Hello, Blogosphere. It’s been a long time. Too long of a time. I have missed you. (And for the sake of my fragile self-esteem, I am going to tell myself that you missed me too.)
What kept me away? So glad you asked. I was studying for and then taking my PhD exams. Which meant that for the last 3+ months I did basically nothing but eat, sleep, and study… while occasionally skipping the first two. For all practical purposes, I lived in my study on the 5th floor of the library, becoming familiar with every one of its quirks, like how often (or not often) they cleaned the bathrooms and which students preferred to study at which carrels (I also gave nicknames to and had odd interactions with some of them, but I won’t go into that here). During these months, my main source of humor became awkward book titles like this:
…and, I’m ashamed to admit, the occasional cat video.
From the day I returned to the US in mid-August until I began my exams in mid-November, my life quite literally revolved around studying. I timed my working hours to match the bus schedule, spending most evenings in the library until the last shuttle left campus at 8. My definition of a “good day” shifted to mean “a day when I put my makeup on before getting to school”. By the end, it further devolved to mean “a day when I manage to put on makeup at all”. I essentially lived in my study room in the library; if I could have gotten my mail there, I would. Case in point: I kept a change of clothes, a blanket, and a stockpile of Dove chocolate in my file cabinet (who needs files anyway?). I befriended the staff at the café in the library’s basement, and I do not want to think about how much money I spent on coffee—let alone how much caffeine I consumed, often in a single day. Besides the coffee baristas, my most consistent human interaction was with a) the library security guards and b) the staff at the book checkout counter. By the end, I’d expanded this social network to include those at the Music and Media library, where I stopped in every three days to renew my seasons of Downton Abbey. Outside of school, my life was pretty much nonexistent, or stripped down to the bare minimum: I slept, exercised, read my Bible and went to church, and (very occasionally) bought food and cooked it. And in an exceptional burst of energy—egad!—I attended a Halloween party. In other words, life was rough.
And I complained about it. A lot. Especially to my friend Ashley, who was also studying for her exams and happened to
live in have a study room twoaway from mine. Misery truly loves company. In one of my lower moments (*cough* one of my many lower moments), I said, “Ashley, I hate my life.” To which she compassionately replied, “That’s okay; it will be over soon.” I respond by laughing uncontrollably. The rule that the 5th floor is a “quiet floor” clearly shouldn’t apply to permanent residents, haha.
And if exams weren’t bad enough, I also had deadlines for external grants. You see, as a European history student, I will need to spend next year doing research abroad (I know, I know. Tough life.) But to do that, I will need external funding. And in order to get that funding, I had to apply for grants. And to be able to apply, I needed to know what exactly my project would be. Which meant that, in addition to plowing through the 400ish books on my exams lists, I needed to get through a smaller mountain of literature for my project. After which I had to write convincing, succinct, and engaging proposals that would persuade people to give me lots of money. All of this needed to happen while I prepared for exams that would determine whether I could continue in the program. No pressure.
So as you can see, the months leading up to exams were rough. And the exams themselves weren’t exactly a walk in the park. At noon on three different days (November 17, 20, 24), I received a set of questions and was expected to submit my response by noon the next day. This meant writing for 12 hours straight, going home to “sleep” (or more accurately, to toss and turn for hours only to have nightmares about footnotes), and waking up before dawn to revise and submit. In the end, I wrote 79 pages in 72 hours before collapsing into Thanksgiving break. Last Thursday, I had my oral exam, during which my committee members (all 5 of them) could ask me any question they wanted about what I had written (or hadn’t written) and the material I’d read. Talk about an academic hazing ritual.
Even before coming to grad school, I’d been dreading this process. And for the last two years I had watched in quiet horror as the date moved closer, and the temporal gap between me and these awful, awful tests grew smaller and smaller. How in the world would I make it through all the material? And what if, after reading and studying for months on end, I still wasn’t good enough? What if they didn’t pass me? What if I didn’t have what it takes?
These thoughts plagued me on and off for the last two years, and most intensely, for the last three months. And then all of a sudden–or, more accurately, after 45 minutes of the oral exam–they were over. Done. In the past. And before I knew it, my advisor was giving me a huge hug and telling me that I’d passed.
It’s already been a week since that moment, and the initial euphoria has long since worn off. I made so many ecstatic phone calls (this is the closest I’ve experienced to getting engaged, haha—so many people to tell!), got a ridiculous number of likes on my Facebook status (again, like getting engaged), and have finally returned to a semi-normal schedule. And as bizarre as it feels to sleep in, bake cookies, and not look at my computer for an entire day, the thought I can’t seem to shake is this: They’re over. And I did it.
At so many points along the way, I didn’t believe I would make it… and in the beginning, I was angry and bitter about having to do this. Taking these exams was the last thing I wanted to do. But at some point my mindset shifted, and I found myself buckling down and learning to bear it, taking it one day (or book) at a time. Some days were better than others. And some days all I wanted to do was cry. But by God’s grace, I kept putting one foot in front of the other, trying to trust that every day brought me closer to where I needed to be. And apparently that’s what happened, because the exams are over, and I passed.
This is the first of what I’m sure will be many blog posts about my exams experience (when that’s all you do for 3 months, you have very few other topics to write about, haha), and so I resist the temptation to cram in everything I’ve learned. Instead, I’d like to end this first entry with this quote by Oswald Chambers. I read it in early August, back when this crazy awful adventure was just beginning, and it stuck with me through this whole process:
“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…”
I now think I understand–at least partially–why God chooses to let us go through difficulties rather than bailing us out of them: If we don’t go through the strain, if we never face the gauntlet, then we’ll miss out on the strength. I used to wonder if difficulties were worth it, and I couldn’t see why God would let us experience the hard times. But now I get it. Only by facing our challenges, only by rising up to and overcoming them do we grow and do we move one step closer who God intended us to be. There are no spiritual short cuts; we don’t get to teleport to Mordor to destroy the ring. God has always been more concerned with the process anyway; that’s why this whole discipleship-thing takes a lifetime. No, it’s not always fun. Yes, we will complain, want to quit, and (more often than we care to admit) curl up in a ball and cry. But it’s the perseverance, the “stick-to-it-iveness”, the pressing on that matters to God. In the strain, our character is forged. And through the hardship our faith moves from the sentimental to the substantial.
No, I didn’t enjoy the last three months, and I (quite literally) thank God that I’ll never have to go through exams like this again. But at the same time, as much as it stunk, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Because in addition to all the “book-learning”, I learned firsthand the value of perseverance and endurance. And that, I suppose, makes all the endless days of studying worthwhile.
Phew, that wore me out. Does anyone know of a good coffee shop not in the library? 😉