My father finished his Ph.D. when I was eleven years old. Although he enjoyed the challenge and achievement of earning the degree, in part he was forced into it–caught up in the currents of change that have slowly changed the structure and culture of higher education over the past several decades. When he started, he was able, as a holder of a masters degree, to get a full-time job as an assistant professor at a good state school. As time passed, in order to progress along the tenure track, he needed to earn a terminal degree, and so he went back to school.
This required sacrifices from all of us in his young and growing family. He had a full-time job, and could only attend classes in the evening, so he would take one our two courses every semester. He attended the state flagship university, which was about an hour’s drive away, so those nights represented a significant time commitment.
Although it took many years, he made it to the dissertation stage of his program. Working in music education, his project focused on an experiment to see what techniques would help student musicians with auditions. He hypothesized that showing them a video with suggestions on how to prepare for an audition would have the greatest impact, so he produced such a video. It told the story of a young woman who did all the right things in the days before her audition, which led to her getting the part. I got to be in the video, playing the younger brother of the main character.
Other events associated with his dissertation stick out in my mind. At one point he needed to print out copies, presumably to give to his committee members. They needed to look as nice as possible, so he wanted to print them on a laser printer. Laser printers were not very common, but a friend of his worked at a school that had one. We went there one Saturday, thinking it would be a simple task: pop in the disk, open the file, and print it out; but something went wrong. Their computer had a different version of the word processing software, or the printer required different margins, or something along those lines, and it destroyed his formatting, especially the page numbers. We stayed much later than expected while he fixed it.
When his dissertation defense approached, I felt nervous and anxious. I was under the impression that it would be an interrogation, during which the committee members would ask him anything and everything about his dissertation and also everything that he had ever learned. I imagined that he would have to study so hard and know so much and still there would be a significant chance that they would deny his graduation. I was so relieved when he made it through. I think that after the defense is when my mother presented him with the Ph.Dad hat that she had custom ordered from a silkscreener at the local mall.
My whole family attended graduation, and I’m pretty sure that my father’s mother also flew in for the event. Somehow I had managed to save my best piece of Easter candy, a Cadbury creme egg, and decided that this celebratory occasion would be the perfect time to consume it. I made a hole in the little end and attempted to extract the sugary yolk before eating the chocolate shell. Bill Cosby was the commencement speaker, but I don’t remember anything that he said. I also don’t remember the context or sentiment of the following, but I remember my father remarking about all the young people getting doctorates–where young meant anyone under the age of thirty.
I do not, in general, have vivid memories from my childhood. I’ve been trying to figure out when I decided that earning a Ph.D. was one of my main goals in life; the earliest evidence I’ve found is a brief statement, written when I was a senior in high school, that I wanted to be a math professor. The strong, coherent recollections about my father’s doctoral process have surprised me as they’ve bubbled to the surface. It seems so obvious–my father earning his degree at precisely the time when I was beginning to grow up, to think and make decisions for myself, must have had a profound impact on me, because I am now done with my degree, just barely before my thirtieth birthday.
Elena will not remember anything about the time in her life when I was in school: our humble apartment, an academic schedule that let me be her primary caregiver for the first summer of her life, the stress I sometimes brought home when my research didn’t go as well as I hoped, the joy of finishing and moving to start a new life. But my mother, a psychologist, tells me that early childhood experiences, things that none of us remember, influence us throughout our lives, even if we don’t know why.