Welcome to Academic Literacy 101. Today we’ll be talking about the tedious process of getting a terminal degree, the highest degree possible in a given field. We won’t be wasting time negating Wall Street Journal columnist Joseph Epstein’s silly ideas about First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and her terminal degree in education. Instead, I’ll guide you through the process using my own story.
I’m Dr. Deidre Pike, a University of Nevada alumna with three degrees from the “pride of all the West.” Feel free to call me Dr. Pike or Dr. Deidre or even Dr. Deed, a nickname concocted by UNR journalism students a decade ago.
Don’t call me kiddo unless drinks are being served. Many drinks.
My UNR doctoral degree is in English with a Literature & Environment focus. You in the back row, no snickering. If a PhD in the humanities seems easy to you, why don’t you have one? (Submit your answers on our class’s learning management system. Use complete sentences please.)
My odyssey to becoming Dr. Pike began in 2000, when I left my cushy section editor job at the Reno Gazette Journal to go back to grad school. I attended grad classes, often four-hour seminars that required mountains of reading and writing. I taught English composition for a couple years and worked full time at the Reno News & Review. I wrote and defended a thesis.
My master’s degree in English, writing emphasis, took two years. The work load was intense. But, hey, I was now qualified to be a university lecturer and got a gig at the Reynolds School of Journalism. I set my sights on a tenure-track job.
A ‘value-added’ degree
As you might guess, competition for a guaranteed position for life is stiff. Then RSJ Dean Cole Campbell asked me if I’d considered a doctoral program. That would be the “value-added,” his words, to help get me the dream job.
I applied for UNR’s English program with a concentration in Literature & Environment. It was a world-renowned program started by the founding figures of ecocriticism. Getting into the program was my first hurdle, from the Graduate Record Examination to letters of recommendation, transcripts and a personal statement.
I was accepted and began work toward a terminal degree.
I kept my full-time journalism teaching job while attending classes like Introduction to Ecocriticism, Environmental Rhetoric and The Literature of Petroleum Products. Also, I was founding managing editor of the RSJ’s website with its weekly updates. Also, I contributed to the Reno News and Review and other publications. Also, I had teenagers still at home.
In grad school, a person writes. A lot. English teachers didn’t always appreciate my journalistic writing. “You’re not writing a column for the Reno News & Review,” a professor once chided. I endeavored to utilize a surfeit of $5 verbiage, sadistic sentence formations and cryptic paragraph constructions.
Twice a year, doctoral students put together a professional portfolio with teaching evaluations, research works in progress, conference papers and collegial letters. This prepared me for the tedious career-long process of retention, tenure and promotion. Yay.
An academic ‘vivisection’
The program required students to be tri-lingual. Two semesters of college French had been fine for my master’s degree. But now I jammed through four semesters of Spanish, as well. Useful.
After a few years of coursework comes the vivisection, that is, the comprehensive exam. I created a reading list of about 200 books and demonstrated my intimate understanding of these books during a week-long exam that clocked in at 142 pages, 37,922 words.
Finally it was time to dissertate. Think up an idea that hasn’t been done. Get the idea approved by a committee and then another one after the committee rejects the first.
My dissertation ended up focusing on the evolution of ecological messages in cartoons and animated cinema, a feat that combined my interests in popular media and ecocriticism. Yes, I wrote about Felix the Cat and Bambi and Eric Cartman.
In defense of a dissertation
The committee read it and made suggestions. I rewrote. Suggestions. Rewrites. Edits. Rewrites.
Finally, it was time to defend my dissertation. A defense is a nerve-wracking rite of passage. I presented. I was grilled. They voted me in with a caveat. One more rewrite.
My own experience pales in comparison to med school, I’m sure. But it’s not a stroll on the Truckee River either. The process prepares a person for a career in a bureaucratic academy, where robust creative thinking is often threatened by bean-counting Vogons.
Thank you for the preparation, University of Nevada.
The hard work pays off
I emerged a leading expert in the realm of ecocriticism and culture, and I was ready for a tenure-track job. I applied at UNR during another round of deep budgets cuts, thanks to the governor and higher ed hatchet man. (That snickering in the back has to stop. Calm down, people.) A hiring freeze ensued. I applied elsewhere and landed a tenure-track gig at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I spent a gorgeous year teaching there.
Island life was sweaty. So I applied for another tenure-track teaching job on California’s blissfully cool north coast. Again, having a PhD put me at the top of the pile. I got the job in 2012. I earned tenure at Humboldt State University in 2017. I’m up for full professor next year. I have a house in the Redwoods and a job that’s more secure than many in the time of the Covid.
None of this would have been possible without the PhD.
When Dr. Jill Biden told Stephen Colbert last week how proud she is of her terminal degree in education, I got it.
So, yes, please call me Dr. Pike. Unless you’re a journalism major from Fresno, Watsonville, Los Angeles or Eureka. Then you can call me Deidre.