Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Story of my Exams

Just a little light medieval poetry beach reading during my cruise!

I met with my advisor two days before my PhD exams were to take place, and he said to me, "I don't know how you're doing it. When I took my exams, I didn't have kids, I had a lightened teaching load, I had nothing to do but read and read and read."

That is what most PhD candidates get. They get six months of really focused time. No distractions. All in on preparing for this most momentous rite of passage. They read and read and study and read and take notes and review notes and memorize facts and read some more, until they can't tell night from day and their heads are swimming in the haze of academic scholarly jargon.

But me? Well, yeah, first there's the fact that I have three kids who must be fed and washed and coddled and put to bed every single day. But that's just par for the course in this whole experience of me getting a PhD.

No, the real kicker was when they pushed my exam date back. I was supposed to take my exams in November, before Thanksgiving, but then there was a scheduling snafu and everything had to be pushed back, and the next available date for my exams was January 24th, one week into the new semester. We had not planned on this setback. We had not planned on this when we invited my entire family to stay with us for Christmas. We had not planned on this when we booked our Disney cruise for early January. And I had certainly not planned on this when I agreed to teach a double prep semester so I could design an entirely new dream course from scratch.

So yes, the month before I took my exams, when other PhD students would be reading for hours a day, I was cleaning my house and preparing for guests and cooking massive holiday meals and baking three cakes for the three separate birthdays and organizing a baptism program for my oldest son. I was traveling for New Years, and getting sick.

Three weeks before my exams, I was driving down to Florida with my family for a five day four night cruise to the Bahamas. Two weeks before my exams, I was getting home from said cruise and doing all the laundry and unpacking and desperately trying to throw together the syllabi for my two courses. One week before my exams, I was reading Plato (not part of my exam reading lists) and lesson prepping like mad for the first week of class. Three days before my exams, my husband left on a business trip.

I about flipped out on him when I found out about that trip. I told him, no. You are not allowed to go on a business trip during the most stressful week of my academic career. You are supposed to take one for the team, take over the cooking and bedtime routine so I can hole up in the office and just study. But of course, there's not much he could do to change the situation (he's at the mercy of his boss, after all), so as a compromise he called up his parents and dropped off the two little kids on his way out of town. But I still had the oldest one to get to and from school and cook for and figure out what to do with when Friday the 24th ended up being a snow day for him with the schools shut down. I was panicked my university would shut down too, and we'd have to delay my exams again, but thankfully they just opened campus a few hours late. So I brought my boy into campus with me, and he sat in my office watching movies for three hours while I sat my exams. It did nothing for my stress levels, but it could've been worse.

So yes, that's where I was when my advisor said, "I don't know how you're doing it." I didn't know how I was doing it either, and honestly, I wasn't sure I was doing it. I was not at all sure I was going to pass my exams.

I mean, I'd done a lot of reading. I'd had my lists put together since last June, and I'd been reading ever since then. But that was part of the problem. I'd read some of the pieces so long ago that I couldn't actually remember them. I sat in my office the day before my exams looking over the hundred plus items on my list, and some of the titles looked completely foreign. Nothing but a blank. I couldn't remember a single thing about them. Looking through my notes, I saw that I had read them, but some times my notes weren't extremely thorough (it's so hard to know whats going to be important to know), and I wondered if there was any way I could re-read Shakespeare's entire canon in 24 hours, along with all the scholarship on him.

I was panicked. I simply had not had the time. I had not been able to focus for the past month, I had not been able to put in the work I needed to, and I'd forgotten everything. I had been pulled in too many directions, and I just knew that compared to every other grad student in my program, I was going to come up short. There was no way I could compete.

I did not sleep well that night. I lay in bed thinking over titles and scholarly articles and character names and couldn't shut my brain down. I was also stressed about the weather, and kept obsessively checking my weather app and email throughout the night to see just how much snow was falling and whether the schools were going to shut down.

Finally, about 5:00 AM, I gave up, and rolled out of bed, and fell to my knees. I prayed. I poured my soul out to God, and I said, "It has not been enough. I have not had enough time, I have not had enough energy, and I am not prepared the way I need to be. But I promise you that I have done absolutely everything I could. I have tried my hardest, I have worked my hardest. I have taken care of my family first, but I have also done everything I could to prepare for these exams. I did not want this. I did not want a PhD. I did not want to leave my children. I have done this because I felt it was a command from you, Lord, and it has not been easy. It has been the hardest thing I've ever done."

