I know what you're about to ask. We saw each other last week, or we saw each other last year. You're going to ask how am I, or tell me happy Easter or say, "Give me a hug!" and then you're going to ask, "When do you graduate?"
You don't mean undergrad. You want to know when I'm going to finish my PhD. And maybe you'll even say it that way.
You'll ask this question before you even ask what I'm studying. You all know I'm in a PhD program via the family telephone tree, Facebook, and/or the Christmas newsletters from grandma. And maybe you know what I'm studying, but you're most interested in when will I be done.
"Do you graduate soon?"
"Are you done this year?"
"Do you have a job yet?"
Me: "Sometime in the future."
I stare at you and want to tell you the truth. But what is the truth? That I don't know? That a PhD isn't a timeline where I can give you the gestation period? That maybe I won't graduate? That I really don't want to talk about this because every other person asks?
Even my adviser asks this question. And my parents even ask it every other week. In their case, it's like they were hoping I was lying when I answered it last time and maybe I'll be truthful this time. Sorry, Mom and Pops, I'm still not graduating this year.
How long did it take Frodo to destroy the ring? How many years did it take to film Harry Potter? I once met a PhD who took 13 years and learned five different languages. I still only know one language, so I have a long way to go.
I try to give you a more immediate timeline at first. I tell you I'm proposing my dissertation this summer. You immediately jump to the conclusion that that means I have one year left. 365 days. But you're assuming so many things with that, like I have sustained motivation, that my proposal is a perfect execution plan, that I actually know what I'm talking about (I don't), that I have goals in mind. For example, I'm supposed to have specific aims in my dissertation. Specifically, I want to get out. My committee doesn't find that specific enough.
I try to say all this, that it's a flexible schedule and I'm shooting for December 2017, and then of course you comment, "That's so far away."
That's so far away? You're saying that's so far away? Please.
Or you remind me I've already been in school so long. I'll add a grain a salt and assume that you're clumping undergrad into that assertion, but people, you don't need to remind me I am going into my 21st year of public education and I can't say if I'll be out on my 22nd, 23rd, or 30th year.
It all depends on the data.
Usually someone has some anecdote to share about someone they know who got their PhD a lot faster. Or a lot longer. It's typically the latter. Oh, they took seven years? You should give motivational speeches for a living. Oh, they got out in three years? But they had a masters then, right? Or did they plagiarize? Oh, I see; actually they were just getting a masters. Well, I'm not, so it's going to be about a decade longer before dinner's done.
I've gotten used to telling people that I hope to graduate within two years with a margin of error of six months. No one seems to accept that (or get it). They want a smaller confidence interval, but then my confidence declines that I'm giving you an honest answer. I could say I graduate next month, if that helps, but then I'd be lying.
My grandma tells me I need to graduate ASAP, before she dies, not because she wants to see me crossing a stage, but because I told her I won't get married or have kids until I'm done. But she's forgetting the timeline for finding a partner and procreating might be even longer than the PhD timeline. Actually, it's probably shorter.
People need to understand a PhD is about producing something from nothing. I'm supposed to contribute something totally new to knowledge. And as time goes on, there's less and less new things to discover. At this point in time, I'm basically asked to do alchemy. It's gonna take a while. Maybe forever.
So when do I graduate? "Well, whenever you stop asking that question" is my new answer.
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