FAQs about PhDs

What I wish my friends and family knew about my PhD. I strongly encourage anyone reading this to start with the previously hyperlinked article. The title is self-explanatory, and I’ll leave it at that. As I was read it myself, it reminded me that I’ve been wanting to write something about this for some time now. As far as I’m concerned, Kate Samardzic got it exactly right.

To give you some idea of what this pursuit has been like for me, within the past couple of weeks I came to realize that this past year was the hardest I’ve had since I went through cancer treatment nearly fifteen years ago. And to be entirely honest, cancer treatment was significantly less traumatic – or at least what I remember of that painful time. To be clear, it’s not the content of my PhD program that is so challenging. It’s negotiating the expectations I have for myself, trying to navigate the emotional side of an extremely competitive environment, as well as a situation populated by highly intelligent people many of whom do not have my best interest at heart. Or, if they do, their idea of supporting me is unequivocally wrong regardless of how well intentioned they may be.

It’s hard to feel understood when clearly, nobody understands. This is most evidenced when I tell people I just met that I’m in a program for educational technology, and they respond with some form of “Oh wow” or “ How cool” that translates to “I have no idea what that is, but I’m also not going to ask either.”

People also reliably ask how long my program is. Let me also tell you this, PhD programs are about research not classes. And, within reason, there is no timeline for research. PhD programs are about learning about the academic environment and profession. That means learning about how to conduct research, how to publish that research, how to present that research in public in front of people in your field. It’s learning how to become an expert in our particular area of research. And not like “I’m an expert in cats.” It’s becoming an expert like no other in the world on a very specific subject. Ideally, I will be the worldwide expert on training teachers in online class for refugees in protracted situations. I’ll know some about online classes. And I’ll know some about refugee education. But, if I do this right, I will likely be the one person that knows the most about all of these areas as they come together. Interdisciplinary is what we call it.

In many ways my support system has been there for me. Everyone does their part, in their own way. I get financial support from some, emotional support from others and proofreading from a few more. It’s more than many have. While I wish people in my life were more interested in being engaged with what I do, I do appreciate the help I get. But let me say this, if you don’t understand the life work of someone who is important to you, it doesn’t take much to ask a few basic questions. They will appreciate it, and it’s another way to support them.

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