Truly, Madly, Deeply in Love with this PhD

Comic by Jorge Cham, "Piled Higher and Deeper (PhD) Comics. Originally published 10/29/1997.
Comic by Jorge Cham, “Piled Higher and Deeper” (PhD) Comics. Originally published 10/29/1997.

Fact 1. The attrition rate for PhD students is high.

Fact 2. Anywhere from a third to half of doctoral students will fail— or drop out, give up, or find something better.

Fact 3. This isn’t easy.

I’m two thirds of the way through my first year of doctoral studies and so far I’ve written 15,000 words and am in the process of writing another 20,000 words— which sounds impressive, until you realize that most of this work is only related to my research by the flimsiest of threads, and a good third of those words are not related to my dissertation at all.

Why am I writing on irrelevant subject matter you ask? Because of ‘core’ courses that, while often are extremely interesting, don’t align with my research. Here at LUISS, the first year of doctoral studies is devoted to coursework and attendance is mandatory. In our classes, like in undergrad classes, besides the required readings we’re also often required to present reports alongside final papers and/or exams.

Now, I love the academe. I love studying, and learning new things. I love discussing everything from concrete problems of the world to the impossibly philosophical. I even love reporting as it’s the closest thing to teaching that I can get here! But, this coursework is impossible and this is not good for my research at all.

Italian doctoral students only have three years to complete our program, a fact that was only presented to us two days ago. Why this was not communicated during the orientation, I don’t know. In any case, it’s a fact. Out of these three years, one full year is devoted to pure coursework— this leaves us with two years to do our literature and field work and analysis and all those other important things we need for a good dissertation.

My supervisor is aware of this program, but above and beyond the course work requirements also expects me to complete two chapters by the end of my first year. I’m certain I’m disappointing him by not even giving him one well-formed chapter, and to be honest I’m disappointing myself as well. I try, but there are only so many hours in a day and there is only so much energy I can spend without burning out.  I do have to make the caveat that the LUISS administration only expects other students to have one chapter by the middle of the second year and I appreciate that my supervisor has much higher standards than the average, but this is very difficult for me.

I can’t miss out on compulsory courses. Besides the signed attendance sheet, with an average of six students in each class it’s rather obvious when the only Asian girl is missing.

I can’t not do reports or papers, because I would fail. Failing the courses means not progressing to the next level because of lack of ECTS.

I can’t not do well on my reports or papers, because there is a minimum standard of excellence that I hold myself to. I expect the best out of myself, or at least, the best I can do while under such pressure from everywhere.

This second term is ending soon and besides the monumental workload for preparing for reports— my EU Foreign Policy presentation being a shining example of how someone with zero background on the EU can manage to provide pseudo-intelligent analysis on a convoluted topic— we still have four final papers and an exam on quantitative methods.

And I still owe my supervisor two chapters.

But may I just say, despite the numerous administrative cock-ups and the many, many problems I continue to face, I love this.


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