Today is the 5 year anniversary of my dissertation defense, in other words, it’s the day I became Dr. Patty.
I think my story might be helpful to some folks, so I’ll tell it… it’s the short version of the story of my academic life — how I ended up as Dr. Patty…
In middle school, I was that weird kid… you know, the one whose dad died, the one who may or may not have had her stuff together for class, the one who hardly ever spoke in class, the one who had been teased / bullied / rejected early and often by her really rich peers… my family was more or less middle-class, their families owned corporations. Imagine a school district stuffed full of 1%ers, and aspiring 1%ers, and you get the idea. That’s also where I went to high school.
My grades were never all that awesome, but — I’d bought into the message of the 80s that I had to go to college to be successful, so when I graduated in 1987, I went to the University of Minnesota. When I was there, I was more interested in working at McDonalds and dating the boy I dated in high school — so my grades weren’t great there either… Eventually, I moved to Denver to marry the first boy I dated in high school. After a few years in Denver, I moved to Omaha with him (thanks, Air Force!) — and went back to college.
My new school was the University of Nebraska, Omaha — or UNO. All of my credits transferred in one way or the other, and it ended up that I had a minor in Italian (no, I don’t speak Italian) and a minor in Humanities.. a few courses here or there, some math, science, and philosophy for the most part and I had a degree… and MUCH better grades.
It was at UNO that I really fell in love with philosophy. I loved the thinking about arguments part, I loved the fact that there was no objectively right or conclusive answer to the interesting questions, and I loved that the philosophers i met at UNO were welcoming and encouraging.. and class was fun! So, of course, I decided to go to grad school… I was about 30… I was married, and lived 60 miles away from the only philosophy grad program in the state.
I had no idea what I was getting into — no clue, at all… in retrospect, my UNO professors tried to gently clue me in, but really — I had no idea. If I had, I’d have probably gone to law school — except, the problem with law school is that you end up a lawyer… that didn’t sound like fun.
So — in about 1997 or 1998, I started grad school in Philosophy at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. I felt like I was starting completely from scratch — taking classes in a language I didn’t know, in a program whose norms weren’t those of undergrad, and in a room with mostly men who liked to argue a lot…
I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say it was a culture shock and I couldn’t really see any way of getting good advising from the person assigned to generally advise grad students. During our one and only meeting, he asked me questions about whether or not my husband knew how much work grad school was, and whether or not my husband minded that I wouldn’t be home to cook dinner… I more or less knew that he didn’t respect me. It wasn’t a surprise that he didn’t return my e-mails or phone calls, and wasn’t in his office during his posted office hours — the message was pretty clear, I was in a man’s discipline — and, since I wasn’t a man, I wasn’t interesting.
So, without help from my grad advisor, I did my best. I wrote what I thought were smart papers, I took the courses listed in the graduate department handbook. I had to re-take a couple of courses (Philosophy of Language and Ancient Philosophy) –and I took logic. Eventually I earned a Master’s Degree in Philosophy. I did it working nearly full-time, and taking two courses per semester.
When I applied to do the PhD part, I knew which courses I’d have to take in addition to my MA courses. What I didn’t know was that UNL had a “residency” requirement… that required me to take three courses per semester. That wasn’t in the handbook. That’s something my grad advisor should have told me, and he probably would have if he’d met with me more than once. By that time, the old grad advisor had retired and a new – non-sexist and generally awesome person took his place.
My new wonderful grad advisor asked me when my residency semesters were — I more or less told him that a) I hadn’t had any notice that there was such a requirement, because b) the old grad advisor ignored me for years, and c) the residency requirement wasn’t in the handbook…. which I had more or less memorized, and had handy at all times… After that, I told him that IF the university insisted that I re-take a bunch of coursework to meet that requirement, I would file a Title IX complaint — I didn’t want to do that if I didn’t have to, but I would. Wonderful grad advisor took two days to come back and tell me that it wasn’t a problem.
The thing is, I knew — by the time I applied for the PhD part, that I’d be moving with my husband to Minnesota in the next academic year. I also knew that I could complete the necessary coursework for my PhD in that year, but that living in Lincoln while my husband was in Minnesota for law or grad school wasn’t an option. We couldn’t afford that, and I wasn’t about to do a lot of extra coursework because my original grad advisor was utterly incompetent… it just wasn’t going to happen.
Then, at Thanksgiving time, my last year in Nebraska — my younger sister died suddenly. That was a huge shock — and it put me off of my coursework for a while.. but, I finished the papers within the alloted time, and eventually I finished my coursework and moved to Minnesota in August of 2002.
To finish my PhD, I would have to write three really good papers, and then the dissertation (which is more or less a book). It’s possible to do these things remotely, but it’s more difficult.. I had resources here, the U of MN library is fantastic, and it was becoming more possible to get academic papers electronically…
Once I got up here, I continued coaching debate, got more involved in debate travel, and started a full-time job teaching at Century… I was busy. I felt like I’d never finish. My husband did grad school for political science, and eventually took a job in Omaha — so we drove back and forth… but the dissertation was still on my mind.
Eventually, about 2005 or 2006, I think — I decided to stop coaching debate and focus on my dissertation — because, if I kept doing debate, I’d never finish. I was still working full-time at Century, and spending every spare moment, break, weekend, lots of evenings etc.. working on the papers before my dissertation. I was making progress, especially with the help of a fabulous feminist philosopher who joined the faculty after I left.. I also had a new dissertation advisor, one who had immense patience with me.
I decided that I needed a summer OFF (I’d been teaching summers all along, the extra money is nice..) — to actually spend the whole summer writing and not balancing writing, and teaching… just, writing. I figured that by the end of the summer of 2008 I’d have a full draft.
My current husband (not the grad school husband) has a saying, “we plan, God laughs”.
The summer of 2008, right at the beginning of the summer, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Suddenly, dissertation summer became breast cancer summer. Tests, 2 surgeries and a couple of months of chemo had replaced my writing plans. Suddenly, I was too tired to do anything, I could only eat avocados, chicken nuggets, and corn dogs. I had several minor things that put me in the hospital, and there was NO dissertation work getting done.. none of it. Since I was stage 2, my prognosis was good — but, just doing the daily stuff of life was hard.
I was sure I’d never be Dr. Patty — never. My oncologist told me otherwise, that he was sure he’d call me Dr. Patty — that he had confidence in me, that I’d finish treatment and feel better — and that I’d get back on track.
So, in the fall of 2008, I finished chemo and resumed my commuter marriage with my (first) husband. I wrote, I taught, and I drove… Since husband was in Omaha, I was able to meet with my advisor while I was in the area. That helped a lot — As my hair grew back, as my funky fingernails were replaced with normal looking nails, and as I got stronger — I also wrote my dissertation. I sent drafts to my amazing dissertation supervisor. He sent lots of thoughtful comments back. I wrote about 400 or so pages, and cut all but about 150 of them…
Finally, in the spring semester of 2010 he wrote those magic words — “it’s time to schedule a defense”.
UNL has a set amount of time you’re permitted to work on a dissertation — and, while exceptions can be made, especially for stuff like breast cancer, we were pushing the end of that time frame. The choice was pretty much, have a defense or do the paperwork for an extension. I was happy with the way it was, he thought it was ready — so we had it… with a couple of months to spare.
If you want to read it, be my guest… A Rossian Just War Theory
The defense itself was more like an intense philosophical discussion — and, at the end, they conference and decide if you “pass”… they decided I did, and called me Dr…. which felt good, after my sister’s death, cancer, lots of miles, tons of hard work and all that…
I guess the point is, if you think something is really worth doing — do it.