This is a post I began to write in early August, but let fall through the cracks. I have decided to share it today, and I have resisted the urge to edit too much of my thoughts from the heady days of August 2016.
I want to write a little bit about my work this summer in a future post, but in planning out that particular post I started thinking more and more about my PhD dissertation. I defended it five years ago this month, an anniversary that if you asked me about it a couple of years ago I would have anticipated a profound feeling of fear, largely because that was my reaction to everything at that particular moment. I cannot be sure if it was a condition of academic life, collateral emotional and psychological debt from being the parent of a small child, existential fear that everything really IS going to pot (though being a historian mitigates that particular bit of irrationality) or just a natural derivative of whatever it is that is wrong with me that drove me to attend graduate school in the first place.
In any case, as the anniversary does finally come into view, I am happy to say that my sentiments are mostly gratifying. It turns out that all this work we run around doing, particularly early in our careers, can make us feel very good if we just stop and acknowledge it.
This is also to a significant degree due to the fact that the dissertation, the defining and central non-sentient element in my life for several years, is finally well on track to becoming a book, and, having navigated some of the more difficult phases of that particular journey, I have suddenly acquired a gentle, world-weary view of these challenges worthy of an elderly character in a science fiction novel or an associate professor mystified as to why today’s graduate students seem to find everything so much more difficult than when he went through the process, taking to the rivers of academic thought as a salmon coursing deep through its waters and leaping, with drops and splashes of creativity exploding and falling where they may, into the bright clean air.
Before I wade into the beatific intellectual retirement that is removing all the pain of writing what finally became my first book and filing it under the “articles of evidence supporting the clear unambiguous fact John Harney is a genius,” let’s take a moment to reflect on the dissertation, and what went into writing it. I find myself writing something I did not plan to write this morning and certainly did not think I would ever write five years ago, or ten, but I hope that some graduate students and prospective graduate students might come upon this and find it useful. As always, your mileage will vary, which is a neat and useful but syntactically rather uninspiring way of saying I understand I do not have all the answers. This is how I experienced the dissertation and how I think of it now.
The Dissertation vs. The Comprehensive Qualifying Exam
The great advantage of pursuing a graduate degree in the United States is that you are given time to read, to think, to engage in discussions with your peers and with professors, to really dig into existing theory in your field, to write papers, to become a Teaching Assistant and experience the initially odd sensation of handing out grades to undergraduates. It is all about time. if you are fortunate enough to be fully funded, you have a lot of time.
I was not fully funded. I did not feel that I had time. As a result, I was driven to complete the dissertation from the start, long before I knew with any confidence my dissertation topic. This translated directly into a particularly driven attitude towards my coursework and, in particular, the preparation for and completion of my comprehensive qualifying exams. For this, I am unapologetic and I encourage all graduate students to do the same. Yes, the learning of things is important and should not be reduced to a tawdry list of checkmarks, but you can still take a positive view of all the work you are doing while getting it done. That is to say, it IS important to reflect on the value of the expertise you are developing but it is also okay to identify clear endpoints, milestones and the like. In effect, you can treat your exams as a task but look forward to it, not dread it.
In theory, anyway.
My comprehensive qualifying exam involved providing reading lists to each of the three members of my committee, writing historiographical essays to be included in my portfolio, and defending this work orally. The whole thing took about a year, not including the various note-taking and collection of books and journal articles I engaged in during coursework. My attitude to time and in particular my focus on completing the exam as soon as possible was, in my opinion, a very good approach to the exam itself. It mitigated anxiety, at least, but it also made it clear that this was a temporary state of being and one that would come to a timely end with an appropriate amount of work.
The same approach will not necessarily work for the dissertation, because the dissertation is an entirely different beast. You will schedule your defence, sure, but you don’t schedule it as soon as you advance to candidacy. People will give you a vague idea of how long you are supposed to be in graduate school, and you have other people in the department who have been there longer, but there are no clearly defined rules about how long it will take. Nor should there be. The dissertation is going to take as along as it takes. So if, like me, you have taken a rigid approach to time management and you possess a clearly defined idea about when you hope to get your degree, you are going to generate a lot of stress for yourself.
On the other hand, not being rigid brings its own stress, a type of pressure that almost everyone I have met who has written a dissertation experienced regardless of their attitude to writing the bloody thing starting out: a truly horrid combination of the unrelenting sensation that you have not done enough work, a continually expanding effluvium of guilt, and the prolonged gradual existential realization that this thing will never actually come into existence and that you are by extension useless.
If that sounds dramatic, well… it is. I am not exaggerating all that much though. The basics of time management still work, you understand, but the context that surrounds the dissertation can become crippling in a hurry, and being in control of the process this week guarantees no such thing next week or next month. The good news is that recovery from such dark spots is equally frequent. My advice for people writing dissertations focuses on reducing such dark spots as much as possible, and you do that by managing the context.
Why are you writing it?
Yeah, why ARE you writing it? Have you given that enough thought? I mean, really. I know you think about it all the time, but why are you writing the bloody thing? Is it just a means to an end, and if so… to what end? Do you want this to be a book (or an article, or a series of articles, depending on your field)? Are you focusing primarily on your degree?
