More Than Just Sweat

I did that little half-marathon today. And I have that little oral prelim meeting on Tuesday. I’ve been pretty freaked out about the latter. Because this semester is already whack and you just never know what will happen next.

Somewhere between miles two and three this morning, I got to thinking about how everyone who does longer races will tell you that you train the best you can, rely on your training to get you through the miles on race day, and let that be enough.

There’s a parallel process here.

I have been well-trained in this program. I know that. This past week, I’ve been wondering if that were enough. Just like I’ve wondered whether my training for this race was enough. What I have consistently found to be true for myself is that race day always goes better than any training day I’ve had. The training runs may be good, but I still enter the race day with some doubt. And then I cross the line and start running. And I move along, mile by mile until I cross the line at the finish.

And so, I’m hoping the same will hold true for me for Tuesday morning. That my training IS enough. That I DO know more than I think. And that my training will carry me through the meeting.

And for your viewing (and inspirational) enjoyment, thanks to Chelsea for supplying this link:

Finding the “Break” in Spring Break

For your average grad student (and many undergrads), Spring Break is a misnomer in every sense of the word–assuming you live in, to the north, or the west of North Carolina. It is most assuredly NOT spring right now (it’s 40 degrees outside). And most of us grad students have yet to find the break because the to-do list doesn’t stop during this week. In fact, we stand a chance of at least crossing some things off the list this week, thanks to not having to show up to the many places we ordinarily do.

I spent the first half of the break in the office, along with a friend, both of us working on our respective dissertations. I am pleased to announce that by Wednesday afternoon, my friend submitted her final draft to her committee for her defense. By Tuesday afternoon, I sent an outline to my advisor. By Wednesday afternoon, after working on prep for my oral prelim in now less than two weeks, I was fried. (When you have to ask “The predictor variable is the independent variable, right?”…you need a break.)

We both left the office mid-afternoon on Wednesday. I came home and decided to try to clear my head by breaking in my new meditation cushions. I learned it’s a helluva lot easier to meditate when your brain is smoldering–it doesn’t want to think about anything anyway. Fifteen minutes later, I was in a better state. You see, not only was my brain fried from the past…25 weeks?…of work, but my anxiety was jacked by my upcoming oral. I reached a point where I felt like I knew NOTHING. At all. Whatsoever. Not good when you will have to account for any and every thing you’ve learned in 3.5 years in 2 hours’ time. The meditation helped bring down my anxiety level. So did the realization that I HAD to take a break this week. I HAD to step away from the schoolwork. Or I was going to implode.

Spring break is great for getting work done. No question. But when you’ve been working under the gun for as long as most of us have, you gotta stop for a minute. By Thursday, I stopped. I did zero work. And meditated. And brought the anxiety back down. This morning, I got a massage (so now my neck moves in all directions again). This afternoon, I started looking over prelim stuff again. And I was fresher and more ready to integrate and prepare for the firing squad.

A funny thing, that spring break. By the time it gets here we so desperately need it. Yet so often, we keep pushing through. And that’s only good if you can truly be productive. But for me and my people from school, we aren’t productive at this point. We’re just tired. And we really really should take the advice we so often dole out and rest. Even if it’s just for a day.

Running is Cheaper Than Therapy

I started running–really, seriously running–the same time I started this PhD thing. Well…really it started that summer when I incorporated more running into my workouts. It escalated when I was sitting on a balcony in Mexico with Robin and a copy of the Endurance Magazine. She looked up from the article about the City of Oaks marathon and said, “We could totally do that.”

It was August. The race was the beginning of November. I was about to start a PhD program. T minus three months to race day.

Sure. Why not?

A few weeks later, I discovered why not. There was no way in hell I was going to be able to train for a marathon that semester. I was barely doing long runs on the weekend. In fact, I did one 8-miler…on a treadmill. (Have I mentioned that it’s blazing hot around here until Thanksgiving?) I was putting up 12-14 miles during the week (also on a treadmill). But we opted to switch our registration to the half-marathon.

