I did it. I finished this crazy long, often-frustrating, sometimes circuitous, frequently discouraging, seemingly never-ending, but-now-finally-over PhD.
Even though it’s been two months since I (somewhat anticlimactically) pressed “submit” and uploaded my completed dissertation, even though it’s almost been one month since I walked across a stage and added a fancy hood to my academic outfit collection, being finished still feels surreal. Right up until the end, even as I was making the final edits and searching for misplaced commas, l felt like I would always be a PhD student. And then suddenly, with the click of an onscreen button, it was all done. To quote the title of a book I read for my qualifying exams, “Everything was forever, until it was no more.”
It’s a funny experience, achieving something into which you’ve poured so much of yourself for the better part of a decade. You have dreams about what life will look like on the other side, how much time you will suddenly have, how free you will finally feel. You expect all those feelings to appear magically at once. And while I certainly felt a burst of euphoria after clicking that “submit” button, the excitement was soon replaced by exhaustion. After completing the biggest achievement of my entire life to date, all I wanted to do—and all I could do—was sleep.
Now two months later, having finally caught up on rest, I am ready to jot down some thoughts about my experience. And, boy, do I have a lot of thoughts. As in, enough thoughts to fill multiple blog posts on the subject. With that in mind, I’ll focus this entry on one main impression:
I’m different from when I started.
When I came to Atlanta for my “admitted student” visiting weekend in March of 2012, I knew I would be attending Emory. I had been wait-listed at or rejected by the other programs, and with the April 15th acceptance deadline approaching, Emory was truly my only option. Fortunately, the visit had been enjoyable. I liked the students I had met, and I had nice conversations with the professors and seemed to click with the one who would become my advisor. However, despite those clear indicators that graduate school in general, and Emory in particular, was the next step for me, I still felt so scared. When the visit ended and I was waiting to fly back to Branson, I walked on autopilot through the world’s busiest airport to my gate. Then I sat down on the carpeted floor by a window in the corner, and proceeded to cry and cry and cry. The future felt uncertain and overwhelming. I was embarking on something big, new, and unknown, and I had no idea what to expect. What would my life in Atlanta look like? Would I find a new church community? Would I make new friends? And most of all, what would happen during graduate school? How would graduate school change me, and would I even recognize myself when it was all said and done? These are the questions that filled my mind as I produced a puddle of tears on the floor of terminal C. I was so worried that I would turn into someone I didn’t want to be and that I might lose part of myself in the process. What if Steffi at the end were completely different from Steffi at the beginning?
My fears were not wholly off-base. I am different and, in many ways, unrecognizable from the person who cried on that airport floor. But rather than being a betrayal of myself or an unhealthy transformation, all the changes are positive. Here at the end, I am more confident, less anxious, more assured, and more articulate; less prone to comparison, more resilient; less apt to feel overwhelmed, and more likely to feel at peace. The thing I feared most turned out to be the best possible thing for me. How did that happen?
At departmental orientation my first year, the DGS (Director of Graduate Studies) explained that finishing a PhD was less a matter of intelligence than of Sitzfleisch—German for “perseverance” but literally translated as “sitting muscle.” Having spent the better part of seven years, and especially the last three, on my rear, I can confirm that sitting is essential to the PhD. But I agree even more with the importance of perseverance. Starting a doctorate is easy; finishing is anything but. You need grit, determination, and an insane sort of stick-to-it-iveness to work thirteen hours straight to meet a writing deadline. You need Sitzfleisch to dig through book after book because you know that what you need for a citation is buried there somewhere. You have to draw on inexplicable sources of energy to lug yourself from archive to archive, going through endless piles of foreign language documents to build an argument that does not yet exist. And you have to be a borderline-irrational variety of stubborn to tear apart a chapter draft—sometimes physically on the floor—because you know the argument can be better, clearer; and you won’t stop until you feel satisfied with the result. In other words, you have to a certain kind of crazy to start the PhD, and you have to reach new heights of myopic madness in order to finish. Yes, you’ll need Sitzfleisch, and you will need it in spades. At the beginning, I couldn’t picture myself having what it would take to make it to the end. And that makes sense. Tenacity wasn’t something I could magically conjure up; I had to build it along the way.
Sitting on that airport floor in March 2012, I could only imagine graduate school’s negative changes, and as a result, I feared that I would lose myself as a result. But to my great surprise, the exact opposite happened: I am more fully myself than ever before, and the PhD made it possible. Small and invisible though the transformation was along the way, I can now see it so clearly. God met me in all those places of anxiety, doubt, and fear, and He used those experiences to make me more into the person He created me to be. Oswald Chambers describes this well:
God does not give us overcoming life: He gives us life as we overcome. The strain is the strength. If there is no strain, there is no strength. Are you asking God to give you life and liberty and joy? He cannot, unless you will accept the strain. Immediately you face the strain, you will get the strength. Overcome your own timidity and take the step, and God will give you to eat of the tree of life and you will get nourishment. […] Spend yourself spiritually, and you get more strength. God never gives strength for to-morrow, or for the next hour, but only for the strain of the minute.
Would I do another PhD? Heck-to-the-no! Would I recommend others pursue a doctorate? Probably not. But am I glad I did it? Without question. Yes, there were countless times during the last 7 years when I wanted to throw in the towel, when I felt like curling up in the fetal position (and did!), when I didn’t think I would find the strength to keep trudging on. Looking back, though, I can see now that these moments (or months) of fear and uncertainty—and they were many—were not without purpose. Because it was in those difficult seasons of late nights, language courses, research trips, and repeated dead-ends that I was becoming a resilient person. Shortcuts were impossible. The times of weakness, discouragement, and exhaustion were essential parts of the process. Struggles are the catalyst for courage. Yes, I am different now from my 23-year-old self, but in more incredible ways than I could have ever imagined. Thanks be to God.
I’d like to end this post with the lyrics from one of my favorite songs. I have it memorized both because I like it, and because it’s featured on my “running music” playlist. (I also survived the PhD with a LOT of running.)
Say Goodbye by Joy Williams
I saw you today
My familiar stranger
You have come so far
You’re different now
Would you go back, would you want to anyhow
Say goodbye, say goodbye
To the you I knew before
Say hello, say hello to a new beginning
Say goodbye, say goodbye
To the you I knew before
This is your genesis
Face to face
The present and past collide
And it’s no mistake
I see the future is in your eyes
You seem so free
Like nothing’s ever gonna keep you down
You’re different now
You’re different somehow
You’re different now…”
I am different now, and I wouldn’t go back, nor would I want to anyhow. There are many unknowns as I face this new beginning of the post-PhD life. But thanks to the years earning this degree, I can face that future with genuine excitement and joy. No, I’m not sure what will happen, but I know that—with God’s help—this doctor of philosophy will be strong enough to handle it.