Monday, March 12, 2012

80. “When will you finish?”

Of all of the awkward questions that you are asked in graduate school, this one is the cruelest. It is also the one that you are asked more often than any other. Whether asked innocently (as it often is) or laced with judgment (as it often is), the question presents the same problem. Other questions are awkward because it is hard to hear yourself answer them honestly, but this question is awkward because—until the very end—you don’t know the answer. And because everyone around you is just as surprised as you are at how long it is taking you to finish (see Reason 4), the question becomes more awkward as time passes. Eventually, what people really mean by this question is: “Why haven’t you finished yet?”

So why haven’t you finished yet? For one thing, you probably spend more time fulfilling your labor obligations (see Reason 7) than you spend working toward your degree. For another, academic research and writing are tremendously time-consuming (see Reason 28), and you’re locked in an arms race with your competitors to produce as much of it as possible. The conference papers and published articles that you keep adding to your CV (see Reason 38) are distractions from your dissertation even when they spring from research related to your dissertation. Meanwhile, the dissertation itself is like a mountain that grows taller as you climb it (see Reason 60), especially when you know that any hope of future tenure rests on your being able to turn it into a published book (see Reason 71). To complicate matters, you have to negotiate all of this while in a highly unstable financial situation (see Reason 17). The work is yours alone to do, but no matter how much you do or how well you do it, you don’t decide when you’re finished. The members of your faculty committee decide when you’re finished. Until they do, this relentless question is a nagging reminder of the time that you have already spent in graduate school, the time that you have yet to spend in graduate school, and the exhausting uncertainty of it all.