***It should be noted right here that my husband opted to keep the marathon registration and get ready for it anyway–since it was a mere two weeks before his 30th birthday.

Anywhoooo. I ran most of that half-marathon and was hooked. So I set a goal for another one. It happened in March of 2009 in VA Beach. While sitting in the hot tub after that one, Robin again looked up and said, “I’m doing the Disney marathon next January.” She even spit out the date. “Who’s in?” This time, she meant business. And the people in the hot tub with us were not ready to be outdone. It was kind of an all or nothing thing at that point because we all wanted to do it together. And Robin was in. And so were the rest of us.

If you’ve read this blog for any time at all now, you’ll know that I like racing. And I LOVE a good half-marathon. Especially when there’s good beer at the finish line. (Good swag helps, too.) As I keep rolling through this PhD program, I can’t help but draw some parallels.

Getting a PhD is a (perhaps THE) test of perseverance. It’s an endurance contest…a marathon…at times a Warrior Dash. In both arenas, you have to train…hard…and then trust your training on race day…or proposal or defense or prelim day.

For me, one doesn’t necessarily inform the other…it’s the running that gets me through school. It’s the running that helps me process the events of this semester–just as it has in semesters past. It’s, in part, the long runs on the weekend that are keeping me sane as I keep hitting bumps in the academic road. It’s the running that helps me stay healthy and sane most days of the week (and when not running, it’s yoga).

Running is cheaper and more accessible (i.e., can be done at 6:00 AM) than therapy.

Because let’s face it. This getting a PhD thing is bananas.

You, too, can survive prelims

Last night, I finished the written part of my prelim exam. Basically, the prelim or comp or qualifying exam is the ultimate pass/fail test. You work your tail off for two weeks writing non-stop. Then a couple weeks later, you sit before your committee as they fire questions at you–partly about what you wrote, partly about anything else they deem important. If you pass, you get to continue to jump hurdles. If you fail, you either have to re-do part of it, or they thank you for your time and wish you a nice life.

But fear not, dear reader. It can be done. Well, the written work can be done. Of course, I have no idea how I’ve done on my responses–and it’s hard to judge when you’ve proofed your work with very little brain matter left. But, hey. It’s over. And for your entertainment (and for some of you, encouragement), I thought I’d give you a little recap to my two weeks of writing.


Question 1:
Arrived at noon on Sunday; couldn’t open until the clock started at 9 AM on Monday
Time allotted to answer: 16 hours
Actual time used: 12-ish hours
Butt status: holding steady
# of pages written: 17?
Brain matter: still fully in tact
Time to compose email and attach document: 3 minutes
Time between composing email and pushing Send: 5 minutes

This question came from my scariest committee member, so I had no idea what to expect. It actually wasn’t that bad and served as a good warm-up for getting into the process. I even managed to squeeze in yoga that evening. My butt thanked me for that.

Question 2:
Arrived at noon on Monday; made the mistake of reading it then. Committee member had lapsed into Chinese. Closed the email and kept hammering away at question 1. Talked with committee member 2 on Tuesday morning.
Time allotted to answer: Him: I really don’t care how long you take. Me: Good. Because I think I need about five days to wrap my brain around this question and to formulate a response. Him: I don’t care if you take two weeks.
Actual time used: 15-ish hours spread over four days
Butt status: fair but starting to protest. a lot.
# of pages written: somewhere around 12. He wanted it short and sweet. I was happy to oblige.
Brain matter: foggy but usable
Time to compose email and attach document: 3 minutes
Time between composing email and pushing Send: 3 minutes

Meta-analysis. I knew we’d have to make friends eventually. I actually really appreciated this question since it was work I was going to have to do at some point regardless. I at least have a sense of how to analyze my data (once I have it all) for my dissertation. And, of course, I was haunted for part of the week by that damn Q statistic.

I should stop here and let you know that I realized I would need to reward myself handsomely for finishing this…experience. So I ordered a new yoga mat (one of those THICK sturdy ones for that hard floor in the studio) and a yoga towel. I even sprung for shipment so it was guaranteed to arrive by the end of the week.

