DON’T EVER ASK ME THAT AGAIN: The Two Ways You Can Respond to Being Asked When You’ll Finish Grad School

Full disclosure here: I get really really testy when people ask me when I’m going to finish PhD school.  The question inevitably pops up at pretty much every friends or family gathering, from a regular Sunday lunch to Thanksgiving dinner with folks I don’t see very often (the latter is more laden with the dreaded question-askers; the former crowd is probably tired of asking).  It’s also just a general conversation starter that most people use with me after meeting me and finding out that I’m in a PhD program.  It’s like they think that finishing is *the* thing I want to talk about, instead of, say, my actual research.  In the event of being asked The Question, I oscillate between wanting to throw myself in the floor like a five-year-old and scream “I’LL FINISH WHEN I DAMN WELL PLEASE” and wanting to curl up in the fetal position and weep softly while explaining that PhD school is very, very hard, and I have zero clue as to when it will ever release me from its death grip. I haven’t actually responded to The Question in this way (yet…I make no promises here), but I have accidentally snapped at well-meaning friends and family before I had a chance to reign in the inner five-year-old threatening a tantrum of epic proportions.  But then I take a deep breath and remind myself of something very important: these people mean well and want me to finish because it’s what I want.  I think that (and I’m generalizing here) graduate students present themselves as modern-day Prometheuses, with the eagle that is the dissertation arriving daily to peck out our livers.  In sum: we whine a lot.  So, it seems natural that friends and family would actively want to play Hercules and free us from the chains that bind; hence, the question is a means to alleviate our pain, like presenting a light at the end of the tunnel.  “So when are you going to finish?” is a conversation starter meant to steer you toward the fact that you will, barring emotional disintegration or other reasons (that’s a whole different, and very serious blog post), finish this thing.  So while the question makes me want to rip something apart hulk-style, I think its roots stem from a good place.  I mean, I’m sure there are people who might be secretly mocking you for your perma-student status, but those people are just mean, and I’m choosing to deal with well-meaners here.  Now that we’ve established that the question-askers are well-meaning, how do we answer them?

I. THE “IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS” APPROACH

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I took a poll on Twitter of fellow grad students’ approaches to The Question (check out my Storify!).  Like directly naming Lord Voldemort, several took the approach that it just shouldn’t be done.  A friend even suggested that it’s like asking a woman her age: it’s just rude.  I think that perspective is easier to understand when you’re inside the academy, though, and it isn’t an etiquette rule that your friends and family are likely to pick up on.  That is, unless you explicitly tell them.  Which brings me to an epiphany of sorts: why don’t you just tell them, politely of course, that you’re not sure?  I’ve already been doing something like this, but I couch it in the fact that I’m still being funded, which I feel like gives an air of validity to my pursuit.  I shouldn’t have to do that, but I feel like if I couch my explanation within the idea that PhD school is my job, then the fact that I’m 30 and have been in the university system for 10 years (oh my god) seems like a more legitimate career path.  And you know what, it IS.  I love school.  I love what I do.  I may whine about it, and it may be difficult, but I know that this is where I want to be.  I just don’t feel like I should have to justify it, you know?  I think that’s where the Voldemort twitter response comes from: most of us love* what we do and feel like we shouldn’t have to justify it to others.

II. “THE PATH OF ACCEPTANCE” APPROACH

The twitter respondents seemed to be of two camps: the “that’s none of your business” camp and the “let’s use this to start a conversation” camp.  One person even suggested that, since he had been in a PhD program for ten years, it was a legitimate question.  Another person, Mr. Justin O’Hearn over at The Graduable, mentioned that having this conversation with a friend prompted a deeper discussion regarding whether or not he would finish the program.  I don’t disagree with the convo-starter approach; I think The Question can be a really productive one (although I’m not yet in that blessedly mature place yet).

One of the great things about the convo-starter approach is that it seems to generate really helpful discussion about the process of writing and balancing life.  It helps to acknowledge that so many things happen that are out of our control while writing this beast: we get married; we have kids; we move across the country a couple times (yep, that’s me); we experience loss; we undertake serious life changes.  All of these things can delay the process, and they are an organic part of any stage of life, but they seem especially suited to being in your 20s and 30s.  And I use “suited” because, guess what?!, lots of changes occur for most people during this time.  So balancing an actual life with writing the PhD can be really, really difficult.  And it’s important to acknowledge that to a Question-asker.  I’m not saying that you should launch into your life story whenever someone asks you The Question (and five hours later you’re done and you’re sitting in a circle braiding each others’ hair), but I do think that maybe it’s important for us to come up with a quick answer about all the things we’ve accomplished (because, yep, we have!) while writing this thing. We’re like lotuses.  Growing out of the mud.  So there.

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So what’s it gonna be: Voldemort or a lotus?  I don’t actually think you have to choose.  My friend Ann Gagne suggested that there’s a very fine line between the organic nature of writing a dissertation (it’s SO HARD to stay within a schedule because you never know what’s going to pop up–whether it’s something in life or some research-related rabbit hole) and the linearity that both your institution and those outside of it (friends and family) expect you to adhere to.  I guess answering The Question needs to respect both the organic nature of the process and the fact that you will, at some point in the foreseeable future, come away from this thing with a degree.  And it will be awesome.

*I’m using the verb “love” very loosely and to define my own experience.  Students have seriously varied experiences with their programs and some realize that it isn’t for them, and that’s okay.  I speak from what I know, y’all.

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5 thoughts on “DON’T EVER ASK ME THAT AGAIN: The Two Ways You Can Respond to Being Asked When You’ll Finish Grad School

  1. Another insightful blog post, Sarah. Another take on the modern Prometheus: are we, as budding scholars, attempting to steal fire from the gods? If so, what are we trying to do with that fire and who do we give it to?

    Thanks for the mention too!

    • Hmm, I hadn’t thought of that! I guess in a lot of ways we are grasping for what’s relatively unattainable and suffering (if you want to put it that way) the consequences. But I guess like some versions of the story, I choose to see the light at the end of the tunnel with a rescue. I think, though, that we have a tendency to hyperbolize the process. What do you think?

  2. I finally made it over here! I think that a common sentiment of those who ask the Question is that the pursuit of the PhD is a frivolity. Like, when are you going to stop reading and get a job? So, I think that you do well to point out that this is your job. And, like a lot of jobs, it’s a combination of inspiring and grueling. I think that in the most productive pursuits, those two go hand in hand.

    The last time I was in Alabama, 8-year-old Zoey said to me, “Why are you in school? Did you fail college or something?” It’s funny that many adults ask me pretty much the same question, with the same incredulity. Granted, I’m not a PhD student, but I am expanding my skill set and knowledge-base so that I can more meaningfully contribute to my community in a way that is also meaningful for me personally. But, I just sighed, looked at Zoey, and said, “That’s a great question. I didn’t fail. I just really like school, I guess.” Which is also true.

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