Thursday, August 18, 2011

Finishing a PhD; or "The Return of the King"

I remember sitting in the theater at the season that millions new people were being exposed to J.R.R. Tolkien's final chapter in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King. I remember hearing those around me murmuring that the ending never seemed to end--that it was a series of false endings over and over and over again.

I remember feeling like these people didn't understand the way Tolkien's story worked. After all, his trilogy was continuously page numbered all the way through. This was not simply the resolution for this particular movie, but for the entire 10 hours.

Big things take a long time to resolve, and they do so in fits and starts.

As I look back over my recent posts on my blog as well as my experiences this summer, it occurs to me that The Return of the King, whether or not it is good fictional narrative strategy, is awfully real life, at least when it comes to things like finishing a PhD.

One finishes one's first full draft and hands it to one's advisor. One's friends congratulate one. [Sam picks up Frodo and brings him up Mount Doom in what feels like one final push of strength.]

One gets it back, makes lots of changes, and hands it in again. One's friends congratulate one. [Sam and Frodo make it to their destination. Unfortunately, it's Mount Doom.]

Eventually, one is congratulated by one's advisor that it is nearly ready to hand off to one's committee for review. One makes the changes, hands it off, and one's friends congratulate one. [The ring falls into the fire at Mount Doom and hovers on the surface of the fire, then we see Frodo and Sam surrounded by flowing lava. The quest feels completed, and yet it still feels like it may yet fail.]

One prepares for and attends the defense, which contrary to nightmares is successful. One's friends, along with one's advisor and committee, congratulate one and call one "doctor," a term which sounds foreign. [The ring is seen to dissolve, and Sam and Frodo are seen to be taken away by eagles and eventually reunited with their friends. Happy, but with a sense of melancholy and uncertainty. The hobbits are still far from home, and are going to be parted from their friends.]

One tells oneself it will feel more real after the dissertation is accepted for deposit. Despite wanting to go home to sleep for a long time, one metaphorically girds up one's loins for the final(?!?) few paragraphs requested by the committee, runs them past one's advisor, eventually has them accepted, then proofreads the whole thing and goes through the nightmare of final formatting. After a few more final final changes, last minute running around to get forms signed, one has a successful dissertation deposit appointment, with only one last change done during the appointment. One's friends congratulate one, and it feels a bit more real, but like the defense, a bit anticlimactic. [The crowning of Aragorn, and the public honoring of the hobbits, fade to black, then another scene starts...]

One, after expending energy one does not currently fully have in a move to one's new place of post-PhD employment, returns to walk the stage. One's friends and family congratulate one, along with the university president and one's lovely advisor. It finally feels real, except for the note in the fake diploma in one's hand, which states that the information is still being compiled, the transcripts will reflect graduation, but not until a certain day, and the diploma will arrive within 4 weeks. [The hobbits, after a long journey, return to the shire at long last. But all is not perfect.]

One checks the online transcript site a few days past the promised date, and one still sees that one is listed as a continuing student. One is sad and a trifle panicked--after all this, is it not really done? It is not until a conversation with a friend the next day that the words "degree awarded" are deciphered on the online transcript and one rests easy again. One feels that the ending has come. [The friends go to the elf ships and Frodo says goodbye to Sam. One can't get more final than the hero leaving, one thinks.]

That is, once one's new employer gets the ordered transcript and agrees that yes, a degree has been conferred. Then one's new employer will congratulate one. [Sam begins his new life with his family. Roll credits.]

*Sigh*. I still like The Return of the King, but I'm beginning to think the genre was wrong--not fantasy drama, but farce...definitely farce. Or some weird (post)modern play about life never really having true endings...


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