This is How I Work

Dr. Eva Lantsoght has created a blog focused on “the process of doing a PhD,” among other topics (including, get this, reinforced concrete), and about a year ago, she invited me to write a piece for her “How I Work” series.

Writing this short piece allowed me to think about what my PhD means to me. As someone who chose what is now referred to as an “alt-ac” path, I do ponder my life choices at times, and wonder if earning this degree was worth it.

I’m happy to say that it was, but not for any of the reasons I would have guessed.

Was it worth it?

I get asked every now and then if earning the doctorate was worth it. If I could do it all over again, would I?

That’s a tough question to answer.

On the one hand, the actual act of earning the PhD is not something I would do again for any amount of money. You could promise me my own private island in the Bahamas with a never-ending supply of Nutella in exchange for the degree, and still I would say no.

If you’re curious as to why, it’s because the entire process of earning a doctorate* can be summed up with this. This man is ostensibly describing what it’s like to serve as a committee member for a student’s dissertation. (For those not in academia: doctorates in the humanities require each student to have a Chairperson, known as the first reader, and two additional professors serving as readers two and three. This team is, in theory, supposed to guide you and support you as you write your dissertation, and ultimately help you produce worthy scholarship.)

Read the first two points of his position very carefully.

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Got it? Do you see what he did there?

He is essentially saying, “First, if/when your committee members make suggestions, take them.”

Then, he says, “Second, don’t just take their suggestions blindly! After all, this is your dissertation.”

Welcome to the hell that was my dissertation process. We’re talking about four years of “Think for yourself! But, do as you’re told. But, think for yourself! But do as you’re told.”

I suppose in theory the process should work just fine. Your committee gives you guidance, you consider it, you implement the changes that make sense to you and advance your work, and you thoughtfully decline to make other changes that don’t, perhaps in conversation with your committee members where they are so proud of your demonstrated ability to . . . HAHAHAHAHA.

Oh, it so does not work that way. I spent years with my committee members doing number 1: they marked up my chapters and I was expected to make their changes, period, full stop, end of sentence.

Then, I would meet with my advisor to discuss any changes I had opted not to make (which weren’t many, if I’m honest. For the most part, my committee’s feedback was sound; but there were times when I respectfully disagreed and had this crazy idea that that was acceptable), and she would scold me for disrespecting the time and expertise that my committee had extended . . . and then turn right around and scold me for not thinking for myself!

Imagine doing this for four straight years. No amount of Nutella could make this productive.

I’m not alone

For a long time, I thought that the problem was within my institution, but the more I engaged with others, the more I saw that my experience was not unique.

Take a few minutes to scroll through Twitter, and you’ll see countless posts about earning a PhD was an overwhelmingly negative endeavor.

Recently, I read this. I immediately understood exactly what she meant. So did a lot of other people, judging by the number of responses she got:

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Also, this request for help and support. Again, the stress that this person is feeling is not unique to them.

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The #withaphd community online overwhelmingly echoes such sentiments, ranging from “what did I get myself into” to “this is taking the kind of toll on my mental health that is making me seriously considering closing my laptop and walking away forever.”

What’s the upside?

So, after the years of stress and frustration that culminates in a degree that not only does not guarantee a job of any kind, but potentially makes me overqualified for many jobs, do I regret it?

Honestly, no. Of course, I think the process needs to change, in a large-scale way. I hate how much I inwardly cringe when I hear someone excitedly saying that they got into grad school or are considering a PhD. I want to tell them all to run, fast, in the other direction.

I want to tell them that, if there is anything they can conceive of themselves doing with the next 8-10 years of their lives, then they should do that thing instead, whatever it is.

But I do regret the path I chose?

I certainly don’t regret the confidence I have now with my abilities. And I don’t mean that I think I’m any smarter or more able to write or teach writing than I was before I went to graduate school. I’m talking about that inner knowledge that yes, I can kick some serious butt in the academic and business worlds. It’s the kind of knowledge of self-worth that shines through unsaid.

Once I was talking with a colleague who said that his daughter competes in dead-lift competitions, and can lift some extraordinary amount of weight. On the outside, you might not look at this petite woman and think she could do something so badass.

But she knows. And that makes all the difference with how she carries herself throughout each day.

