To those unfamiliar with the process of academic qualifying exams, they go something like this:
1) figure out what areas of [your academic discipline] you want to specialize in (i.e. moving forward, what are the subject areas within [discipline] that will most inform the dissertation project?)
2) write up a big ole’ statement about how those 3-ish areas inform your work
3) give said statement to your committee (usually 3 faculty), who each generate a question for you to answer. the questions are based on a gap in the statement, or an area the committee wants to push you towards
4) write fully cited essay responses to said questions in a short amount of time (for me, it was three 10-page essays in three days.)
5) sleep for days.
6) at some point, have an oral defense with your committee for an hour and a half of very hard, direct, on-the-spot questions.
6a) sweat bullets. say awkward things. watch committee cringe and try and help you along.
7) with any luck, PASS exams, and become a PhC (candidate for the doctorate)
8) go out for drinks with all of your academic friends
9) then research and write a g-damn dissertation. oof-dah.
As of today, I’ve done parts 1-5, but am waiting for parts 6-infinity for another week (+beyond). My statement detailed my interest in exploring the model of social justice philanthropy (SJP) through three lenses:
1) state restructuring: with the rise of nonprofits, and the simultaneous shrinking of assets, how is social justice philanthropy mobilizing for social change? how is it similar or different than existing models of philanthropy and social service provision?
2) critical poverty studies: what assumptions and beliefs does social justice philanthropy practice that challenge dominant, individualized and pathologizing discourses about poverty? In other words, how do SJP organizations understand poverty, and what do they believe they can do to change it?
3) political geographies and subjectivities: who are the people engaging with SJP? at what scale are they enacting politics? how do the practices of SJP challenge or contest more national level beliefs about the ‘best practices’ of new philanthropy?
So I got questions back that loosely fit into those narratives and questions. I was encouraged to think about my own epistemology (how I see the world), my methodology (how will I look at ‘discourse’? how will I remain open to engaging the possible rather than critiquing the limits?), and about the contradictions and position of *any* philanthropic engagement (i.e. the fact that philanthropy, by its very nature, relies on unequal distribution of wealth as a means to try and solve the problems created by unequal distribution of wealth…)
So I donned my coyote hat (one of my birthday gifts from a friend), hoisted a hefty backpack with my laptop, wireless mouse and keyboard, and lots of books, and I split my 3 days between Office Nomads and WeWork. I packed good food. I got good sleep. I made sure to exercise and not work more than 8 hours a day. I watched an episode of Sherlock every night. I wrote sitting down, I wrote standing up. I wrote while dancing. I took some naps, and I texted and g-chatted with fellow PhD students near and far. I called my parents with updates and posted at least one self-congratulatory facebook post.
And you know what? I had fun with it all. Really and truly. I think this is a testament to the fact my program is an extremely good fit for me, and that my committee knows me well. And that I am a huge nerd at heart.
I also think I was ready to be pushed, to truly develop my ideas. To dig deep and think hard. The questions were incredibly productive. That said, by the end of the three days, my brain was mush. It took me at least a full week to recover my thinking capacity.
But when I woke up a few days later, I thought, “huh. what was all the fuss about? one day I woke up and started writing, and 3 days later I was done.”
The tendency is to build this whole process up SO MUCH. To stress about all of the reading to do, the work to prepare, the elusive ‘readiness’ that one should feel before writing the exams. However, I decided early on to try and avoid this stress. To just read in an incredibly focused way, and to take thorough notes. I decided to start writing the statement, and that if I came upon an area that I needed to read more deeply, then I would pause and read. I trusted that my adviser wouldn’t let me take the exams if it was clear I wasn’t ready. Lo and behold, she gave me the green light immediately, and I saved myself an enormous amount of stress.
Because here’s what I realized: I was always going to be ready, because this is the stuff I’m living and breathing. I’m not only thinking about social justice philanthropy in the context of school, I’m thinking about it as an activist, as a long-term project, as a writer, as a nonprofit manager, and as a participant. I am not only thinking about poverty politics through academic papers, but through my own discourses, through twitter feeds, through public policy, through the ways my entrepreneurial peers approach social inequalities. And politics? It is part and parcel of how I see the world, how I think about every day actions and larger strategies. To clarify, I don’t mean electoral or governmental politics. I mean the actions that people take that put them in a position to live their values, to stake a claim, to push for change, or to say something challenging. For scholars writing on politics in this way, see Lynn Staeheli, Stuart Hall, Tracy Skelton, Gill Hart, Vicky Lawson, and J.K. GIbson-Graham.
So I turned in my exams and sent them off in a 36 page PDF. I then proceeded to have a dance party to some very loud pop music in the lobby of WeWork, to eat an enormous bowl of celebratory pho, and then go home and make myself a strong hot toddy. And then sleep for days (kind of).
This was not a process I would elect to undertake again, but it was incredibly positive, productive, and not-that-painful. I look forward to hearing from my committee during the oral defense. And I am so pleased to have had the chance to think deeply about my research, to write it out, and to remind myself that I am ready and I will continue to be ready. Bring it on, dissertation! You’re next.