm

(Before I forget: a lot of people were confounded by the title of my last entry, so I want to clear up this one: It’s #40 of John Hodgman’s 700 Hobo Names. The last title was from A Fish Called Wanda. Okay, on with the show.)

I was catching up with an old friend on the phone the other day, and, as often happens when I catch up with old friends, she asked me if I was about to finish my program. It’s a reasonable question—I’m finishing up my fourth year now, which is our standard “done with school” interval in this country—but I explained that, no, I wasn’t even close; I was about to take my qualifying exams, which would mean I was cleared to write the dissertation. That would take a couple years at least, and then I’d have the Ph.D.

“Well,” she said, “when you get your Ph.D., will you want people to start calling you ‘Doctor Tom’?”

“Maybe at first,” I said. “But eventually I’ll be more casual about it. People can call me ‘Doc Tom.'” Julie, overhearing this, had a stroke of pure inspiration and wrote in her notebook, “” When we got off the phone, we checked; unfortunately, though, “” is the website of a (now-deceased) doctor and advocate of self-care.

Maybe, once I get my Ph.D., I’ll check to see if that website is still being kept up, or maybe I’ll register “,” though I think the pause of the underscore may break up the phonetic effect. (My suggestion that we look into “” was met only with contempt.) Or maybe, most likely of all, I’ll let the idea float out of my head and do nothing at all. I’m actually only using this as a transparent segue to what I really want to talk about: I’m now one step closer to Doc Tom-dom (or, as I’ve passed my qualifying examinations.

They basically went fine. They caused me a lot of stress in the days leading up to them, of course; I’m used to the stress of having to do a lot of reading in a short span of time, but I honestly don’t know if I’ve felt fear like that since I took the GRE in Literature. (On the first question of that test, I completely forgot who Icarus was for about 75 seconds.) The fear was similar in both cases, since the goal of both tests was to prove my basic competence in my chosen field, but the stakes are obviously higher on the quals, not least because it is possible (though rare) to not only fail but also to be told, in essence, to abandon your academic career. As I got closer and closer to finishing my preparation, I entered an odd bipolar state where I alternated between feeling serene and confident about the exam, and feeling sick with anxiety, waking up at six in the morning gasping, etc.

The way it works in our department is, you have two days of written exams at four hours each, and then, if you pass those, you take a two-hour oral exam the following week. Initially, I was more nervous about the written section than about the oral section, because I talk a good game but feared putting something down on paper, where people could ponder my stupidity at their leisure. After I passed the writtens, though (they never actually told me that I passed, only that I should assume I passed), I became more scared of the orals, because on the writtens I could write about whatever books I wanted, whereas during the orals my examiners could ask me about the books they wanted me to talk about. Both of them were basically fine once I started, though; the salutary effect of these exams is to make you ask yourself, “Can I actually do this?” and then remind you, “Oh, right, I can.”

It helped that a few of my department friends (like this one and this one) were taking their exam around the same time, since we could sweat together and celebrate together. (Everybody passed.) In fact, as I talked with past exam-takers, looked through previous years of exam questions, and so forth, I got the feeling of being part of a long history of exam-takers. This feeling was reinforced by taking the writtens in the same office that a number of other people had taken theirs: their answers were saved on the computer and everything, just as mine are now. When I first went into the office, the department secretary gave me a Post-It note with her phone number on it, so I could call her during the exam if I needed to. When I reached the desk, I saw about six other identical Post-Its, from previous examinees, and was reminded of the scene in Silence of the Lambs, when Catherine Martin finds the fingernail in the wall of her prison and realizes … someone’s been here before. (On my last day I drew a “Kilroy was here” on one of them.)

On the second day of my writtens, Korean Campus Ministries was selling Korean barbecue for $5 down at street level. I know, because there were like six different people yelling “Korean barbecue!! Five dollars!!” right under the window of my exam. I fantasized about harming them.

Since I wrote my writtens on a computer with internet access and no supervision, I had to sign a paper saying that I wouldn’t use online material in preparing my exam. This led to some moral uncertainty when I wasn’t sure about the adjective form of “aporia.” I thought “aporic”; Word didn’t like it, but then it doesn’t like “aporia,” either. I wanted to look it up on, but I signed a paper swearing that I wouldn’t use online material in my exam, so maybe that would be against the rules. (NB: Turns out it’s “aporetic.” Oh well.)

Enough memories; it’s over, and it feels great that it’s over. I’m free to read whatever I want again, to return about thirty books to the library, and to not jump when I see one of my committee members in the halls. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a dissertation to write. (He does not move.)



  1. Congrats on your AayBeeDeeity, Tom.

    We are now in competition to see who can finish eir prospectus first. Just so you know.

    Comment by Shayda Hoover — June 11, 2007 @ 6:10 pm

  2. Congrats!

    Comment by kindle — June 11, 2007 @ 9:27 pm

  3. Congrats again, Tom.

    Comment by ASK — June 13, 2007 @ 10:43 am

  4. Congratulations!

    Of course, I passed my quals, had my thesis proposal approved in the next month, and decided to leave grad school in the next month, but I don’t think that’s that common.

    Comment by Rich Puchalsky — June 14, 2007 @ 8:30 am

  5. Congratulations, Tom.

    I can empathize about the Korean barbecue thing; the fire-alarm went off for a full thirty minutes the second day of my writtens. I ended up chatting with half the department–including my dissertation chair–during the evacuation.

    Comment by Gene — July 12, 2007 @ 2:13 am

  6. Gene—

    Thanks a lot! And yes, I heard that there was a fire alarm during an exam in the past (though I didn’t know it was you); there were two this quarter, as well. All very suspicious, if you ask me.

    Comment by tomemos — July 12, 2007 @ 7:04 pm

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