In my last post, I emphasized the ways in which the dissertation stage differs from other aspects of graduate school. One of the major differences is that the dissertation is a much longer project than anything else you will be required to complete. Given its length, it’s no surprise that you have to devote a lot of time to it over the last year or two of your graduate studies. In the abstract, that might not sound too terrible, since you aren’t saddled with coursework or preparing for comprehensive exams. If only it were so simple.
In this and the next part of the series, I consider two related features of the dissertation stage that both threaten to rob you of your writing time: commitments tied to side-projects and professional development and the job market push that will most likely occur during your final year of graduate school. We’ll start with the former – what I call the problem of stacking commitments.
Because of the nature of academic conferences and the academic publishing process, you will often agree to do certain things many months (sometimes even years) before the deadline actually occurs. If you submit to a conference, it will be several months before you know whether your submission was accepted and then another few months before you present your material. If you’re invited to contribute to an edited volume or review a book, you’ll have a long time to prepare your submission. If you agree to peer review a paper, you will usually have several weeks or even a couple months to submit your verdict and comments.
When you say “yes” to these kinds of commitments, you almost always do so with incomplete information about your long-term schedule. Sometimes, deadlines will fall in stretches where several other things must be completed. When your commitments “stack” in this manner, they can overwhelm you. Tough to make dissertation progress when that happens.
Now I know what you might be thinking: why not just avoid taking on board those extra commitments? Why not say “no” sometimes? After all, saying “yes” to everything was identified as a graduate student trap in an old Daily Nous post by Daniel Silvermint. (It’s #22 on the list.) For some, the solution might really be that simple: just decline some of those offers. But for most who want long-term academic employment, this might not be a viable option.
To be competitive on the current job market, you’re probably going to need some publications and conference presentations – evidence that you’re an active participant in the philosophical community and a capable scholar. You’re unlikely to be skilled enough to produce high-quality work early in your graduate career, so most of this will probably happen in your third year or later. Furthermore, it needs to be done before you make your first run on the job market. That creates a substantial incentive to say “yes” to as many of these things as possible (unless perhaps you are from one of the most distinguished programs and don’t think you need a CV packed with these items to land a job). After all, there's no way to know when similar opportunities will present themselves again.
What does this all mean? Often, it means that you will be pressured to complete various side projects when you should be writing your dissertation. You will often have committed to these projects before you even defended your prospectus, and completing them will often be crucial to helping you be competitive on the job market. These various non-dissertation commitments can stack in a way that makes it extremely difficult to prioritize your dissertation writing, as new project deadlines crop up every month or so in your schedule. Every week spent writing a chapter for an anthology, finishing a book review, or preparing a conference presentation is a week of dissertation progress that is lost. If you lose too many of these weeks, your momentum on the dissertation stalls, and it becomes that much harder to get the gears turning again. (I’ll say more about that phenomenon in Part 5 of this series.)
Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution to this problem: you just have to find a way to do both – build up your CV in the second half of your graduate career and make enough progress on the dissertation to be within striking distance of its end before you go on the job market. And hopefully, doing so doesn’t drag out your graduate career so long that your funding expires!
I wish I had better advice to share here, but frankly, I never really solved this problem: I just buckled down and committed to finishing all my in-progress items until they were done. Then, in my final year of grad school, I did my best to avoid any non-essential work that would interfere with the dissertation. That was easier said than done, though, since I still had to split time between finishing the dissertation and running the job market gauntlet – a unique challenge in its own right. But let’s save that for the next post in the series.