Let’s talk PhDs!

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?

10 thoughts on “Let’s talk PhDs!

  1. I also felt that Eloise was a kindred spirit because of graduate school! I finished my PhD, but (if I’m being honest) due more to the fact that I was too terrified not to rather than being determined and amazingly courageous.

    I do think, though, that given all of the fantastic history Eloise has discovered, she’ll have plenty of fodder for a dissertation. Even without knowing how the series will end, she’s got an awesome story to tell, I hope she shares it with the history world. Maybe her committee will let her write and finish up in the UK, and then she’ll get a sweet gig at Oxford so she can be with the dashing Colin and continue traipsing?

  2. One of the things I enjoy about the books is also that academia end… so relate! I got an MA myself, and was looking at going back (on the trail of the wild Doctorate in History)… but have realized I don’t need it. Not for what I want to do and not, as you noted, to be happy. VERY glad I’ve realized this BEFORE delving too far into the actual process!

  3. I finished my PhD and did my stint on the research faculty at UCLA. Now I’m writing historical mystery/romance novels set in 1900’s Los Angeles. The highs of writing are higher (Yay! a contest win. Yay! an agent! Yay a publishing contract! Yay! I love my book!) but the lows of writing are much, much, much lower (My successes were luck. I’m not talented. My work is crap. I’m by myself all day long). For me, being an academic was waaaaaaaaay easier than being a writer because all you had to do was work hard. I can do that. With writing, there is a muse involved. Lauren amazes me because she does both academia and writing (and now motherhood) and makes it look so easy. She’s nothing short of brilliant.

    So, I did my PhD, and then I walked away.

    Oh, and my first book is called “The Secret Life of Anna Blanc.” It’s coming out Nov 3rd from Seventh Street Books.

  4. As some of you know, I have a Phd in Early American history and am a tenure track professor, but I also had a career as a living history interpreter and I try to balance the ivory tower world of being a professor with the wider world of people who love history for its own sake (some days this works better than others).

    I agree with your observation, Holly, that getting through grad school, regardless of whether it’s an MA or a Phd and which discipline you’re in, is a challenge on many levels, and I’ve long loved Lauren/Eloise’s very accurate descriptions of surviving graduate school and trying to figure out whether the degree you’re getting fits enough with your life outside of grad school to be worth those same challenges.

    And yes, the 50% completion rate is accurate! I met my husband when I was working on my MA degree but he eventually decided not to finish his PhD because he also had an MLS and realized he missed being a librarian too much to become the professor he once thought he wanted to be.

    And now that the requisite academic history book for tenure is finally making progress with the publication process and tenure is looking a little more likely than it was earlier in the winter, I’ve noticed that’s having a freeing affect on my mind. I’ve started my second academic book which is about the Stamp Act Crisis in RI in the 1760s and the Regulator Rebellion in North Carolina, two events loosely held together (beyond being rebellions in the 1760s) by the fact that a Loyalist named Martin Howard had a front row seat for both of them. He had a daughter named Annie who was ten in 1765 and Martin’s support of the Stamp Act led to the two of them having to flee for their lives when their house was attacked and they were rowed out into Newport harbor late that night to a British naval ship and I think a novel might be the best way to write about what was running through Annie’s head that night and through all their adventures on both sides of the Atlantic

    Lauren’s writing is inspiring indeed!

    • Yes, this is so true – “Lauren/Eloise’s very accurate descriptions of surviving graduate school and trying to figure out whether the degree you’re getting fits enough with your life outside of grad school to be worth those same challenges.”

      For me, it just wasn’t. I know that being able to go to graduate school and pursue that line of thought is a sign of privilege, but I am glad to see others relating in the comments.

      Either way, I am sure Eloise will land on her feet!

      • I say this looking back at the experiences of my wider circle of grad school friends- walking away from a Phd program takes far more grace and courage than staying with a degree you know at some level is not right for you or for your life, and I wish that academic cultures were better at recognizing that.

  5. I have an Ed.D in reading – being a school teacher, most of my grad work was done during the summer – never had to do the TA stint…BUT since you can’t throw a nickel up in the air without hitting an Ed.D. in Reading, I went back and got my MLS. I tend to be too frank and always tend to have the wrong politics to be a tenure track prof. Right now, I have 4 jobs…Wife to an amazing husband, mommy of 4 – (3 foster children and 1 adopted son), middle school librarian – (the only place that I can get any reading done is on the toilet – and most of the time, I have fingers under the bathroom door and cries of “MOMMY are you DONE yet?) and adjunct prof teaching an intro to research for college freshmen and a small community college here in TX. I LOVE being a librarian and don’t love being the prof. I think I’m giving that one up since my family size increase has just about KILLED everything else.

    I love seeing how Eloise struggles to find her resources. I think the hardest thing about my dissertation was finding a subject that hadn’t been hashed and rehashed over and over again.

  6. Pingback: Saying Goodbye to the Pink Carnation Series | Gun In Act One

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