Seeking more info about the grad school universe
April 15, 2019 12:39 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a novel in which the two main characters are in grad school, at Berkeley. She's sociology, he's history. This is a world I know nothing about -- the intensity of a PhD program, the day to day, and what it's like to live through it. Thus, I keep throwing questions up here, and I've gotten incredibly helpful replies.

My two characters are friends, although they're inching toward more, which is problematic because he's married. (No conflict, no fiction!) Anyway, I'm trying to get them alone in a car. I have a scene wherein she needs to get someplace an hour away (UC Davis, to conduct an interview) and her car has crapped out. He has offered to drive her, which would entail giving up much of his day. He's in the middle of writing his dissertation, and now I wonder if this is totally implausible. Is it inconceivable that he would make such a generous offer -- assuming that at this point they really are still just friends? Would his every minute be precious and spoken for?
posted by swheatie to Education (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If his dissertation-writing process is anything like mine (or anyone else's I knew in grad school) he'd be procrastinating like a motherfucker, well aware that he can't afford to take a day off, and unable to resist the temptation to do it anyway. (No conflict, no fiction!)
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:51 PM on April 15 [38 favorites]

Easy, there is something in the rare book collection at Davis that a colleague just told him about; he was planning to go up there sometime this month and now has a good excuse.

Without an excuse it’d read as a little odd to me no matter their job; significant drives are the purview of family and Very Good Friends to me, even if he is at a phase of writing where he needs a little break. I’d assume that someone doing this was deeply and actively avoiding their responsibilities. I know grad students like that but I don’t know if that reading is your intent.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:52 PM on April 15

It depends on your character's personality. Many Ph.D. students in the humanities, though, are binge writers, especially at the ABD (All But Dissertation) stage. Unless there's a deadline looming, they can do all sorts of things to procrastinate. For me, back in the day, that included going to lectures and colloquia, reading things that weren't really on the subject of my dissertation but that I could kind of justify, going for runs along the lake shore, alphabetizing the spice rack....

If he had promised his advisor a new chapter, or a revision of an old one, by the end of the week/month, it might be implausible. If he had a job offer in hand, but it was contingent on finishing the dissertation before starting the job, it might be really implausible (that's how I got a lot of my dissertation written). But if he's a 4th, 5th, or 6th year student with a laid-back or unengaged advisor, it's completely within the realm of possibility to give up a day to spend time with someone you like.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:52 PM on April 15 [8 favorites]

Lots of people work full time jobs while writing a dissertation. He can get away.
posted by OrangeVelour at 12:56 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]

A large part of graduate school is simultaneously (1) working a ton, (2) performative complaining about how much work you have to do, (3) finding increasingly creative ways to procrastinate, and (4) talking about how you should be writing when you are in fact, not writing.

During my fifth year, I did a weekend road trip to New York from Ohio to help a friend who was getting some stuff to a consulate for her post-doc. (My parents lived there, so that was sort of my excuse.)

So, he'd totally do it. (On preview, yeah, maybe not if he had a pressing deadline coming up, but if not, definitely. But again, with some performative "I should be writing".)
posted by damayanti at 12:58 PM on April 15 [9 favorites]

I'm working on my dissertation in the social sciences right now. Currently dicking around on AskMeFi, clearly. LOTS of puttering around the house, hanging out with my dog, thinking about how much work I need to do but also not doing it. Also about to go for an interview for a full-time job (as per OrangeVelour's answer).
posted by thebots at 12:59 PM on April 15

Also: most folks are only good for a few hours of focused academic writing a day. Dissertation writing is really elastic, there's not an obvious point when you'll know that it's done, your advisors give you conflicting edits every draft. I wouldn't find it odd.

Do humanities students use the uni motor pool (i.e., do their advisors have funding for them to use the uni motor pool)?
posted by momus_window at 1:03 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]

Recommend they drive over the wetlands near Sacto.
posted by johngoren at 1:05 PM on April 15

The real problem with this plan is that grad students at Berkeley might prefer to take the train or the intercampus shuttle to go up to Davis for the day.
posted by crazy with stars at 1:07 PM on April 15 [4 favorites]

writing your dissertation means that apart from any teaching commitments you may have, your time is your own to manage. you've passed all your exams and you're not taking classes anymore. so

Would his every minute be precious and spoken for

virtually none of it would be spoken for unless he did the speaking. this is how people end up dissertating for decades and just possibly, one day, coming to terms with the shame of being ABD. the idea that nobody fucks around in grad school is a fiction. nobody serious and successful, maybe. though you can be either one (serious or successful) without being both. but serious and successful and disciplined ones are not the only kind of grad students there are.
posted by queenofbithynia at 1:08 PM on April 15 [5 favorites]

From further afield in the grad school universe, there's an open textbook Law School Materials for Success describing what to expect and proposing how to prepare and manage your time in law school.
posted by XMLicious at 1:53 PM on April 15

He's in the middle of writing his dissertation

What exactly do you mean by "in the middle of"? Writing is the last stage after all the real work is done, in my experience. All the procrastinating happened during the research phase, as things could always wait a day. Once I had completed my analysis, writing began and I was in crunch mode, churning out a chapter every few days and wholly focused on the task at hand. I would talk out loud to myself about my thesis any time I wasn't writing, because my head was on the verge of exploding trying to hold in the totality of what I was trying to sum up and not lose track of the argument. In that circumstance, taking time off to road trip with an "it's complicated" friend would be a huge deal and set back the writer considerably.
posted by cardboard at 2:11 PM on April 15

