|The Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin|
share little resemblance to advancement
In my department, the advancement to candidacy signifies several simultaneous milestones that, in other departments or in other universities, are separate events. First, it implies that all courses for the program are complete satisfactorily. This includes core and required classes, electives, breadth requirements, and the requisite number of units within the department. Second, part of the advancement is the qualifying exam, which takes the form of an in-depth question-and-answer session with the advancement committee members (like an oral examination for which you do not have the questions in advance). Third, it is a defense of the research proposal and n-year plan. Approving the research defense is an indication that the student has enough background and domain knowledge to venture off on his or her own research topic.
Anatomy of an advancement
The advancement goes like this. First, the student (and student's friends, if any are available) arrive to set up some snacks. This is very important, because the whole procedure takes at least three hours, and everybody knows that hungry advisors are unhappy advisors, and unhappy advisors are likely to fail their students. Quality food is best, though sweets and carbs are usually a hit. At one advancement I attended, the student's wife made fresh, home-made chili and zucchini bread. Another had a giant bottle of organic orange juice. Yet another had an assortment of pastries and chocolates from an organic foods store nearby.
Ideally, the student arrived with enough time to set up his or her computer, connect it to the projector and Internet connection, and mentally and emotionally prepare him- or herself for the ordeal to come. It is not exactly a snake fight portion of your thesis defense (that part comes in a few years), but it can be a long and exhausting test of mental strength.
Colleagues, cohort, and friends arrive. The committee members, of which the student has at least four, arrive promptly, and the student begins his or her research goals presentation as other audience members filter in. Motivation, prior work, theoretical underpinnings or significance, proposed contribution, work plans, and a timeline. Then, the floor is opened to questions from the audience. When the student has sufficiently satisfied the easy audience questions, everyone leaves the committee alone with the student. The committee members ask their tougher questions (this is the oral examination). This can take over an hour. Having satisfied the committee, the student leaves, and the committee deliberates in private while the student paces outside in the hallway, waiting to be called in. Soon, the committee calls the student and discusses their decision (which is hopefully a positive one). The decision along with key points of the deliberation are written up and submitted as evidence of completion of this milestone. The student pays a fee and -- poof! -- is a Ph. D. candidate.
Anatomy of my advancement
I arrived with half an hour to spare for my 9:30am advancement with a collection of bagels and spread, nuts, chocolates, and other snacks from Whole Foods, and a gallon of Peets Coffee with organic cream and fancy brown sugar cubes (my husband was amazing and did all the shopping). While my husband and some friends were setting up the food, I went to pick up the projector I had reserved the night before.
"Just pick it up from me," the graduate advisor for my department, a sweet older lady in a darkened room lit by only a 25-watt table lamp, said when I made the reservation in person.
"My advancement is at 9:30am... will you be here?" I asked.
"Yes, I will," she said, and went to hang up the announcements with my name and abstract printed on them.
So, on the morning of my advancement, I was met with...
Surprise #1. The advising staff lady for my department decided to work from home that day. OK, no problem, I thought. I'll ask the other department's grad advisor, whose door is right here.
I knocked, but no answer.
I walked down the hall to faculty support.
"My advancement is in half an hour, and I have no projector," I said.
"You needed to have reserved one through your department's advisor," the girl behind the counter said.
"I did. She isn't here today," I replied.
We both leaned over and looked down the long hallway to the row of closed advisors' doors. She looked down at her reservation book.
"I don't have any projectors available," she said, with a sad note in her voice, "and no access to your grad advisor's room."
At this point, my friend Cat found me. "I have one in my lab," she said. "I'll bring it down."
I went back to the room of my advancement to set up Skype for the committee member with a sick baby to connect from home. Then, I was met with...
Surprise #2. An e-mail from another committee member that said he was sick and would not be coming. Just like that. It is probably no big deal, I thought. That's right. No big deal.
As the time drew near and passed, the room filled with people. Eventually the majority of my committee arrived, and I began my talk. Much of it was about a childbirth video game that I had invented, developed, and deployed, and where I planned to go next with the topic. When I finished, there was a lot of discussion among the audience, and I fielded questions. And then...
Surprise #3. My committee chair said, "I don't play games, and I don't have children, so I'm not probably the worst person to be on your committee." (At this point, I amazed myself with my own poker-face ability.) "How are games better than pamphlets you can get at the doctor's office?"
Hang on, what?
"It's just that I don't see how playing this game ---"
"Simulation," I corrected.
"How playing this simulation is going to prepare me for childbirth. I'd rather read a book."
Before I could reply that he, esteemed committee member, was clearly not my target audience...
Surprise #4. One of my colleagues in the audience replied, softly yet firmly: "If you were going to learn to fly a plane, would you specifically avoid flight simulators as training tools just because you don't believe in games?"
Then, a games-as-learning-tools debate ensued... one in which I was not involved. Very surreal.
The public Q&A ended, and nothing particularly out of the ordinary happened behind closed doors. My Skype-advisor asked some tough questions but was on my side throughout the whole process, even flashing me a big grin and double-thumbs-up on the screen when she thought nobody else was looking.
One committee member said, "Now we will talk alone and vote. You can leave the room."
"Should I just... uh, how will I know you are done?"
"Just wait outside the door and pace the hallway nervously," he replied. "It's tradition."
Rather than pacing, I looked down the hall and saw that the other department's grad advisor, a younger woman with a lot of blonde curly hair, had come in. I thought I would use this opportunity to ask about my missing advisor. When I told her what had happened, her eyes got as big as dinner plates and she picked up the phone, dialing a number with her long fingers, without taking her eyes off me. Then, she turned away and tersely described the situation to the person on the phone: "There's an advancement candidate here, and one of her committee did not show up. What does she do?"
Then: "I see."
Then again: "I see."
Surprise #5. Turns out, you actually do need all of your committee members. See, there need to be three tenured faculty that vote on whether or not the student passes. Failing that, the advancement is nullified and must be repeated. I had two tenured and two untenured present (including my Skype-advisor). My heart skipped a beat before sinking; my face paled and reddened and paled and reddened in rapid succession.
The grad advisor turned to me, placed both hands palm-down on her desk in front of her, and looked at me sternly.
"You tell your committee to get him" (the missing committee member) "on the phone. Drive to his house. Whatever. He needs to cast a vote."
"And," she added, "we never had this conversation."
As I paced outside the room as required by tradition (I was ready to do so now, as this was the killer that finally broke my confidence), I waited. I knew the gallon of coffee would come in handy: as the committee left, one at a time, to go to the bathroom, I notified them of this new development.
Over an hour passed. There was no way it was so hard to decide to pass me.
Finally I was called back in: "Congratulations, Candidate. We got his vote on the phone." But I was not prepared for...
Surprise #6. "We want you to switch departments." So that's what all the deliberation was about.
To be continued...