I’ve spent prior posts in this series recapping various aspects of writing the dissertation that can make the process difficult. Since these have been scattered across posts over the past few months, it’s worth recapping them:
- The dissertation is a different kind of project than most anything else one does in graduate school.
- The dissertation lacks rigid structure and concrete deadlines.
- The dissertation is a much larger project than most others pursued in graduate school.
- There is more riding on the completion of the dissertation than any other single project in graduate school.
- Work on the dissertation cannot be easily postponed.
- The need to pursue publication (to be competitive on the job market) can lead to an abundance of non-dissertation commitments late in graduate school.
- You will most likely need to go on the job market at least once while your dissertation is still unfinished.
- Your dissertation work may lead you to lose your enjoyment of writing.
- Your dissertation work can be impeded by personal crises (e.g., financial difficulties, health problems, mental illness, relationship struggles).
After all that, I briefly described how I actually got the dissertation done in the end. So what are the lessons that can be taken away from all this to help graduate students prepare for the dissertation stage and ultimately complete it? Here are a few suggestions.
Lesson 1: Pick your dissertation advisor carefully.
Given the challenges associated with completing the dissertation, you want to be sure that your dissertation advisor is someone who will support you and your project throughout the process. The profession is littered with anecdotal stories of distant, unconcerned advisors who don’t provide timely feedback on draft material, don’t meet regularly with their advisees, and are generally lukewarm (or worse) in their overall support. You don’t want to have someone like that as your advisor unless there’s no viable alternative.
Get to know the faculty in your department early in your graduate career and gather information about which ones are generally the best dissertation advisors. Talk to their current advisees if this is possible. When you start leaning toward a topic, strike up conversations with your potential advisors and see how enthusiastic they are about your potential project. Ideally, you want an advisor who is distinguished, since a letter from such a person will carry greater weight in job applications, but don’t just automatically choose the most distinguished professor if you have good reason to think they won’t be all that supportive.
Lesson 2: Prep Your Topic Before You Officially Become ABD
A few years ago, Marcus wrote a lengthy post about trying to find a dissertation topic. Our experiences in this aspect of the dissertation couldn’t be more different: My dissertation topic was solidified about 6 weeks after I passed comprehensive examinations, whereas this seemed to be the stage of the project that Marcus found most challenging. Here’s what might account for some of the difference.
I had been in conversations with my dissertation advisor about possible topics for two years before I officially completed our comprehensive examinations. (These conversations started when I was about 60% through coursework.) I pitched a few ideas in his direction, and we talked about each of them. Eventually, only one idea emerged as viable, so once I passed the comprehensive examinations, it was more-or-less a foregone conclusion what the topic would be. Then it was just a matter of putting together a solid prospectus, which took about 5 months.
The writing part is hard enough, so anything you can do to streamline the other aspects of the process is worth doing. Keeping your eyes peeled for possible dissertation topics and then discussing them with the right people before you’re actually at the dissertation stage can potentially save you a lot of time in the long run.
Lesson 3: Don’t allow large gaps to form in your dissertation work.
It’s very difficult to jump back into dissertation work after taking a lengthy break. That doesn’t mean you have to work on it every day – an ideal that may well be unattainable for most people. (I’ve never been able to maintain such a writing regiment due to variation in my day-to-day schedule and the psychological grind of writing in that rigidly scheduled format.) But if a week goes by without any progress, you’re in trouble. A reasonable strategy short of daily writing might be to designate 2-3 time periods each week solely to dissertation writing and then be more flexible with how you allocate time elsewhere during your week.
One of the obstacles that I encountered with the dissertation was that structured procrastination – my favored writing strategy – just does not work well with large standalone projects. For it to work well, you have to have lots of different projects that you can work on while you’re putting off your other work. When there’s just one big item on your list and nothing else, structured procrastination is a non-starter and likely to regress to ordinary (unproductive) procrastination.
