Dissertations—some 250 pages of original research in the humanities, and topping 400 in the social sciences—are objectively, indisputably difficult. It sometimes takes years just to collect data or comb through the necessary archives, and then the damn thing must be written, often in total isolation. Dissertations are not impossible, but they are very hard, and most people in the world—including, perhaps, you, my friend—cannot complete one.
… there are the inner hindrances, the ones that cause procrastination, and then shame, and then paralysis. Here’s my favorite: believing, erroneously, that one must read and master every single word of existing scholarship before even beginning to write. Here’s my least favorite (which happens to my clients all the time): refusing to turn in any chapter that isn’t perfect, and thus not turning in anything at all—which results in the adviser getting irate, which puts even more pressure on the student to be even more perfect, ad infinitum. This is how dissertations are stalled, often forever.
So what can be done to fix this? The Izzy Mandelbaums of academia may argue the system is fine the way it is: In a field that requires extended independent work to succeed, the trial by fire of the dissertation is an apt initiation. (“All aboard the pain train!”) But does it have to be this way? I see no reason why, for example, more dissertation advisers couldn’t be enthusiastic about seeing early drafts, to provide guidance and support. Some already do this (mine did), but far too many of my clients say their advisers won’t even look at anything that isn’t “polished.” Every adviser who says this is part of the problem.
Another step in the right direction would be not just to hold dissertation workshops, but also to make them mandatory. A lot of grad students are simply too paralyzed (or ashamed to admit they don’t know what they’re doing) to attend one of their own volition. A mandatory workshop frees them to get the help they need, without having to admit they need help.
The belief that someone has ’failed if they do not complete their doctoral degree is absolutely frustrating and absurd; I’ve seen brilliant people leave not because they couldn’t write, not because they couldn’t publish, but because there were bureaucratic hoops they were emotionally ill-suited to handle. And instead of working with them – people who could have easily been the next leaders of their respective fields, and who were already emerging as such as doctoral students – they were instead cast aside. This is pre-defence of comprehensive exams, pre-defence of dissertation proposal, and thus way before the defence (or writing of) their dissertation itself.
For those ‘stuck’ at the dissertating point, I think that having regular (ideally weekly) meetups is incredibly helpful for successful completion, second in value only to regular (ideally bi-weekly) meetings with one’s supervisor. I was blessed to have an outstanding advisor who was willing to read early-draft work and provide valuable feedback, with most feedback returned in 2 weeks or so of me giving it to him. He shared with me thoughts and guidance, as well as tactics for moving forward. Sometimes I didn’t understand why he wanted what he wanted, to the point where it sometimes took years for me to implement the changes. Not because I didn’t want to, not because I wasn’t willing to (somewhat) blindly accept his proposed revisions, but because I wasn’t at a stage to understand what he was even proposing. Only by having regular, ongoing, contact with both dissertating peers and one’s supervisor does such nuance and advice become tangible and real in my experience.
The other helpful thing about regular peer-based meetings is you can set weekly goals, monthly goals, and semester-length goals. And you just chip away at them, every week. Ideally the group has at least one person who can drive a meeting so it’s quick and efficient and often asks pain-in-the-ass questions (e.g. It’s great that you’re working on that conference paper, but can you state how it fits with the dissertation, and what working on that paper will do over the next week/month/term in terms of advancing the dissertation)? In my experience, when I ran such meetings, they would take the following format:
- meet at coffee shop, order coffee (5–10 minutes)
- go around the table, reminding the group what each person committed to accomplishing and then asking whether each member met their goals (5–10 minutes)
- go back around the table, getting members to commit to next week’s/month’s goals (5–10 minutes)
- meeting adjourned
- Total time: 15–30 minutes
Our meetings typically had been 4–7 people and, for those who attended and committed regularly, worked out well. We also had a deal where if you failed to accomplish any of your weekly goalsyou bought someone a coffee next week. It was a very small, but useful, measure to ensure that each person accomplished at least one of their goals set the prior week. And, if they failed, to have some ‘pain’ associated with that failure.