The Night Before the PhD Program

Posted: August 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

Book Cover for The Night Before KindergartenMy niece Sidney started Kindergarten this week.  Her brother Emory started Preschool.  There was, for each, a book about the night before.  We read them when I last visited, and we all agreed that there should be a book for “The Night Before the PhD Program.”  But there isn’t.

What would a book about the night before entering a PhD Program say?  The Night Before Preschool talks about taking a favorite stuffed animal for naptime, so perhaps The Night Before the PhD Program should talk about being separated from your lover and learning to sleep alone, about renting yet another crummy grad student apartment, finding the cheap restaurants and a market that sells good tofu in a new town.

The Night Before Kindergarten talks about the anxiety of entering big-kid school, where there is no more nap time and the activities are more academic.  The Night Before the PhD Program should talk about the anxieties of moving to a smaller pond with bigger fish, taking out student loans to get a degree that is becoming less and less likely to lead to a tenure track position, and what it means to commit five years of your life to something?

It should also be a lot like The Night Before Junior High, though such a book doesn’t exist.  Worrying about whether or not you have the right clothes, read the right books and literary journals,  if you will be (as I was when I first started the MFA program at WVU) marginalized as a dilettante housewife who writes as a hobby.  What if nobody likes you?

And then there are the worries that are peculiar to getting a PhD in Creative Writing.  Will you be the only person who finds Kristeva completely incomprehensible?  Will everybody else glibly quote Derrida in the French, talk about their summers at Breadloaf, throw fabulous parties to celebrate the publication of their third, fourth, or fifth book while your book still keeps coming back from publishers and agents who think it’s too quiet and that the brilliant homeless man who fascinated you isn’t really very interesting to anybody else?  What if nobody likes you?

What if, in fact, everybody thinks you’re sort of a hack and isn’t exactly certain how someone so untalented, so unhip, and so clealry middle-of-the-pack made it into the program at all?

What then?

  1. inktarsia says:

    You ain’t no hack – you are the real deal. And you can get through anything with a Bobby Sherman lunch box.

  2. chase says:

    Sarah, if you weren’t nervous you would definitely be heading down the wrong path. This IS a HUGE commitment. You’re putting your heart out on the line. And I’d like to point out that those other MFA’s are not going to work with Dinty Moore for the next 5 years… And they aren’t the new editor of Brevity. You are. And Breadloaf is jokingly called Bedloaf, albeit a very good program. And… if you have different sources of inspiration and a different lens with different values you are all the more an asset to expanding your new peers’ horizons and they yours. In fact, it would really be the BEST case scenario if you don’t quite read or like the same stuff. You don’t always grow when things go right and people agree. You’re a smart cookie. A talented smart cookie. You’re going to do and be great!

    Why do you say completing this program makes you less likely to get a tenured position?

    • sarahemc2 says:


      Completing the program won’t make it less likely I’ll get a tenured position… it’s just getting less likely that folk with PhDs in all fields will get tenured positions because of budget cuts.

      Thanks for the pep talk! You do great “pep!”

  3. Mom says:

    You are going to have a wonderful time. You are going to learn and teach, read and write, laugh and work hard. It’s always brave to start something new. I am so proud of you, and you should be so proud of yourself. I love you to the moon and back!

  4. sarahemc2 says:

    Everybody needs a mom like mine!

  5. You are full of win and awesome. 🙂 Dilettante housewife, my ass.

  6. Rich says:

    This is a great perspective, Sarah …written at one of those times everyone has … the next step, the new challenge, the new job, move, etc. Of course, now you know your next project… Time to write the book, “The Night Before the PhD Program.” … which of course will set you up for a whole variety of sequels… and maybe a franchise … this could be the start of …oh, wait, it already is the start of your next stage in life…

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