Why I Left Academia: Part III, The Aftermath

The next few days following my defense, or to be honest, the next few weeks, still feel emotionally distant, almost as if it happened to someone else. I felt numb, the dumb shock of the loss of my career, was, and in many ways, still is too acute to bear. I was in mourning for the passion and love I had poured into my dissertation. I was mourning the reality that my ethics-driven account of how intersectional feminism can-and must- be applied to contemporary art history didn’t matter, that it had never really mattered.

I knew why my defense committee had been so rough--they were terrified of what I might do with the information of what I suspect Dr. Mao had done to me. But I also knew it was more personal.

When I first saw that email alert from academia.edu, what seemed like eons ago in that Mac Store, something in me gave way. It was as if I had been swept up in a deluge and, in its wake, a deeply held belief had finally been brutally exposed. I think on one level I knew I was finished in academia that moment in the Mac store, Dr. Mao did not support me, and worse, all evidence looked like they were actively sabotaging my career.

So, in that moment under the glare of fluorescent lights and a ‘Genius’ telling me what needed to be done with my computer, I decided I would write the final chapter that I really wanted to write: a deeply theoretical shut down of the current art historical methodologies, arguing that they ultimately not only refuse to accept both racial and gendered difference, but worse, they actively work to suppress those voices. Building off the brave art historians and theorists who had come before me, I leveled my case. And, frankly, it was personal. I had finally shrugged off the weight of the desperate need for approval, for recommendation letters, for publishing opportunities, and, once that was gone, the need to critique the deeply entrenched conservatism of art history came to the fore. So I, in every sense of the word, wrote myself out of the discipline.

Before the defense, as I cautiously mounted the case for the “misappropriation of my work,” the only solace that I had was that final chapter. It was everything that I had always wanted to say, and everything that I had been told to “tone down” my entire graduate career. I dreamed of submitting to journals like Third Text and NKA.  But, on the night after my defense, as I sobbed in the comfort of my dark bedroom, all of this seemed like a dismal shanty town of naiveté compared to the glittering castle of a well-argued chapter that I had built it up in my mind to be.

The morning after my defense, I woke up confused and angrier than I had ever been. Looking back on it, my anger was masking the devastating sadness I was experiencing. I was adamant that I would not remove the portion I suspected was misappropriated from my dissertation. To do so somehow seemed more painful than losing my Ph.D. entirely—it felt as if it would be a loss of my credibility and my beliefs about what academia can, or perhaps should, be.

My parents begged me to just make the changes Dr. Mao had insisted on, stressing that I just needed to secure my Ph.D. so I could move on. But I couldn’t let it go. I remember thinking that my integrity was more valuable than a Ph.D., anyway. And I mean that quite literally: outside the confines of academia, a humanities Ph.D. is relatively (and by that, I mean, monetarily) meaningless.

It’s a surreal feeling, to be prepared to give up on your doctorate after coming so far, and going through so much. But I was resolved.

I was now ready to reveal precisely why I refused to remove that portion from my dissertation, which meant that I had no choice but to report the suspected misappropriation. I had been painted into a corner, and the only way out was to blow up the floor from underneath me. That is, to finish off the irreparable blow my career had already taken and speak out. At least this way, I reasoned, I could comfort myself with the illusion of having some sort of choice in the matter. The veneer of agency is perhaps the most important deception we all tell ourselves.

My lawyer, a beacon of calmness, patiently listened to my explanation of what had happened. I sent him a detailed timeline of events with PDFs of email correspondence, publication dates, and names of people who could externally corroborate my story. As I researched and double-checked that what I was about to do was the right decision, I learned that Dr. Mao had gotten over $300,000 in funding for an exhibition and publication based off of the same idea from the essay that I had originally suspected had been based off my work. Dr. Mao also received offers to give lectures at prestigious art institutions along this same theme. It felt like I had been robbed.

When I learned this, my mind flashed back to when I had found out about Dr. Mao’s exhibition a few months after I had sent them the original paper.  We had met up in a swanky hotel in Los Angeles, near where I was then living, in order to catch up. Dr. Mao cheerfully explained that their new exhibition (which, at the time, I had no idea it was so similar to my work), was to be in the same city in California where I was then living. I eagerly offered any type of assistance they needed.  However, Dr. Mao turned my offer to work for free down, saying that they didn’t need any help.