That inner knowledge of her badassness shines through in everything that she does.

That’s how I feel about earning this degree

Earning my PhD was not a difficult physical endeavor. There are people who struggle through much more difficult experiences in a whole variety of ways. But this isn’t a competition.

The result is that I hold dear the simple knowledge that I know, despite anything my committee or anyone else may think, that I am worthy, that I am smart, that my propensity for kindness and compassion are strengths, not weaknesses, and that I know that I can set a major goal for myself and see it through, no matter what.

That is worth everything.

Feel free to put my innter-badassness to work for you. Reach out for a quote on content writing for your next blog or project. 

 

*I restrict my critique to the study of humanities; I understand that degrees in the sciences might be a bit different, and by different, I mean better. I sure hope so.

Complacency Will Cost You

A few years ago, I went to the Verizon store with my mom just after Christmas. After years of resisting technology, she had just spent several days in the house with me and my sisters as we all shared photos and texts among one another. Mom felt a bit left out, and decided she was ready for a smartphone. We were thrilled.

Once in the store, we helped mom pick out a phone that would best suit her needs. The salesman then described the data plan. He offered her the same data plan that I had, but for $20 less a month.

“Hey, wait a minute,” I said. “I have those same levels of talk, text, and data, only I’m paying X.” The salesman got my mom set up with her new phone and then took a look at my plan, and found a way to match her deal. By speaking up at the right time, I scored a plan that was $20 cheaper each month, for the same amounts of service.

Fast forward to this year. I went in to the Verizon store because I was having an issue with my phone and needed some help. The salesman was able to help me with my concern, and then asked if he could look up my plan. I thought for sure he was going to try to sell me some new expensive deal. Instead, he offered the opposite.

Plans had changed over the previous year, and he could offer me the same amounts of talk and text (unlimited, for both) with more than double the data, plus monthly carry-over data, for less money each month.

I had my skeptical face on as I asked for the catch.

“No catch,” he said. The plans had changed since I last checked in, and as long as I stayed on auto-pay billing, I could have the cheaper rate.

Granted, I don’t have the latest model phone, but I bought it new (and for cheap, since it’s an older model) just a few months ago so it should last a good while. And I now have an even less expensive cell phone bill than when I matched my mom’s rate.

Lesson learned. Every year I’ll check in with my cell phone carrier to inquire about current plans and see if I’m eligible for any changes. I may not always be eligible for a discount, and there is certainly no secret or rocket science involved here, other than the importance of being vigilant and the willingness to have a conversation and ask about my options.

I Saved 25% on my Internet Service. You Can, Too.

I think often of the man I met at my former job, who told me about his efforts to simply be nice and ask for what he wanted and how that usually worked in his favor. I also know, from my experience in nonprofit fundraising, that the number one reason why people give money is because they were asked. And offering a discount isn’t that different than writing a check for a donation.

So, when my new resident promotional rate ended after a year, I knew it was worth asking for a discount. And, by simply calling my internet company and asking for what I wanted, I got it. Here’s how I did it:

I was strategic: Even though my internet provider has customer service representatives available 24/7, I made sure to call during regular business hours. I knew that the authority to offer a discount would likely need to be made at the manager level, and the manager was most likely available during the business day. I also chose to call at the end of the business day, knowing that customer service reps generally have angry people calling at all hours, so I knew if I was the nice voice at the end of a long day, it might make an impact.

I was patient. I called the 800 number on my bill, knowing it would likely take many steps and probably several minutes, minimum, before I spoke with a live person. The automated system that “answered” the phone tried to get me to say what I wanted so it could route the call appropriately, but I have a strong aversion to talking with robots. I simply kept saying “I want to speak with a person,” each time I was prompted to speak until I was connected with a live human. It took maybe half a dozen tries.

I was polite. When the woman who answered the phone asked how I was doing today, but she was working from a script. I wasn’t, however, and my kindness was sincere. I said that I was just fine, thank you very much, how are you? And when I asked that question, I meant it. I think my friendliness surprised her, and set the tone for the rest of the interaction. Would she still have been willing to escalate my request had I been rude? I do not know, but I have a hunch, given my experience working in customer service, that my politeness made an impact.

