Friday, April 24, 2009

Why my hair is turning gray and brittle...

One of the things that made me realize I was losing touch with people this semester (and that made me want to start this blog as one possible solution) is that it occurred to me that very few people would be able to share the joy and elation I will be feeling on May 14 after 12 pm if they couldn't experience, in contrast, the incredible stress and sadness of the months leadng up to that date. Why that date, some of you may ask? On May 14, at 10 am, I will enter a small seminar room in the Medical Sciences Center here on campus and will be faced with three brilliant professors who will quiz me on the content of some 200 books and 50 years worth of scholarship for two hours. Then, after a few minutes of deliberation, they will decide whether or not I've passed these "preliminary exams" (or "prelims," as we call them) and whether or not I can move forward with my Ph. D. program. This is decision day for me a in number of really important ways. This is the culmination of all that I've been slaving over for the past seven-ish months. This is, in some ways, what will determine the next chapter of my life.

Last semester, starting in September 2008 or so, I chose three fields, or subdisciplines within my larger program of the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology. These three fields are Environmental History, Science in America, and the History of Public Health in America. For each of these three fields, I chose one advisor who is an expert in that area, and drew up a list of 50-100 books which, after reading, would make me a (tentative) "expert" in that area. (You can see the lists of books by clicking on the fields above, if you're interested). Then, over the course of the last seven months, I've been working my way through these three lists, reading all of these books. Now, obviously, with 212 books to read in about as many days (along with taking courses, planning a wedding, serving as a graduate student representative for CHE, eating meals, and sleeping roughly 8 hours a night), I didn't really read every page of every book. The idea is mainly to know a really important subset of books very well, and to know enough about the rest to be able to talk about them intelligently, to know which ones to return to in the future, and so on.

I actually survived through the reading and note-taking process (with a helluva library account). Then, on Tuesday, April 14, each of my three advisors sent me one question that served to make me think back on the big themes from the entire list of books I read. The questions were on topics like how studying food can contribute to our knowledge of environmetal history, how science has been shaped by the physical environments in which it has been practiced, and how public health measures have been used to normalize a "deviant" sector of society. From that date that I got my questions, I had roughly three weeks to write three 8-10 page essays in response to those three questions. I'm in the middle of drafting these essays now, and they're due on Thursday, May 7. Then, I'll have one week to brush up on all my names and dates and timelines and big ideas, and then on Thursday, May 14, I'll go in for the oral defense of my prelims, in which my three advisors will ask me all sorts of questions about my essays, about the readings I've done this semester, about how it all ties together. And then they will let me know my fate.

I could go on for a really really long time about how I feel about this whole process, how deflated it's made me feel, how seriously I think I may not pass all three of my fields, how this will change my views about the next stage of my academic life. But for now, I'll just leave you with this sketch of my semester. I hope it gives some indication of how overwhelmed I've been, how weighed down I've been, but also how free! and light! and relieved! I'll feel after May 14 (regardless of the results).

Wish me luck, or just wish me that I may remember everything I've studied.


  1. I can sympathize with you on many levels with this post! It's so easy for a bystander to tell you "it'll be okay! you'll do great! don't worry" but it's another thing completely to live through this type of stress. Know that you are brilliant and that they never would have accepted you into the program if you weren't capable. I believe whole-heartedly that you will survive. Take care of yourself and make time for you and Justin. I'm thinking of you and believing in you :)

  2. Awww...Cate. Thank you. This comment couldn't be more appropriate and reassuring and just-what-I-want-to-hear. I know that you do understand. (And we got the beautiful letterpress thank you cards yesterday! Hooray! Even better than laundry detergent. I will certainly make good use of them in the months come. Love you.)