I later found out that Dr. Mao then gave the role of research assistant to an undergrad. This same undergrad, a rising scholar, and I had become friends as they sought me out to ask about graduate school.  It was during this conversation that they proudly told me they had been asked by Dr. Mao to be their research assistant.  All I could think was that Dr. Mao must think so little of me if they’d rather give the work to an undergraduate than to me, a seasoned graduate student who had experience assisting in exhibitions. Of course, the real reason behind Dr. Mao’s refusal to let me help was much more sinister than that—I vaguely suspect that Dr. Mao didn’t want me to find out how incredibly similar the exhibition topic and proposal was to my own work.

My lawyer and I drafted an email to a dean—a different dean—detailing the circumstances in which I had been denied my Ph.D. and my suspicions. Different Dean responded immediately, informing my lawyer that he needed to contact the university’s legal department. It was a full week before my lawyer heard back from them. When he did hear back from the university’s legal team, it was just short email stating that my lawyer needed to contact a different lawyer in the same department. So, my lawyer did just that. And then another full week passed. My lawyer was then told to contact the dean, who again, referred him back to the legal department. This whole game stretched painfully out for nearly three weeks.

The deadline to submit my dissertation to the school in order to ensure a May degree inched closer and closer.  After the first deadline passed, and I still had not heard anything in response to my lawyer’s emails and phone calls, I gave up on getting a May degree. Or, to be honest, on getting a degree at all. My Ph.D. was now tainted. It had now come to represent a loss of time and effort that I could have channeled into nearly anything else. I mourned the loss of my 20s, and the work ethic that I had utilized in graduate school. I felt so burned out. Like any graduate student, feeling burned out wasn’t anything new. After I passed my Ph.D. exams, it felt as if I slept for a month solid before I was able to return to any sort of productivity.

But this burn out was different, I feared that I’d never get my drive back, and that my desire to succeed had completely evaporated. I acutely felt the weight of the squandered time I had spent on passionately pursuing a Ph.D. I had sacrificed decent pay and any sort of life balance to do so. All of my relationships in my private life hadn’t been able to sustain themselves next to the love I felt for my dissertation topic. I deeply regretted my decision to go to graduate school, and also deeply regretted not quitting after my Master’s.

Finally, as my self-doubt skyrocketed and my self-esteem hit an all-time low, my department via the university’s law office, responded. They predictably argued that Dr. Mao had refused to sign off on my dissertation for reasons beyond the removal of the allegedly misappropriated work, and that they were conducting their own investigation into the similarity between my work and Dr. Mao’s. The department stated it would take time before they reached a conclusion.

At this juncture, I asked for Dr. Mao to be removed from my dissertation committee. I no longer wanted their name attached to my dissertation in any way. After a tedious back and forth between my lawyer to the school’s lawyer to Different Dean and back, I was told that removing Dr. Mao from my committee was impossible, especially since the investigation was still ongoing and, as such, it was not clear to the department that Dr. Mao had committed any wrongdoing.

I thought back to a desperate email I had sent to Dr. Hortense back in November. After not hearing from Dr. Mao for over a month about a chapter, and as I began negotiations with my dissertation committee about the date and time of my defense, I realized I needed to contact Dr. Hortense and make them aware of the situation. I told Dr. Hortense in this November email that I was worried about my ability to pass my defense, especially if Dr. Mao was not going to read it prior to sending it out to the entire committee.

I felt like Cassandra—I had unwittingly predicted my own tragic future, but no one had believed me. In the email, I implored Dr. Hortense to help me, and clearly expressed my fears that I would not pass my defense. Dr. Hortense, had repeatedly, via email and in person, stressed that I had nothing to worry about. Given my work, of course I would pass. I remember making an effort to email Dr. Hortense, rather than just going to their office, so that there was a record that I had filed some sort of complaint, just in case. How painfully on point I had been. Returning back to the present, I angrily thought, wasn’t that ‘evidence’ enough to have Dr. Mao removed from my committee? What exactly constituted “wrong doing” in the eyes of the school? What would it take to be taken seriously?

Exhausted, depressed, and completely defeated by the legal red tape obscuring my path, I reluctantly gave in and dropped the idea of having Dr. Mao removed from my committee. I did this at nearly all of my friends and family’s behest, so that I could instead attempt to shore up receiving my now meaningless Ph.D. I responded via my lawyer to Different Dean and then to my department, that I would be happy to make every other correction—which involved moving my first chapter to the last chapter, and shortening my introduction--  other than removing the portion I suspected of plagiarism.

