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January 2014 – an explanation

I’ve been quiet for a while, journal. I’m sorry about my absence. If it makes you feel any better, it isn’t just writing that has been left by the wayside since let’s say…November. We were less social, saw fewer movies, ate fewer leisurely meals with wine and laughs. I stopped going to the gym. But I promise you journal, it wasn’t because of a personal crisis or health problem or because Andrew had finally decided I needed to be murdered. It was the prelim, I swear.

Let me take a moment to explain. My PhD program in Madison requires students to pass two written examinations before you pass on to the much-more-fun dissertation stage of researching and writing. Each is on a subfield, as we’re supposed to have two specializations. Exams are offered twice a year (January and August) and students generally study for months in preparation. Despite this, quite a large percentage (considering the general intelligence of the department and the fact that everyone studies so much) fail. Maybe it’s because you’re allowed to bring in no notes, no material, and are tasked with answering 2-4 questions in 6 hours, incorporating a pretty extensive review of the literature. You don’t know in advance what the topics will be, meaning you have to study…everything.

So here’s what happened, journal. I started studying in October: 3 hours/day, a bit more on weekends. All of my notes on every article and book were piled into a .doc file that grew every day.  In November I turned it up to 4 hours/day, hitting 7 on the weekends. There were flash cards and topic literature reviews, short memos (2-3 page papers on a particular person or concept) and essay outlines. With PDFs of every past exam from the last decade, I could write annotated essay outlines, record them, and listen to them while Ethel and I walked around the block in the evening and on my way to work. The .doc file with my notes and summaries was augmented by similar notes and summaries from friends with the same specialization, and that document became the encyclopedia of Comparative Historical Sociology, and was 289 single-spaced pages long. I had it printed, back to front, and bound with a cover – my eyes hurt from staring at the computer screen. Re-reading an annotated outline, I’d jump back to the encyclopedia and read the full summary and notes, before coming back to the outline and continuing. Sounds like fun, no?? December came, and the thing I felt like I’d learned more than anything else was just how much I had left to memorize.

I bought a plane ticket to from Hanoi to New York for Jan 1, and New York to Madison for Jan 6. I’d sit on my dad’s couch with my notes, study, and adjust to the time difference. The test started at 9am on Jan 7, in the computer lab in the social science building. Easy breezy. Bahaha

I was studying every moment that I wasn’t working, without exaggeration probably 7 hrs/day for most of December. Andrew did most of the dog walking, most of the cooking, and most of the “no don’t quit now, you can do this, I know it feels impossible but you CAN do it” -ing.  He listened to my fears, expressed unfaltering belief in my ability to pass it, and tried to temper my daily emotional roller coaster. I was a mess. New Years Day I left for the airport with a bag of reading material, the heaviest clothes I brought to Hanoi, and what felt like an anxiety ulcer forming in the pit of my stomach.

I spent four days studying and hanging out with my dad (and getting over jet lag), attended one Bain family dinner, toting my absurd set of notes and the CHS encyclopedia to show people, as requested by dad.  Then the polar vortex hit the Midwest. Three separate flights to Madison were cancelled in the span of two days – with United Airlines sending me automatic notifications of cancellations and rebookings that I couldn’t discuss with an agent because 3,500 flights were cancelled in the span of a weekend. Each flight was more absurd:

  • First the Chicago-Madison leg of my flight was cancelled
    Fine, I can just rent a car and drive up or take a bus, I’ll get in late the night before the test but at least I’ll make it. Better call the bus company and car company, figure out the cheapest option, and make a reservation.
  • Then the New York-Chicago leg was cancelled (leaving the Madison-New York return ticket intact).
    Holy shit. I flew across the world to take this test in two days, spending money I don’t really have, and now I’m trapped in NY and won’t even end up taking it. [lots of tears] I’d better start discussing the possibility of being granted emergency permission to take it remotely.
  • Then United rebooked me, arriving on the day of my exam, mid-afternoon.
    Well THIS is useless.
  • My department decides to let people take it later that week, or whenever they can get to Madison, because of the horrible weather.
    Yay!
  • United cancels that flight to Madison as well.
    Nooooo…..
  • United rebooks me on a flight from New York to Ohio (arriving at 2pm), and then leaving Ohio the NEXT DAY to fly to New Jersey, and then leaving NJ to fly directly to Madison after a 6 hour layover.
    This is when my brain just…started to hurt. I still can’t get ahold of United.
  • That flight was also cancelled.
    There is nothing left.

aaannnnd then my department gave last-minute (less than 24 hrs before) approval to take it remotely. I cold-called random universities in the NYC and Long Island area to see who’d be able and willing to proctor a 6-hour exam the next day.  I wrote 4 5-page essays in 6 hours, celebrated with Mexican food and a trip to the bookstore for something fun to read (or 3 somethings fun to read).

When approved for a remote prelim, I realized I had a $300 credit with United. Andrew’s parents had planned to drive over to Madison from Minnesota to visit me while I was there, so I nabbed a last-minute flight for a one-night mini holiday in Apple Valley, MN. The morning after my exam, I hopped on a 5:30am flight, and spent the 1.5 days eating delicious food, shopping for wonderful things to bring back to Andrew in Hanoi, and working on a massive puzzle with West Wing on in the background. Back to NY late the next day, and got up bright and early again to drive to Vermont for three days, picking up my sister on the way. Did I mention I had a flat tire in the rental? Bahaha. No more freaking out, travel complications are taken in stride. We spent three days cooking, laughing and reading by the woodstove. Drove back to NY,  letting Siri direct me home. She routed me through the Bronx at rush hour, eating up the cushion of time I’d built into my day. Arrived at dad’s, locked the car out front, and immediately hopped on a train to the city to meet Susan and Amanda for an awesome laugh and story filled dinner and cocktail. Did I mention Susan took the train in from Philly for this? The next day, my day of departure, was spent puttering around NYC, coffee shops and delicious food and wine and the Strand. My flight left just after midnight, and I made my way back to Andrew and Ethel, and Hanoi.

And two weeks after I finished the test (almost literally, since I finished writing at 4:30pm and received the notification at 4:21pm NY time) I passed the test. Whew.

So that’s what I’ve been up to. It’s good to be back.

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2 replies »

  1. OMG…I had to read this whole thing to find out you passed! YEAH!!! Congratulations, I knew you would do it….your hard work paid off. I am SO proud of you.

  2. CONGRATULATIONS>>>>>I will call you in the morning…….YEAH!!!!! How come you didn’t call to tell me…?Mom

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And then on one of those long days when I'm tired and reallllllly not in the mood to go home and read 16 essays, I get a text reminder of why I love this job. .
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