A Portrait of the PhD Candidate as a Middle-Aged High School Chemistry Teacher

In the hit TV series Breaking Bad, it takes the main character, Walter White, five seasons to traverse the trajectory from high school chemistry teacher to meth kingpin. If Walter were a PhD student in history, he would earn rave reviews for completing this journey so quickly – hardly anyone finishes a history PhD in only five years (seven is the norm), and the pace isn’t exactly as riveting as the AMC series. I’m sure there are many more dissimilarities between Walter White and a PhD student – no one gets a PhD in history for the money, am I right? – but I wanted to introduce this blog about what it means to be a PhD candidate in a history program by drawing some (mostly) lighthearted comparisons between my life and everyone’s favorite meth-making anti-hero. Here it goes.

Alienation and Isolation
(I know, I said lighthearted comparisons.) Once Walter starts down the track of a life of crime, he has to commit to shutting out his family and friends from this part of his life in order to protect both them and his operations. Obviously, PhD students don’t face these kinds of constraints when they decide to pursue a career in academia. Nevertheless, academic work does lend itself to a degree of isolation that takes conscious effort to overcome. In terms of research and writing (in contrast to teaching), there is no day-to-day accountability or even need to interact with other human beings. Additionally, it is particularly difficult to talk to family and friends about research at any length or with any substance. Cursory explanations of research projects often leave both speaker and listener bewildered. Even if by some odd chance the PhD candidate in your life manages to explain his/her project to you in a way that is comprehensible, he/she has probably been racked by insecurity in the process: What should I leave out? Is my research really so simple? Do they really care anyway? Unlike your neighborhood meth-producer, though, isolation does not have to be part of the PhD candidate’s life. An important part of what we do is to seek out opportunities to speak with our colleagues through informal conversations, presentations at workshops and conferences, etc. But still, day-to-day life can be quite lonely. Maybe a blog will help.

Skill Diversification
The foundation of Walter White’s foray into the world of drugs is his knowledge of chemistry. He soon discovers, though, that this seemingly narrow set of knowledge has a broad range of applications, from bomb-making to body disposal. Additionally, he has to broaden his skills in order to master the art of illicit commerce, becoming an expert in product distribution and money laundering.  Similarly, graduate students start down the road to a PhD with a set of specific skills and generally expect to refine those skills. In actuality, the process of earning a PhD entails acquiring skills that are applicable outside the (already and increasingly) narrow field of academic employment. These include public speaking, project management, use of digital technology, editing, and potentially many others depending on a student’s own strengths and interests. One of the topics of this blog will be the expansive range of tasks that are necessary and skills that can be developed in the process of earning a PhD.

Process vs. Product
One of the persistent tensions in Breaking Bad is between Walter White’s perfectionism and the desire for quick and easy money off a good-enough product, embodied initially by his understudy Jesse Pinkman. One of the great puzzles of PhD programs in subjects like history is why students take so long to finish. Don’t we just have to sit down and write (a lot)? We find ourselves in the same conundrum as Walter White: you can’t get anywhere without a product, but you also can’t get anywhere without a good product. Balancing having something to show for your work and ensuring that what you have produced is of the best possible quality is a constant torture. This challenge is exacerbated by the isolation described above. If you expect to come into a PhD program and be told how exactly to go about writing your first book-length project (the dissertation), you’ll be sorely mistaken. Under these conditions, the process itself becomes an object of fetishization that threatens to overtake the actual goal of writing a dissertation: to produce new knowledge for your field. I’m hoping that through this blog I can talk through some of my own insecurities about the process and also share some of my product, at least in a rudimentary and preliminary form.

A Messy End Game
From the beginning, it is manifestly clear to viewers of Breaking Bad that things just can’t end well for the protagonist. Walter himself, of course, is not afforded such an objective view of his fate, and in any case, he has to keep imagining that his increasingly out-of-control life is leading to a promising end result. Sadly, many students entering PhD programs are in a similar boat. The academic job market is severely depressed, but you wouldn’t know it from the application cover letters that dutifully express an intention to to pursue a career in academia. The good news is that universities, including my own, are increasingly being proactive in altering students early on to the reality that they can’t just expect an academic job to be waiting for them at the end of the PhD process. Even though I want to work in academia, I know I need to be prepared for other options. Facing this reality on a day-to-day basis, though, is a real challenge. Sometimes it feels like you’re in a cage match where the grand prize is a chance to buy a lottery ticket with million to one odds. This is to say, I don’t know where this journey is taking me (so stop asking! – just kidding), but if you keep following this blog, we can find out together.

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