The Doctoral Dilemma for a Campus Graduate Student

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The Ph.D. program remains a quagmire to most people outside of graduate school. As a Chicano doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley's city and regional planning program, I've become immune to the many intrusive inquiries I receive regarding my progress from family, friends and strangers.

My favorite unsolicited question is, "When are you going to finish?" My second favorite, by a close margin is, "When are you going to get a real job?" While I haven't done any empirical research on people's concern over the plight of doctoral students, I'm willing to bet my Ford pre-doctoral fellowship that most Ph.D. students get asked these same questions after completing the first few years.

While many students who attend the university can't wait to finish their bachelor's degree before entering the job market (or what's left of it), some decide (or their parents decide for them) to pursue graduate and professional schools. Most graduate schools consist of terminal degrees, where after 2 to 3 years, a successful student either receives master's (M.A.), business (M.BA.) or law degree (J.D.).

Fewer students, however, pursue medical and Ph.D. programs, which can take up to 6 to 10 years after the B.A., depending on the field of study and field requirements.

In the case of the M.D., most people can see the logic behind pre-med's taking courses, completing exams and doing internships before actually practicing medicine. No rational patient would accept anything less from her or his doctor. We feel secure when we see a copy of our doctor's medical degree from UCLA or Harvard "humbly" displayed on their wall as if they won an Oscar or Grammy.

But in the case of the Ph.D. program, there seems to be much confusion coming from most people, including those who received other graduate and professional degrees. Once again, people return to the same broken record: Why are you taking so long to finish?

The underlying assumption here is that isolated activities like reading, researching and writing don't represent "real work" in a capitalist society, where there doesn't exist an exchange of labor power for wages. (This is not to say that we don't have too many doctoral students and professors who engage in esoteric research confined to the Ivory Tower.) Nevertheless, the mob demands that you stop with these "trivial" matters and get a "real job!"

Apart from the invasion of privacy issue, I understand this sentiment to some degree since in this society we are judged by how much money we make and our social status. For example, when we meet strangers we often want to know, out of curiosity, what people do for a living and treat them accordingly. Individuals generally speak to their doctor or lawyer (especially if their in deep legal trouble) with respect and admiration for their knowledge and expertise. On the other hand, when it comes to hired help, like domestic workers or gardeners, many people "talk down" to these mostly immigrant workers, barking orders at them without the same respect accorded to the mostly, non-Latino professionals.

In my particular case, after completing my B.A. and M.A. from UCLA, I'm now entering my final year of my Ph.D. program at Berkeley and constantly have to deal with people's preoccupation with what I actually do for living. I sometimes feel like I'm being lumped into the "Jersey Shore" MTV cast, where I'm partying without a worry in life like "The Situation" or "Snooki."

Fortunately for me, I come from ELA housing projects and don't allow for people's intrusive comments (some are sincere) about what I do or what I should be doing impact my self-esteem.

Also, having someone to come to my defense and educate others regarding the rigorous nature of a doctoral program and what I intend to do with my degree helps me to focus on my research. I'm speaking of my wife Antonia, whom I refer to as a "wise Chicana," since she originally encouraged me to pursue my Ph.D. after spending many years working as a community organizer in defense of marginalized communities in America's barrios.

Finally, I can't wait for someone to ask me one more time, "Hey, Alvaro, when are you getting a real job?" My response: "That's soon-to-be Dr. Huerta, for you."

Tags: PHDS

Alvaro Huerta is a graduate student of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. Reply to

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