Time slipped away like sand, I went about my life in a dazed fog. The second deadline for submitting my dissertation whizzed past. I had completely shut down physically and emotionally. My dissertation, and my life, felt so far away from me.

A few days after my offer to make two of the three edits, I heard back: that would be acceptable. Dr. Mao would be willing to give me my Ph.D. under those terms, and Different Dean would make an exception for a late submission for a May degree.

I honestly don’t remember making the edits apart from the overwhelming pain I experienced opening the word document and scrolling through years’ worth of hard work. To be honest, I had to go back through my emails with my lawyer in order to even write this part because everything during this time felt like a dream, nothing really seemed real. In many ways, it still doesn’t.  I submitted my revised dissertation, via my lawyer, to Different Dean, and then to the department, where I figured they would pass it on to Dr. Mao for approval.

Around this time, my department concluded the results of the plagiarism investigation. In a letter emailed to my lawyer and then to me, the results were explained. The wording of the letter reminded me of the tone and style in which Dr. Mao wrote. It was concluded that, no, Dr. Mao had not plagiarized me. The similarities between the two papers were instead attributed to a paper written a few years prior by a colleague of Dr. Mao. It was then suggested that I had plagiarized that essay in my paper, as evidenced by my paper’s ‘similarity’ to this essay, as well as to the fact that I had not cited the essay. I had never heard of this essay of which I was now accused of plagiarizing, much less read it.

The letter was signed by the two heads of my department, one of whom I had been friendly with for many years. I remember feeling shame and disappointment that they had signed it. I felt humiliated. I questioned whether or not my original suspicions had even been correct. My lawyer asked me how I wanted to proceed. He pointed out that if the department really believed that I had plagiarized this new essay, it seemed ridiculous that they would agree to grant me my Ph.D. Further, he reasoned, if I had been the one doing the plagiarizing, why did they agree to let me keep the portion of my dissertation that contained the now infamous content? He said that I could continue based on these two issues.

But I was done. I couldn’t keep fighting. For the first time in my adult life, I was unemployed and had absolutely no idea what to do next. It was time for me to focus on my future. I thanked my lawyer for his time and his commitment. I said that the only thing I was considering doing next was writing an account of my experience. He then cautioned me to be careful with what I wrote, and said and to keep it as anonymous as possible. To be sure that I only stated facts and phrased everything as my personal interpretation of events. He stated that even if I did this, the school could still file a frivolous lawsuit against me that they knew they would not win, but would nonetheless cost me thousands of dollars in legal fees.

For anyone who has received a Ph.D., you know how much paper work goes into the last stages, filing with the university, complying with formatting standards, obtaining signatures from usually far-flung locations across campus, and filling out exit evaluations (as you can guess, mine were simply glowing reviews about my experience). Performing these last steps with the weight of what the department thought about me took monumental effort. I remember thinking that these last steps were strangely the most difficult.

The electronic portal through which I was to submit my dissertation had to be re-opened for me since the deadline had long passed. I had to sign a form acknowledging that it was too late for my name to be included in the list of May degrees and that, if I went to graduation, I would not receive my diploma at that time. The thought of being hooded by Dr. Mao was too heavy with tragic irony, so I informed the school that I would not be attending graduation.

I had to return to campus one more time to obtain the final signature that had been withheld from me on the day of my defense. Dr. Mao was either unwilling or unable to sign my dissertation, so Dr. Mao gave permission for Different Dean to sign it on their behalf.  The irony of the department’s refusal to remove Dr. Mao from my committee when it turned out that Dr. Mao would not even be the one to sign my dissertation did not sink in until much later. I walked into the aging house that had been converted into administrative offices, and waited in the creaky hallway. Different Dean met me outside their office with utter contempt in their eyes. I remember averting my gaze down to the emerald green carpet covering the aged hardwood floors. Different Dean snapped at me about some line I had forgotten to fill out, informing me that I should be more organized and take this seriously. Different Dean also admonished me for submitting it so late, as if they not only didn’t care why I was forced to submit it late, but moreover, that they resented me for it. Despite this, Different Dean signed off my dissertation. Wide-eyed and unable to respond with any sort of dignity, or even defiance, towards Different Dean, a kind administrator then led me by the arm into her office. She sat me down and gently helped me submit the last pieces of paperwork, generously ignoring the tears streaming down my face. And with that, I had my Ph.D.

To read my follow up post about this story click here