November 14, 2007

Am I a real "Doctor," or do I only play one on TV

After a whirlwind of activity, this past Monday morning, 9:00 central time, found me pacing outside the deans office at the Liberal Arts building on the campus of the University of New Orleans. Megan was by my side, making some talk and trying to calm the anxieties that were getting more and more intense. About 10 minutes before, I had been inside a conference room in the Dean's office as Prof. Marc Rosenblum called Prof. Amy Poteete at Concordia University in Canada and Prof. David Lektzian at Texas Tech University on a speakerphone. Prof. Michael Huelshoff and Prof. Sondra Venable came in at this time. For the next hour and a half, my fate would be in their hands. They sent me out of the room so they could discuss how to deal with me.

Punishment? Maybe. Rendition? Probably not as bad. Waterboarding? Well, I suppose this experience could be equated with a drowning sensation - at least I felt it could. I was defending my dissertation.

I had been working toward this moment for seven years, and I was nervous. The day before, I had opened my e-mail to find 8 pages of notes sent by Dr. Poteete, most of which were things that she felt were vital to be revised before she would agree to sign off on my dissertation. I was upset that there were so many shortcomings in the paper, I was concerned that I would not be able to justify my decisions I had made, and I was even afraid that when asked a question, I would just freeze and not be able to answer.

I felt this despite the encouragement from my chair, Marc Rosenblum, that the dissertation was defensible, that I would be fine. When Marc came out to call me back in the room, my heart jumped into my throat. Megan came in behind me to sit in, after all, defenses are public and she wanted to give me something to lock my eyes on to when I felt like I might throw up.

Marc looked at me after a short introduction, and asked me to give my presentation. I looked at Megan, decided it was better to be honest, and then just told them how nervous I was. At that point, my nervousness seemed to go down, and I began. I told them in broad strokes of my research. I admitted there were problems, but I also stated what I thought that my research accomplished. In a voice that started out shaky and quavering, but got stronger as I went on, I laid out the past 4 years of my life on this project and all 330 pages into a fifteen minute recap.

It was a difficult time - there were many criticisms. I didn't take a strong theoretical stand, leading to a lack of focus in the overall direction of the dissertation. I used some variables in my statistical analyses that were suspect. My case studies didn't necessarily add up and were thin on citations. The criticisms, and helpful suggestions for making my dissertation stronger, went on for about an hour and a half.

They sent me out of the room again. I paced alone - Megan had left after she deemed that I was okay and went to meet a mutual friend for coffee. About 5 minutes passed that seemed like an eternity. Then, Marc came to the door. I started toward him, and as I got to the door he shook my hand and said "Congratulations, Dr. Hess." I still have a lot of revisions to make, but for all intents and purposes, I have my Ph.d.

My first thought was for the person who should have had the title of "Dr. Hess" first. I almost feel bad for having it. My uncle Jack had been put through college by his older brother, my father. Uncle Jack went to Cal Berkeley, got his undergraduate and his masters degree. I have his Masters thesis here. He then completed his coursework for his doctorate sometime in the mid-sixties. He was an instructor at Berkeley, a graduate teacher, and began working on his dissertation. He never finished it. Or perhaps the real story is that he finished it multiple times, never thought it was good enough, and started over again. He refused to compromise his principles, even when a friend told him that he could hire someone to ghost-write it for him based on his own research. It eventually drove him into a huge depression, had him hearing voices, and at least once left him homeless. He died in Seattle, having never reached the potential that was meant for him. He was supposed to be Dr. Hess. As we popped the champagne corks in the Political Science main office, his image, or what I could remember of it, was in my mind.

It was Uncle Jack who planted the seed of college in me. When I was little I thought it was great that I had this cool uncle who was at a college. He encouraged me to ask questions. I remember him giving a little start when I asked him why the scenery moved faster when it was closer, and more slowly when it was far away. He thought that an awfully astute question for a grade schooler to be asking. I swore I'd go to college like him. Unfortunately, he died before he could see me graduate from anything. And here I was, with the title that had eluded him, that he was supposed to have.

I haven't really processed this yet. It has been hard for me to feel like a Ph.d because I feel no different than I did before. I don't feel any smarter. I still have the same aches and pains. My wife can tell you that the same annoying habits I had before are still with me. I feel like I should have some sense of accomplishment, but I just feel...disconnected.

Yet I have run the race, and have pretty much completed the marathon. My life will now move on, past student and into a career. It's kind of late at almost 44 years old, but it had to happen some time. I hope I can look back on this time and realize that I did accomplish something worthwhile, something difficult, something that I can celebrate and be proud of, and accept that other people are proud of me.

Maybe it starts with this. I haven't done this yet, and you will be here to witness it. It feels funny to me, and I'm a little embarrassed to write it. Really. Maybe you can tell how you think it fits.

Michael L. Hess, Ph.d.

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