This morning I finished the last of my comprehensive exams, which means (if my committee passes me), then soon I’ll be an “All But Dissertation” (ABD) PhD candidate, whereas before I was a PhD student. The promotion to “all but” sounds so nice, as if there’s just that one little piece left: the dissertation. No big deal. I’m practically done. 🙂
It’s a big “but” in “all but dissertation” status; however, unlike a year ago when I first started grad school, I’m not all that worried about it. This week I was out with a coworker wading in mangrove-filled swamps that had just been flooded by a high tide. I was slipping and sliding around in the muddy 10-inch water with nothing to grab onto besides the occasional mangrove (yes, protected habitat). I realized that if I were to fall, I would surely go down completely and get covered in mud from head to toe. The squishy sliding under my boots was both unsettling and amusing. Despite a year of formally studying mosquitoes, this was the first time I had waded out to collect mosquito larvae in such conditions. Yet I somehow thought I should maintain my composure, as if I were actually “good” at this, given that this is what I’m supposed to be “good” at.
This experience was not unlike every other experience in my PhD so far: flying by the seat of my pants, faking it until I make it. Don’t know how to do PCR? Google it. What’s a grant proposal? Download someone else’s and change it. Drive three hours to meet with one of the country’s best mosquito control programs and try to know what you’re talking about. It’s been one big adrenaline rush. I hardly ever know what I’m doing. But I guess that’s what a PhD is. If you have to plan, carry out, analyze, and publish research from A to Z on some topic you’re not an expert on using techniques you’ve never used before with people you haven’t met yet, nearly every day is a surprise. You would think it would get easier, that you would eventually become comfortable with the tasks at hand, but the tasks keep changing all the time, so you can’t ever put down roots. That little bit of terror that comes on a daily basis with pretending to be good at something I’ve never done before is what keeps me going. I hope that there’s a lot more of that rush, a lot more to figure out, in the “but.”