When things are diss-couraging: Fighting through the difficulties of writing a dissertation

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By Dave Papendorf

Though at first glance the scope of this post may seem limited to those writing PhD dissertations, I don’t think that sentiment is true at all; in fact, most of us in higher ed. or with family members in higher ed. can and should resonate with some elements in this post.  In short, the difficulties of dissertation writing are not just difficulties of PhD students – they affect academic departments, dissertation supervisors, colleagues, friends, and, most importantly, families and partners.  What follows, though, should be taken with a grain of salt.  While I am speaking from experience, my experience is not universal. Moreover, I intend this post to at least start conversations that reflect upon the dissertation stage in order to open up more dialogue and (hopefully) help students through a grueling point in their academic careers.  My story is as follows:

I am writing my dissertation now, and I am discouraged on a weekly basis.  Even though I’m making both personal and professional progress, I sometimes feel like I’m riding the wave rather than driving the truck – if you’ll indulge my mixed metaphors.  After the normal pattern of coursework, comps, teaching a solo course, and (thankfully) a research fellowship, I feel as if I am only just beginning the dissertation process.  And I’m starting my fifth year to boot!  Based on the graphic above, I suppose you could place me smack dab in the middle with my friend on that boat.

Initially, my ABD (all but dissertation) phase started with relief and excitement; the coursework is done, and the comps are over. Hallelujah!  Now I can do what I was born to do – research the early Reformation in France…okay well maybe not, but at least I’m closer to the finish line. But then, after about two weeks of flying high, the dread set in:  what do I do now?  Luckily, academia has a fix for that – teach your own course!  Whew.  Never mind that cloud over my head, I can do something that is professionally productive and write later, right?  Well, sort of.  Heading to my fellowship at the Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte(which you can read about here), I knew I had some time to sort things out. But even my time there was more organizing and less actual writing.  In short, the cloud still looms.  On the other end of this, I’m still trying to plug along and make progress each day, but it is difficult.  In fact, it is really difficult.

So, what’s next?  What ought people in my position do?  I shared my story above because I suspect it is both familiar to and typical of most PhD students; namely, the dissertation phase is not as liberating as it seems but is full of significant challenges.  Outside of the self-evident things such as the difficulty of researching, synthesizing information, and writing it all up, I mean to point to the oft-isolating and discouraging elements of the dissertation:  being overwhelmed, worrying about the relevance or overall purpose for all of your work, having only a few friends who can empathize and sympathize with struggles (or sometimes none at all), questions about the job market, and the ever-present feeling of impostor syndrome.  The worst part is that the academic landscape is so competitive and performance-driven that PhD students (let alone professors) often feel reluctant to share these sentiments with colleagues.  And even when we do, we do in either a calculated or self-deprecating manner to cushion the reality of our struggles. 

 Funny, but a secretly a cry for help?

Funny, but a secretly a cry for help?

I said this was to get us talking, right?  I’ll end with a few scattered thoughts that have helped me, some suggestions for the future, and some talking points that are hopefully helpful to readers. 

(1) First, progress is progress.  You’ll probably never be as productive as you hope – so live with it.  That doesn’t mean don’t make plan or strive for personal betterment.  It just means that, when making plans, expect bumps and try to not let them affect you.  (2) Second, read a book!  If things are tough, take one day to read a book relevant to your field.  Read the whole thing, not just a “grad-school read”. It can work as a reset.  (3) Third, take a siesta day.  Even though you’re crunched for time, you’re probably not so crunched that you can’t take 8 planned hours off.  Plan ahead, so that your off time doesn’t get sucked up by Facebook (who are we kidding?  Does anyone still use Facebook?), Twitter (now we’re talking!) and emails.  And on that note, (4) fourth, check emails twice a day. This can be scary and liberating. The reality is that nothing that you are emailed is so relevant that it cannot be addressed with this strategy. (5) Fifth, use “do not disturb” on your phone.  And put it away while you work.  

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(6) Sixth, commiserating and complaining is not the same as encouraging.  Grad students are great at complaining together, and it almost seems like this alleviates discouragement.  Newsflash: it doesn’t!  Find a confidant and ask them for encouragement. Vulnerability is okay, and it’ll help you along the way.  Sometimes getting this from an academic can be the most encouraging thing.

(7) Seventh, and most importantly, let’s do better as a field with addressing mental health.  Read here,here, and here.  Enough research is out there that demonstrates that PhD students, and academics in general, routinely face mental health crises.  Maybe some old-school types out there might call for you to “suck it up”, but that’s simply naïve.  As administrators, departments, and students, let’s work together to put helps and procedures in place for students.  More importantly, let’s build a culture that supports positive mental health.  The easiest thing in the world to do is spend $2,000 on a mental health seminar once a year.  The hardest thing is to build a culture.  But the latter is obviously better overall, so let’s figure that out.