I submitted in November in a humanities field, and I can assure you that not only would I have been WILLING and ABLE to do something like this for a friend at almost any point during my ABD years, I would have been exceedingly grateful to have an excuse as non-frivolous and vaguely-academic-adjacent as "helping a friend with her research" to explain away my "lost" writing day. The reality is that MANY potential writing days in grad school are lost to much (much much much) more trivial things than an actual occasion to provide a service for someone else. I, for example, cannot even count the number of days I lost to "staring blankly at the screen and refusing to even open the Word doc because of crippling anxiety"-itis.

Then again, maybe I was just a terrible grad student...
posted by Dorinda at 2:17 PM on April 15 [7 favorites]

My dissertation was something like an hour of Half-Life or Quake 3 and then ten minutes, maybe, of writing before getting sucked back in to another roam around Black Mesa or another arena battle.

So yeah. Procrastination. A lot of it.
posted by humuhumu at 2:26 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]

Writing is the last stage after all the real work is done, in my experience. All the procrastinating happened during the research phase, as things could always wait a day. Once I had completed my analysis, writing began and I was in crunch mode

This is not the usual process for a Humanities dissertation though. In a field like history it is harder to untangle the analysis and the writing. Usually the student would be writing from close to the start of the dissertation process and iterating the analysis as they go. It's not like an experimental project where you run an experiment, get numbers, and then write about them.
posted by lollusc at 2:30 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]

During my dissertation writing, I actually cleaned out behind the fridge to avoid work. It wasn't slacking if I was cleaning. My house was the cleanest it's ever been, and all the laundry was done and folded and put away. The dog and I also took epically long walks. Because she needed them. Not because I needed to be away from the computer.

Also, my PhD's in history and I did my writing a chapter at a time. At any given point I had a chapter to write, a chapter to research, and a chapter to revise. My advisers suggested such a workflow because they understood that it made it less likely I would get overwhelmed by any given section. Also, they knew me and knew that I would "procrastinate" by researching and never get anything actually written. This gave me accountability and also a way to go down a research rabbit hole if I needed it.
posted by teleri025 at 2:38 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]

I got my first academic job -- one of two in the country in my field that year -- before I had started my dissertation. I was due to start the job in September in another city and planned to write like crazy all summer (got the job in May).

Then I realized I was leaving the city I'd lived in for 7 years, and in which I'd made many friends and played music for a living and been blissfully happy. I managed to blow the whole damn summer playing music almost every day and absorbing my last few months there. I hit the new job without a page written. I was told I had to finish and defend by the end of my first quarter teaching or lose the job. So I wrote the thing by staying up almost every night for 3 months after full days of teaching.

Thank god for cocaine.

Shorter me: he has time to give her a ride.
posted by spitbull at 3:00 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Do humanities students use the uni motor pool (i.e., do their advisors have funding for them to use the uni motor pool)?

hahahahahahahaha. no.

When I was writing my dissertation, I had a rule that I had to write at least 500 words every day, but once I had done that, I was free. Sometimes that took all day, but sometimes I'd be able to knock them out pretty quickly (and sometimes I'd keep going after that), and then I'd have most of a day to either work on other things (teaching, job applications, etc etc) or to relax and be in the world. Maybe he has a similar system, and has already met his word count when crisis strikes?
posted by dizziest at 3:26 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

Seems realistic if he’s from here in that Californians do not consider anything under about four hours a long drive. Two hours is a nbd commute so I’d think an hour is just sorta “could you drop me off across town?”
posted by Smearcase at 4:53 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

I want to thank all you good people of metafilter for offering such great answers at all times, but especially to my questions about graduate school.
posted by swheatie at 5:04 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

He would totally drive her and tell himself that he'll work on his laptop in a coffee shop for a focused writing day (or grading if he's a TA) and then would just faff around on Metafilter while waiting for her.
posted by TwoStride at 6:46 PM on April 15 [6 favorites]

If you haven't already checked it, this might be helpful:
It has what you're supposed to be doing year-by-year. So if he's back in Berkeley and writing his dissertation, he's at least in his fifth year, done with most of his research, possibly teaching, definitely stressed.
posted by knuspermanatee at 7:52 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]

I do think wanting to look at something in the library is an excellent excuse. He's history, he found out about something in the library special collections that's probably not relevant but it's possibly relevant, and he's been thinking he should go take a look, etc. It's important that it not be a regular book because he could get that easily, but something in their special collections library (so something that wouldn't circulate).
posted by bluedaisy at 11:54 AM on April 16

This has already been more than answered, but as a current humanities PhD student at Berkeley this scenario is completely plausible. Davis is not far but is annoying to get to by public transit, I could totally see a friend with a car who isn't teaching that day offering a ride. The excuse is a good idea but kinda less plausible, because there isn't much at Davis that isn't accessible at Berkeley. But quid pro quo is super common among us broke graduate students - more than this has been done for the promise of treatment to dinner or drinks.
posted by cosmic owl at 8:28 PM on April 18

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