Allow me to use the extremely broad objective of producing a monograph as a shorthand for all the various publication possibilities here, as it is the standard in my particular field. You have a number of challenges ahead of you, not least of which is the fact that it is incredibly unlikely your dissertation will be ready for publication, regardless of what your advisor says. If s/he is also focused on helping you to produce a book, to the extent that a conversation with an acquisitions editor is scheduled before your defense, I say good luck and stick with your advisor. It is more likely however that your advisor and the rest of your committee, though very much pulling for you and supportive of the idea that your dissertation ultimately take the form of chrysalis to the butterfly of the next step of publication, will have either their own set of ideas of what your work should be or their own interpretations of their obligations to you, to themselves, and to the university.
So. There are some basic motivations here that helped me that I hope will help you. I urge you to cultivate a stubborn determination to finish the thing, whatever might happen. I also urge you to be patient with yourself, as much as you can be within all reason. Finally, I urge you to understand that writing a book is not a consistent project and that there will be highs and lows and successes and failures. These crosses are yours to bear alone, even if you do benefit from a supportive group of people around you willing to discuss both your work and their own.
We return to the question of why you are writing this thing. I should point out that this objective can change. For me, the objective became simply to do whatever it took to get my degree. This came back to haunt me later when it became time to edit towards a book, but it got me to finish my advanced degree in the first place, so… you choose your battles, you accept the results and you move on. Regardless of whether you are confident in your ability and fervent in your desire to produce the next important monograph in your field or whether you are fighting off the insecurities so many of us face in graduate school, large hulking and cacophonous banshees screaming at us to reveal the mediocrity we are sure is there, you need to know what you are doing. My advice is thus simple, and direct: figure that out. Trust me, though: no decision is final and you are not the fraud that little voice inside your head keeps insisting you to be. That voice is a jerk and should be repelled with clear writing schedules followed by exercise and some quality time with friends involving beer or Netflix or whatever floats your boat.
I lived in Austin and would get up and write, go for a cycle in the afternoon, and see people in the evenings, most of the time. A common piece of advice is to write three hundred words a day. It’s a good starting point, but honestly the number of words is up to you. I would keep it low; I chose three hundred words as my target and on good days blew past that number and just kept going. It helped on the bad days, though.
But do ask yourself: why am I doing this? The answer can be high-minded or mundane, intellectual or procedural, but you need an answer. Do not give into a narrative of failure, where the only option left to you is to mitigate a sure disaster. Understand what a dissertation is supposed to be, and try and find out what on earth a book is supposed to be (though perhaps give the former task a higher priority). They are different, but one can in fact become the other. It does happen.
Depending on what point you are at while reading this (applying to programs, just finishing your first semester at a program, looking back on three decades as a PhD candidate) has a significant effect on how useful or not this short piece of advice might be to you, but I will give it anyway: get on the same page as your advisor.
Every relationship between a graduate student/candidate and his or her advisor is different, the one thing in common among all these relationships being that it is one of the most important factors in that student’s continued progression towards receiving the degree. Some advisors have students over for beers early and basically hang out with them, some task their students with extremely important research activities such as selling furniture for them on craigslist. My advisor was somewhere in between these two points, though happily for me closer to the BFF scenario. At the same time, we were not BFFs. I advisor was great, and supportive, and I look back on my time as his student fondly. The best thing I can say about him, however, is that I knew where he stood and how he expected things to go.
For example, when I strolled into his office and informed him I was taking my comprehensive qualifying exams in February he smiled and told me that I was not going to do that because I was not ready. This would prove useful later, when I organized a defense in the full knowledge he had no interest in letting it happen if he was concerned I had more work to do to receive the doctoral degree.
What is the advice here? If you already have an advisor, recognize that they are who they are. If you are applying to a program, give some serious thought to who your advisor is going to be. If you have not been in a program long, remember that you can in fact change advisors, though that may depend on the dynamic in your program or between you and multiple members of the faculty.
Ultimately, remember that your advisor’s name will be on your dissertation, and treat that fact accordingly. Assuming they are operating in good faith, which they almost unfailingly are, they are working with you on the dissertation not just out of support for you but also out of the need to do right by themselves. Use this in whatever way can help you finish the dissertation. For me, it was a simple thing: I went in to his office to see him regularly, creating deadlines by when I had to have something meaningful to share. It also meant sending him extremely rough drafts early on, which I think terrified him but got me to where I needed to be.
Life after graduate school
There will, in fact, be one. You will have a life after your leave graduate school, whether you take a degree with you or not. The dissertation will not defeat you: you will either write it or you will not. It is not a signifier of your ability or your worth. It is a dissertation. If this was easy, everyone would do it. That does not mean you have to do it, but it does mean you should give yourself some respect for getting as far as you have. Frankly, it’s doable: I finished my dissertation and lived to tell the tale. And I sometimes start sentences with conjunctions, and often use italics with no sense of decorum whatsoever.