Not having a Ph.D. in this profession is like going to a Star Trek convention without a clearly outlined Kirk vs. Picard argument. It’s just not done (if you want to teach anything higher than composition and literature surveys, that is). You can typically expect to be treated like a second-class citizen by many of your colleagues. Not all, but many.
So now with the new fall semester underway and my wife starting to teach her first college-level class, getting my doctorate is front-and-center in my mind and on my list of professional goals.
There’s just one tiny problem: I was an idiot my entire undergraduate career, and I’m paying for it now.
Past is Prologue
Let no one tell you that what you do early in your academic career won’t come into play later on.
I did two incredibly stupid things early on that I’m still paying for. Well, let me rephrase that: I had an incredibly stupid mindset that had some unforeseen consequences that will affect my future whether I want them to or not.
What was the mindset? That being “good enough” was good enough. I’ve always been a smart guy, and I’ve never really had to try in school (not until I had to fit an entire year’s worth of Master’s work into 4 months, that is). I could get A’s in most classes and B’s in others without ever opening a textbook, without ever reading anything more than Sparknotes. Why would I put forth the effort to get all A’s when I could do nothing and get mostly A’s? It just didn’t make sense; I had better things to do with my time.
Unfortunately, that was my mindset from when I was a middle-schooler all the way up to when a professor in my Master’s program told me to (and I quote) get my head out of my ass. I was smarter than that.
However, by the time he told me that, I had already made three mistakes that are still compounding interest and could very well affect my Ph.D. aspirations.
Mistake #1: I’m a College Dropout
Through high school, I dated a girl I met on the Internet. When we were 18, she moved from Wyoming to Tennessee. She had been here maybe 6 months when I had to move off to college. In true 18-year-old fashion, I couldn’t stand being away from her those extended periods of time and withdrew from all my classes and moved home.
I returned the following semester, but the damage was done. I lost my scholarships (despite being told they would be waiting for me when I came back), I changed from Honors classes in History, English, and Biology to normal classes with easy professors my friends recommended, and I was a semester behind my friends so I had to take summer classes all four years just to graduate on time.
Taken in isolation, none of these are that bad. It’s when they’re combined that they snowball into a bigger deal.
Losing my scholarships wasn’t too bad because my family was (luckily) able to pay my tuition out of pocket.
Going from Honors to normal classes hurts a bit more now. While I definitely got a lot from my graphic novel themed comp classes, the lack of Honors-level assignments and discussion didn’t instill in me the “take college seriously” mindset that I really needed. By taking my friends’ suggestions, I had a great—and easy—time in college, but I know for a fact that I could have gotten more out of it had I stuck with my initial plan.
Taking summer classes was hard. Never having any real time off during college led to some ridiculous burnout by the time my Master’s was nearing completion. Couple that burnout with going straight into teaching, and being ready to start doctoral studies never happened. I think I’ve had enough time now, but life’s picked up since then, and going back’s never as easy as it sounds.
Mistake #2: Foreign Language Fluency
Dropping out that one semester did something else: while my friends had the great German teacher who had been there for years, when it was time for me to jump into my foreign language requirement, he had found another job, and I was stuck with the new hire.
At this point, I can’t remember her name. All I know is that I struggled to just get a C in her class because her style of teaching was two-fold: she never assigned vocabulary, thinking it would be picked up through grammar and mechanics exercises and she said constantly “You’re not going to understand this until German III, but I’ll tell you anyway.”
Needless to say, I learned nothing, and she lasted only a single year at the college.
But the damage was done. By the time they hired a suitable replacement, I was well entrenched in the good enough is good enough mindset, and instead of retaking the one class I needed to give me a foundation in the language, I pushed through, learning nothing and gaining myself another batch of Cs.
Why this hurts now is simple: Ph.D. programs in English require a foreign language reading fluency. I don’t have one. I can say a few basic phrases in German, but more than that is out of my league.
So now, I have a few options, none of which are appealing. I can learn German on my own time and hope to pass the exam. I can take undergraduate level German courses (at my own time and expense) to fulfill the requirement, or I can take a sequence of Beowulf courses, where we translate the full text from Old English.
If things had gone well in college, and I had both cared and been able to take that semester abroad in Germany that I had planned, none of this would happen. But because good enough has always been good enough, admittance into my doctorate program of choice may be iffy.
Mistake #3: I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ GRE
If good enough was good enough for class, then it had to be for the GRE exam, right? And when they say that the subject test isn’t required, that means I don’t really need it, right?
That’s what I thought in 2005, at least, as I prepared for my final year of college and started applying to Master’s programs.
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.
And while good enough was good enough to get into all Master’s programs that I applied to, I’m not so sure that my scores will do that with the Ph.D.’s I’m looking at. The scores are good. They’re workable. They’re even above average, I think. They’re just not exceptional. They don’t scream “this guy is the perfect candidate for your program” like I want them to.
So I’m going to take it again, probably in the Spring depending on what the schools’ deadlines are. Prepping for the GRE on top of everything else I have going on is less than appealing. If I had just cared a little more 5 years ago, then my scores would already be where I want them to be. I didn’t realize—or really care—at that point that so much of my professional future rested on some simple test scores.
Learn From My Mistakes
If you’re anything like I used to be, take my advice: don’t let good enough be good enough. Sure, it’s fun and it’s easy, but it’s not worth it.
It took until my wife and I started dating for me to get myself in gear; seeing how hard she worked at everything inspired me to do better, and I was able to pull all As in my last couple semesters of grad school.
But it was too little, too late.
None of my regrets about my academic past are brick walls that will prevent future study. I can—and will—get into a Ph.D. program to study what I love (pop culture and/or contemporary literature). It would just have been a lot easier (a lot, a lot, a lot) if I had realized ten years ago that the choices I made would have such a dramatic and lasting impact on my professional future.
So if you find yourself drowning in a sea of good enough, do yourself a favor and reevaluate yourself and what you want to be doing. Actively work toward taking yourself and your future seriously. Or else, five or ten years from now, you’ll find yourself re-doing a few things that you could already have out of the way if you had just cared enough the first time around.