And at this point in the prayer I just broke down sobbing. Because it has been so hard. I break a little inside every day when I drop my daughter off at daycare and she has to be pried off me crying and screaming by her teacher (every. single. day). I break a little when I miss every volunteer opportunity at my son's school because I'm working. I break a little at the panic every time a child gets sick and I have to figure out how to be in two places at once. I break a little every time I snap at my children to get to bed already because I have hours of work ahead of me every night. I break every single day. It has been so hard. It has been a sacrifice, one that I would not have the strength to keep doing if I was not 100% sure that God wanted me to do this. Most of the time I focus on the positive. I focus on the privilege it is for me to be doing this, on the joy I get out of teaching and doing the research (and I really get a lot of joy out of this). But that morning, on my knees alone before my God, I sobbed for the hard parts. For the parts I did not ask to take on.

After probably a good ten minutes of ugly crying, I finally pulled myself together enough to finish my prayer, "I consecrate my efforts to you, Lord. I know that what I have done is not enough, but it is all I have to offer. If my offering is acceptable, if you truly wish me to get a PhD, then I demand my right to the companionship of the Holy Ghost today. I demand your divine help to get through this." Perhaps my language was not the most respectful. Perhaps it is not advisable to make demands of a Supreme Being. But, I will say that I was immediately blessed with peace. My panic and anxiety simply melted away. This was, and has always been, the Lord's PhD, not mine. It was in his hands, whether I was going to pass or fail, and I let the burden of it go.

I got up, went through my morning routine, got my son packed up and ready to go, and drove through a beautiful snowy landscape to campus. I felt like even the snow was a blessing, a peace offering, the gift of a beautiful, calm, serene landscape designed singularly for my pleasure at this moment. God saying he loved me.

I got to campus, got my son settled with the ipad and his movies, and went upstairs to the conference room where my exams were being held. I sat down in the big chair at the head of the table, greeted the five faculty members of my committee, and the questions began.

The only way I can describe the next three hours is to say that they were delightful. Even fun. I actually wondered at one point if my committee was purposefully trying to make this easy, because it was just three hours of fascinating back and forth conversation about the most interesting aspects of my research with these incredibly intelligent people. At moments the conversation was so engaging that I even forgot it was an exam. It just felt like fun. At the end of three hours, I was even a little bit sad it was over, because we hadn't been able to talk about everything! There was so much more to discuss! But the end had come, and they sent me out of the room while they deliberated on my performance. A few minutes later, my advisor came out to call me back in the room, and was the first to congratulate me on passing my exam.

But it got even more amazing than that. As they went around the room congratulating me, the members of my committee repeatedly volunteered comments like:

"If we were allowed to give honors, you would've passed with honors."

"This was the best exam I've sat for at least ten years, maybe more!"

"You were impressive, so impressive! So calm and poised, and you just knew everything!"

(Even now, weeks later, I still get compliments whenever I see any of my committee, about how impressive my exam performance was.)

I smiled and took their compliments in stride. I didn't know how to tell them it wasn't me. Honor and praise to the Lord my God, who for some unexplained reason has chosen to work through me, magnify me, for some purpose I do not understand.

There was a whirlwind of activity after the exams finished: lots of congratulations from interested parties, gathering my son and his belongings, driving out to Missouri to pick up my younger two kids, meeting up with my husband who came home early from his work trip with the flu (we were supposed to go out to dinner to celebrate, instead we just went home and I made soup), putting everyone to bed, but finally the house was quiet again, and I had the opportunity to finally kneel again. To pour out a prayer of gratitude.

I still do not understand why I have been called to get a PhD. I do not comprehend the purpose. I don't see a path after graduation. All I know is that I have never received more clear revelation in my life, and it has been reaffirmed over and over and over again. This PhD is the Lord's work.

Have you ever felt the Lord working through you to achieve some greater end?

Usually, when you hear stories about it, the Lord's work is fairly obvious. The stories are about blessing lives, healing bodies or souls, growing the church, missionary work... something that makes sense in the context of the Lord's work.

I have no idea how a PhD in English is serving the Lord's work. It makes zero sense to me. It is entirely possible that it is a work of personal growth and fulfillment, simply meant for me. But even if that is all it is, I still feel the greatness of the work. I feel the guidance of his hand, the brilliant ideas when I need them, and the constant spiritual pressure of "Yes, yes, this is important!"

It is humbling. It is almost strange. But it is an absolute privilege to live a life consecrated to the Lord's work, to feel his hand guide my life, to feel Him carry me through such moments.

I am eternally grateful for the privilege of seeing such miracles in my life, even if I don't understand why. Even if it is hard.


  1. Suzanne, thank you so much for sharing this. It filled up my heart today. Linnae

    1. Oh, I'm so glad! Thanks for letting me know!