Twenty years ago today, I took my master’s oral exam and passed, and my committee recommended me into Pitt’s history doctoral program. It should’ve been a day of celebration, as I had knocked out a second degree two weeks shy of two semesters, in just seven and a half months. But, as with many euphoric events in my life, the other shoe dropped, one that led me down a road to a degree and betrayal from my eventual dissertation committee.
The two-hour comprehensive exam was easy enough. My advisor Larry Glasco (see my “Larry Glasco and the Suzy-Q Hypothesis” post from August ’11), along with Paula Baker (see my “Paula Baker and the 4.0 Aftermath” post from February ’12) and Van Beck Hall (department chair) made up my oral examination committee. Most of the questions weren’t about my research and coursework during the 1991-92 school year. They were about my potential dissertation topic and how I’d approach it from a coursework and research perspective. The first question was, in fact, “If we recommend you into the PhD program here, what would your research topic be?”
Needless to say, those questions put me at ease for finishing my master’s and moving forward into the world of the doctoral student. I waited anxiously for ten minutes before my committee came out of the conference room within the department to congratulate me on my performance. I managed to hide my smile as Paula and Hall shook my hand, knowing how easy it would be for professors to misinterpret relief and happiness for cocky arrogance.
It didn’t take long for Larry to burst my bubble, though. “You passed, but we’re going to have to slow you down,” he said. I was, according to at least one member of the committee, “moving way too fast,” at least that was what Larry followed up with. I was stunned. It was as if I’d done something wrong, as if I’d broken some golden rule around what age I should’ve been and how long I should’ve taken to do my master’s work.
I went home that Tuesday evening and tried not to think about what Larry had said. But that was all I could think about. How was it that I was to blame for knocking out a thirty-credit master’s program — including language proficiency requirement, master’s research and reading papers, and five graduate seminars — in two semesters? Or that I was only twenty-two when I did all of this? It didn’t seem fair that a history program as difficult as Pitt’s had professors who intended to make the path toward a PhD even more difficult for me.
I think that despite my DC trip and Georgetown University visit that March, that the night after my master’s oral exam was the first time I knew that it was time to leave Pitt for greener doctoral pastures. I liked Larry, and I generally trusted him. But given my history with the department (see my post “The Miracle of Dr. Jack Daniel” from May ’11), it seemed suicidal to try to complete a PhD there. I already knew that there were grad students there who had reached the dissertation stage in the early-70s — before I was in kindergarten — and had yet to finish. I also knew that Larry had about as much influence on departmental politics as I did.
Maybe it was too soon. Maybe I was too young. Maybe Larry was attempting to look out for my best interests. What I did know, though, flew in the face of all three of those assumptions. It really was time to move on.