This post is written by Holly, half of the sister duo posting for The Garden Intrigue this month.
As I mentioned in our first post, this Pink for All Seasons readathon has been my first read of all of the Pink books, with the exception of #1, which I had picked up years ago on my sister’s recommendation (which is where at least half of my reading list comes from). I am loving the series for many reasons: the differences between each relationship, the combination of humor and history, and the reappearance of characters we’ve met before. There’s another aspect I love just as well: Eloise, and her realistic adventures of being a graduate student.
Having done a stint as a full-time social science PhD student, I feel a bit of a connection with Eloise, and with Lauren Willig herself. After all, Lauren’s biography states: After graduating from Yale University, she embarked on a PhD in English History at Harvard before leaving academia to acquire a JD at Harvard Law while authoring her “Pink Carnation” series of Napoleonic-set novels.
In addition to the details she provides about English spies, Lauren peppers Eloise’s chapters with some of the ins-and-outs of life on the PhD track. Like these:
In October, I had been just another bedraggled American grad student in London, desperately combing the archives for the materials I needed to turn my dissertation from a vague outline into a heartbreaking work of staggering scholarship. We had been told to go forth and find a gap in historiography, and that’s just what I had done, smugly certain that I would put together pieces no one else had been able to connect, patting myself on the back for my cleverness in picking as my field of study a country in which the language was my own…
It didn’t occur to me until later that there might be a slight problem. Historians are dependent on documentary evidence for the reconstruction of the past. When the people involved routinely burn the documents in question, there isn’t a lot left to go on.
I did not study history, and I did not study at Harvard, but I did find some of the same challenges in academia. I embarked on my graduate school career, after a few years of nonprofit work, full of great memories from college courses. Grad school was going to be enlightening, and inspiring, and I would go on to be just like my undergrad professors that had challenged me to approach the world from different angles. Like Eloise, I was ready to find a dissertation topic that would thrill me down to the polish on my toenails.
On the first day of grad school, the fifteen incoming students in my program heard two things: the completion rate is 50%, and the average time to finish in the department is six to seven years. Of course, we all looked around the room, thinking ‘not me! Maybe that guy over there.” I had visions, like Eloise, of research in exotic locations, enrapt students, and bringing down that seven year average.
Eloise, too, knows the very real fear of never leaving, as she tells Colin “I probably should get back to work if I don’t want to be one of those five-thousand-year grad students.”
I really feel for Eloise here in the opening scenes of The Garden Intrigue. She is clearly passionate about her research, and she’s finding amazing stories thanks to her exclusive access to Selwick Hall. I am not sure about Lauren’s career in the Harvard English History program (someone remind me to ask for the next Ask the Author!), but Eloise is certainly more dedicated to her research than I was.
And then she gets an offer she may not be able to refuse – a teaching fellowship for the next academic year. For the most part, students in PhD programs do not pay tuition. They put together teaching or research positions, or scholarships, which cover tuition and fees and provide a living stipend. Positions are roughly based on a forty-hour work week, which means a 50% position (often three sections of teaching) requires approximately 20 hours of work a week, and should provide enough of a stipend to live on. Some schools do a better job of coordinating these options for students than others, and it can actually get harder to compile something the longer you stay in a program, as first dibs go to new students. Eloise knows that this is a pretty great gig she’s being offered, as opposed to “piecing together teaching jobs in different courses, a section here, a section there, which meant triple the effort learning the material and keeping up with the coursework.”
Until this book, I haven’t given too much thought to the future for Colin and Eloise. They were so hot and cold for the first few books that I guess I was expecting more back and forth and drama. It seems that things are getting pretty serious now though – and I’m finally starting to wonder: is Eloise going to head back to Harvard to finish her degree?
I have to say, I won’t be disappointed if she doesn’t. And, I say that as a dyed-in-the-wool feminist who works for an organization devoted to girl leadership. I just don’t think Eloise needs a PhD to be happy and successful (that’s with or without a significant other, mind you). I’m so used to her traipsing around London that I’m not sure I picture her as an academic, teaching survey courses on European history. And Lauren Willig must have decided she didn’t need a PhD to be happy and successful, so I’m wondering if she’ll help Eloise with that decision too.
As for me, I also decided after 2 years that I didn’t need a PhD to be happy and successful. My closest friend decided the same after 3, and a former roommate left after 4 when she had trouble piecing together those teaching sections. Another good friend of ours stayed in for 8 years before he quit in the home stretch. Turns out those day one facts were spot on.
So, let’s discuss. What do you think?