Question 3:
Arrived at noon on Monday.
Time allotted to answer: between arrival and 9PM Wednesday night.
Actual time used: hard to say…it got a little hairy those few days
Butt status: me thinks thou doth protest too much…but I’ll let it slide under the circumstances
# of pages written: 21?
Brain matter: I felt it dripping on my shoulder by Wednesday night.
Time to compose email and attach document: 1.5 minutes
Time between composing email and pushing Send: 1 minute

I appreciated this question, too, since it pertained to my dissertation and I can extract the purpose and rationale sections from it. I think. But I was feeling the crunch of time more so than on any other question. Monday, I was in the counseling center with time blocked to work on it a little. Then the front desk asked if I would take a client for another counselor who was in the midst of an involuntary commitment. Then I had two more scheduled clients. Then Tuesday, I had a doctor’s appointment and then class and then actual work in the advising office which was a little nutty. So it was really 3:00 by the time I felt like I got to start something. I worked until 10:30 that night, missing the SOTU so I could do my references section (my apologies, Mr. President). Wednesday, I opted out of work and stayed home that morning. I needed the mental break and had to go to seminar for the counseling center anyway, so I trekked over to class for that. On the way home, I received a phone call to help with the process for dealing with someone who was suicidal. I connected the appropriate people but remained tangentially connected for the next couple of hours. Thankfully, I was nearly done by that point. Actually, I finished writing, proofed (HA!) what I had, and sent it on in time to get some dinner with my family. It was about 7:00.

Those boxes with my mat and towel arrived Tuesday. They sat in my office and stared at me until…
Question 4:
Arrived at 7:30 AM Thursday. Opened the question at 9AM.
Time allotted to answer: 16 hours
Actual time used: 11.5 hours
Butt status: I. can’t. take it. ANYMORE.
# of pages written: 14
Brain matter: What brain matter?
Time to compose email and attach document: 30 seconds
Time between composing email and pushing Send: .001 second

This question was also not bad and was similar in nature to the first one. I sent it off at 8:22 last night and got an email this morning that said, “You realize you sent this a day early, right?” I’m sorry. When you tell me I have 16 hours, I assume that means I have 16 hours. So I’m done. I don’t WANT to look at it anymore. And I’m not going to. Because I have no brain left. And I have clients to see today. That oughtta be interesting.

At some point, maybe this evening while I’m home alone, I’ll clear the rubble in my office. Because I have a dissertation to work on. Specifically, a prospectus that should be in my committee members’ respective in-boxes by Tuesday. Otherwise, I can’t reward myself with my Clinique order.

Moral of the story…You, too, can survive prelims.

PS HELLO, yoga mat and towel. I can’t. wait. to use you this weekend.

Initiate Radio Silence

We are two days into the start of the fall 2010 semester.

Holy hell.

You would think at this point in my program that I would have it a little easier. And the reality is that I could have, but I needed some “professional development” that is not otherwise offered through what is required. So. Here’s what I’ll be doing this fall….

-Taking my last required class for my PhD (holler)

-Surviving my last required class for my PhD (because I will seriously have to know: This study published by these people looked at this. In what year was it published?)

-Forming my dissertation committee

-Taking prelims (basically a month long test to see how well I can write under pressure and then talk about what I wrote)

-Proposing my dissertation

-Working in the advising office

-Doing a practicum in the University Counseling Center (professional development and really (hopefully) good experience)

-Figuring out how to transport my child from home to Apex High to the Hill Center in Durham (12:00-3:00) and home again. It takes a village, people. Seriously.

-Trying to maintain my sanity and a workout routine

-Doing one more race this year (a nice, flat 10K)…although my dear friend Robin is trying to talk me into a half marathon in Novermber…

-Trying to still be a good wife, mother, daughter…and hopefully friend

-Celebrating my 5th anniversary (helloooooo Bob Timberlake Inn)

-State Fair, VA Beach for one race, the beach at Labor Day, probably heading south for Thanksgiving with a ton of people

And those are just the things off the top of my head.