Looking back, I should have maintained a stronger commitment to writing at particular times twice a week. This might have helped prevent some of the gaps in my progress.
Lesson 4: Expect Sporadic Progress
On the note of gaps in one's progress, don't expect a linear progression toward the end of the dissertation. There’s a reason that so many graduate students do not finished them. It’s tough work. Don’t be surprised if your progress varies from month-to-month, and don’t get discouraged by lulls in productivity. There are likely to be peaks and valleys. The key is not to get overwhelmed or disheartened when things are not going well.
Lesson 5: Stay Rested and Stay Healthy
In my first 6 years of graduate study, I only fell ill once. On the many other occasions where I sensed I might be coming down with something, I lightened my schedule for a day or two, drank a lot of water, and slept more than usual. A day or two later, I was back to 100%.
During the last two semester of graduate school, I fell ill three times. Each bout lasted about a week. The first happened midway through the fall semester around the time I started sending out job applications. The second happened just as Winter Break started and immediately after finishing up final grades and doing 3 job interviews. The third happened in March during the frantic rush to complete the dissertation. There are two common aspects to these incidents: increased stress and reduced sleep. Both these things suppress your immune system, and when you’re ill, it’s much harder to produce quality philosophical work.
In the long run, you’ll be more productive if you’re getting a good night’s sleep and avoiding illness. That’s some reason to avoid working in concentrated bursts that carry deep into the night and to avoid overburdening yourself to the point where your daily rest is being compromised.
Lesson 6: Give Yourself a Buffer Regarding Your Defense Date
At the start of Fall 2016, my intended defense date was January of the following semester. The defense did not actually happen until the end of March – more than 2 months past the target date. However, even though the process took longer than I had originally intended, I was still not in bad shape near the end. While it would have been unpleasant, I could have stretched work into the summer and defended as late as June. (I would have needed to register for a few more credit hours, but other than a few hundred dollars in fees, there would have been no penalty to doing so.) Lacking a buffer with respect to your dissertation defense makes the situation more pressurized and gives you less margin for error regarding your progress.
Having a buffer also gives your letter writers some flexibility in what they say. They can note your targeted completion date but add that even if something comes up, you’ll still be in good shape to defend later that semester. This can be valuable, since hiring departments often have concerns about whether ABD graduate students will actually finish their dissertations before beginning their new job.
Lesson 7: Don’t Expect a Big Finish
It’s natural to believe that when the defense is over, you will be overjoyed. Yet from the many defenses I have attended and the discussions I have had with peers in the profession, that reaction seems pretty rare. In fact, not so long ago, one Cocoon reader mentioned being disappointed when the dissertation defense was over (in part because of a poor performance during the defense itself).
There are several reasons why the dissertation defense is often a letdown. First, you’ll probably be exhausted when you get to that point and anxious to defend just to earn a reprieve. Second, the defense is often (at least at institutions in the United States) a formality. Usually, advisors will not greenlight a defense unless they are confident you will pass. That means that the real moment of triumph is usually when your dissertation is officially deemed defense-ready. Passing the defense itself, as a result, may not feel like much of an accomplishment. Third, the dissertation often comes to be viewed as merely a means to an end. For most, its main value stems from the role it plays in being able to get academic jobs. Fourth, few people will read your dissertation, so unless you extract chapters as standalone papers or pursue a book contract, it’s unlikely your dissertation in itself will have much of an impact on the profession. This can make all the scholarly work that you did while writing the dissertation seem less valuable than it otherwise would.
Here’s what all this means: if you anticipate the completion of your dissertation to be some crowning achievement, you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment. It’s probably not going to feel that way. You might be relieved, disappointed, ambivalent, or outright numb. But it's unlikely you'll be joyful.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to celebrate when the dissertation’s done or that there aren’t some good feelings that come with it, but they’re more complex than those that follow most accomplishments. I’ll give them a more thorough examination when I discuss post-dissertation life in the final segment of this series.