On Hope, Fear, and Mood-Altering Drugs
I have entered the stage of my doctoral program known as “quals,” or qualifying examinations. In the next year, I will take five exams to produce either written papers 30-50 pages in length (each) or timed exams to produce an essay on-to-spot in response to an examiner’s question that relates the totality (in the time allowed) of my knowledge and thought in a particular area. I must take at least one timed exam and, within two weeks of my last timed exam, submit to an oral defense of all five. Daunting, to say the least.
Yet, also not. I’ve produced that many pages for a single class in a semester before. I’ve performed well on graduate-level essay exams in the past. In fact, I tend to write too much rather than too little on such assignments. My struggles come from deciding on an argument and then making it succinctly. This experience gives me confidence that I’ll be able to produce the papers and essays, especially as I already have solid (if rough) ideas for three of the five exams.
For my first exam, I’ll be reading several Mahayana primary texts in English translation to identify their implications for pastoral/spiritual care, including two works by Shantideva and a collection of Tibetan lojong texts. A close reading of these texts will tell us something about what constitutes pastoral/spiritual care from a Mahayana Buddhist perspective, a topic with very little written to date.
Concurrently, I’ll be working on my exam in practical theology, which includes an overview of the field, it’s historical developments, dominant concerns, methods, and relation to my sub-specialty. In this case, I’ll also be further exploring the field’s relation to Buddhism, particularly the similarity between certain existing practical theological methods and the Four Noble Truths. (Assuming my examiner agrees at our meeting next week.)
For my third exam, I intend to craft a paper on the practice of spiritual care that, using material from my newly in-depth knowledge of Mahayana texts, is based deeply on Buddhist teaching, particularly in relation to the assessment of spiritual conditions and development of appropriate responses. This will be an attempt to construct Buddhist spiritual care both in relation to and reaction against existing Abrahamic paradigms, with which I must also be broadly and deeply familiar.
My final two exams have yet to be negotiated. A different faculty member serves as the examiner in each case. The last two will be on the history of spiritual care and counseling and my cognate field, leadership studies. In fact, I still need to confirm an examiner in leadership, but I’m not panicking yet. I may take one or both of these as timed exams.
So, the writing isn’t too daunting, the topics are personally interesting, and the examiners (so far) are all people I respect and enjoy working with. So what’s the catch? The reading list.
Each exam requires thousands of pages of research, often from dozens of different sources. The process of reading, annotating, making notes, and developing outlines seems endless. My advisor told me that I’ll never be as much as an expert in my field at any other time in my career than during my oral defense. (I do hope I’ll at least grow in wisdom, even as some of the knowledge fades or is replaced.) Other stalwart Facebook comrades have warned me that quals requires a whole new way of working and just figuring that out can be stressful enough. The academic blogs I read tend to dedicate content on the topic of quals to terrifying tale of woe and tips on how to survive in equal measure. Hope and fear seem par for the course.
I wasn’t actually afraid until I sat down and worked out a reading plan for the first half of the year. The math tells me I have to cover close to 200 pages a week in order to complete my first two quals by June – while working full-time and teaching and taking CPE and a Pali language class. And I have to start now. No easing into this and learning the rhythm. I’ve already warned the significant other.
I’m not actually used to feeling so excited by something and then so depressed. It took me a little by surprise, actually. Of course, I’m still tapering off a prednisone prescription to treat what turned out to be poison oak. In addition to a roaring appetite and a constant weird taste in my mouth (except when I’m eating), another common side effect of the steroids is mood swings. I suppose it’s a small price to pay for not wanting to scratch my face off anymore.
I’ll be off the drugs in three days and then we’ll see if quals is still as scary. (Maybe more scary?) In the meantime, I’m drinking lots of tea (which has it’s own side effects), and spending too much money on books, despite the support to two great libraries.