So, dear readers, though I have other things about which I need and want to blog, if the blog is awfully quiet for a few months, you’ll know why.

And if you see my dead carcass lying around…well…just step over me and keep on going. At least I’ll be asleep.

Plan B

I wish someone would have told me at div school orientation that we should all consider having a plan B. Because for some of us, div school was the end of the educational line—and that was a good thing. Others of us thought it would be, but our trajectories changed and we changed and our plans changed. And those things are also good things, but we graduated as one-trick ponies. With no plan B. And no clarity on how to get a plan B other than that we needed to go back to school.

But for what?

I see many former classmates headed toward the MSW route. It’s a good route. And you’ll spend as much time in that program as you did in div school.

Some of us are choosing the PhD route. And no matter which field, you’re looking at another 4-6 years of school.

Some days I wonder if we’d have all been better off becoming doctors since we’re in school longer than most of them. But then I consider my dislike of science and utter inability to succeed in math and reconsider.

Maybe I should have gotten my teaching certificate in undergrad. Sure, the pay’s not great, but you don’t go into ministry for the money.

Situation Normal, Part 2

My CPE internship turned into a full-time paid residency from January to August, 2006. I had the opportunity to extend my contract another year, but decided not to. Although working as a chaplain at WakeMed—a Trauma 1 hospital—was the most transformative experience, it was also one of the hardest. Although working there helped me to continue to process my grief, I couldn’t process it at the pace set by the people I encountered at the hospital.

Just before I started full time, I had a conversation with a faculty member at NC State about the possibility of pursuing a PhD in psychology there. Ironically enough, I never ever never in a million years thought I’d pursue a graduate degree in psychology. I was going to seminary to be a youth minister. The M.Div. was the end of the educational line.


Since I wasn’t planning a graduate career—or any other—in psychology, I didn’t do research with faculty as an undergrad. One’s ability to do research is part of the criteria for acceptance into a PhD program. I also knew I probably wouldn’t have stellar GRE scores. During the conversation at NC State, the professor suggested contacting faculty in the department to see if there were research opportunities available. I thanked him for his time and took more time to decide how best to proceed.

There are multiple paths to becoming licensed to do counseling. The shortest, most versatile path is a Master’s in Social Work (MSW). Yes, it’s true. You become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and do counseling just like psychologists do counseling. Among other things. The path that provides by far the most options (and I like options) is a PhD. Once you have that degree, you get to call the shots. You decide for whom you work and how much. You can work in a variety of settings at different stages of your career or all at once.

But you must first make sacrifice to the PhD gods.

I knew enough about what that experience would be like to say this will hurt a little but it will be worth it in the end. That, and Al saying, “If you don’t get the PhD, you know you won’t be satisfied.”

It isn’t about the letters at the end of your name or the title that comes before it. Anyone who wants that should seriously re-evaluate what they think they want to do. A PhD isn’t worth all that.

Trust me.

It’s about the means to an end and the freedom and flexibility to craft my vocation as best fits me—something I would be unable to do in 99% of the churches in which I might have worked.

It’s about direct service and advocacy at a level that you can’t do when you work on a church staff.

What it ultimately means for me, though, is that I followed a path to ministry and, at the last minute and due to circumstances in many ways beyond my control, I took three steps to the left. And I walked forward a little more. Then 6 steps at a diagonal. Then 6 steps at a diagonal the other way. I actually mapped this out once. Embedded in my path was the shape of a martini glass.

It also means that I don’t work in church and when I go to a large gathering of people who do or have some job like it, I don’t fit. And people wonder what I’m doing there. And my seat at the table was long ago snatched up by some other willing minister.

I’m still searching for where I fit in. Hell, I’m still searching for a church I can attend and maintain my theological integrity. I’m still trying to figure out where this crazy path I’m on will lead and how I can best meet the needs of those suffering around me.

And I’m hoping that I can draw a decent paycheck in the process.