I was direct: After we exchanged pleasantries, I simply told her why I was calling: “My one-year new resident introductory rate for internet service has expired so now I am being billed at the higher rate. I’m calling to see if there are any promotions or other ways I can reduce my monthly bill without reducing my level of service.”

That’s right – I told her I wanted the exact same product, but for less money. I made sure to say it nicely. I knew that she was likely not someone who could authorize such a thing, but that someone there could. I was right.

I was prepared to repeat my request. The nice customer service lady asked if I would mind if she transferred me to the Customer Solutions department. I said not a problem, that that would be terrific. She placed me on hold for a few minutes, and then a new person was on the line. I repeated my request to him, again just as nice as I could be.

I used all available information. I had recently received a promotional letter in the mail offering service with this company at a steep discount than what I was currently paying. I did see the fine print saying this promotion was for new customers only, but I knew that if they offered this deal, perhaps there might be other deals for which I did qualify.

My new customer service rep asked me a few questions to clarify what I type of service I wanted (nope, I’m not interested in adding cable or a landline to my service, thanks). He confirmed that the that promotion I received in the mail is for new customers only and involves internet access at lesser speeds than what I currently use, but that he would be happy to see what else may be available.

I continued being patient. He then placed me on hold for a few more minutes. I took the time to pace around the room and get in some more steps for the day. When he came back, he said he found a much cheaper plan, though it was for slower speeds. However, he could include an upgrade to my current speed for an additional charge, making the total price, with fees, about 25% less than my current bill. I said that sounded perfect.

The breakdown:

  • Total time spent on phone: 22 minutes
  • Customer service representatives: 2 (3 if you count the robot)
  • Times placed on hold: 3
  • Original monthly bill, with fees: $97.95
  • New monthly bill, with fees: $72.99
  • Monthly savings: 25%
  • Product received: Exactly the same

This rate is good for one year, after which my rate will go back up again. The customer service representative did say it’s a good idea to call each year to see what promotions or packages might be available. I intend to do just that. It’s more than worth 22 minutes of my time once a year to save $299.52 in monthly expenses!

Because Nice Matters

Several years ago, I was the manager on duty at a large cultural attraction during our biggest fundraising event of the year. Thousands of people came through our gates that day, and my job was to keep things running smoothly. That involved managing the main gate ticket sales, keeping the flow of guests running without issue, and addressing all of the various and sundry issues that come up over the course of a busy day.

By the time we were within an hour of closing, I was tired. I loved my job, but it’s amazing how demanding people can be once they have bought a ticket to something. Suddenly, “the customer is always right” echoes in their minds and typically reasonable people let their rude flags fly.

I was standing near the main gate, saying goodbye to guests as they left, when a man walked up to the ticket window. He wanted to renew his annual membership to our attraction. The ticket agent offered the standard discount for an early membership renewal – 10%. The gentleman politely asked for a 20% discount instead. The ticket agent said she could only offer 10% off. The man, again politely, asked to speak with someone who could authorize a larger discount. The ticket agent pointed at me.

The man walked over. He explained that he was a member and would like to continue to be a member. He was interested in renewing his membership that day, but would appreciate a 20% discount instead of the standard 10% discount for early renewals. I explained that that was not our policy.

He then told me about his strategy. Over the last year or so, when he would go to places like home improvement stores or other attractions, he would see rude customers harass customer service agents and get their rudeness rewarded with whatever they demanded, whereas the people who didn’t speak up did not receive the same concessions. So, he made a decision. He was going to try being nice and simply ask for what he wanted, on the theory that people who were used to taking abuse would appreciate being treated with consideration and he could then get what he wanted without being rude. Everybody wins.

Over the last year or so, he had been able to receive discounts for all sorts of things, simply by being nice. He was right; being nice was a great strategy. He knew that I had likely been beleaguered by rude people all day long (I had), and that if he spoke with me at the end of the day, I might appreciate speaking with a nice person (I did). He was straightforward and transparent. Of course I gave him a bigger discount than the standard one. He saved a bit of money, I had an enjoyable conversation with a nice person, and the attraction kept a loyal member.

Over time, I find that being nice is generally the way to go, as a customer, as a service provider, or as a human being in general. We can all stand to err on the side of kindness and transparency in our personal and business dealings.