The Only Thing Worse Than Getting a Ph.D. in Today’s Academic Job Market

The Only Thing Worse Than Getting a Ph.D. in Today’s Academic Job Market:

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.


PhDerp: What it feels like to wait (again) for feedback on your dissertation



Like Bellatrix in the gif above, simmering inside me is barely concealed agitation as I watch the days go by without really hearing from my committee. It has been almost a month since I turned in my second draft and the only comments I’ve received have been, “so far, so good, definitely…

I read this and give thanks to my committee which is generally excellent at turning around chunks of my dissertation (usually in 100-200 page blocks) within a week or two (and often within 48-72 hours).

Source: PhDerp: What it feels like to wait (again) for feedback on your dissertation


Well, just sent in a completed version of the dissertation to my committee. Ended up being just a hair over 90K words (286 pages). I should (ideally) get comments back in the next week or so, implement them, and then submit the dissertation to grad studies by end of the month/early September for an October defence!


Our symposium was also interested in the differences between writing a journal article and writing an extended monograph of up to 100,000 words. The sheer challenge of constructing a sustained argument over this many words clearly prepared the PhD for the book in ways that writing journal articles might not. So was there also something here, we wondered, about the PhD by journal publication being a way of preparing the audit ready scholar, already primed to turn out articles for high status journals, as opposed to what might appear as the increasingly less audit valued process of producing a monograph?

It is important to put on record that our symposium wasn’t suggesting that the solution to this increasing diversity should be some kind of monolithic pan-European doctorate, an extension of the Bologna process that would involve massive amounts of moderation, record keeping and audit. This would be the simple knee jerk bureaucratic response to emergent diversity. We did think that there might be a set of questions to discuss about the criteria used to evaluate/examine doctorates, and some work at the edges of what were reasonable expectations and what were not. We were very clear that there ought to be a conversation among the scholarly community at large about diversity and equity – it wasn’t something just for national policy-makers to think about.

The changes we were addressing are of course not the only changes in the doctorate. There are also increasing pressures on narrow nineteenth century definitions of the thesis by monograph brought about via digital and arts informed scholarship, and these too need to be taken into account in any discussions.

Anecdotally, I can personally say that each type of writing a scholar engages in will be different. A manuscript is different from an article, which are both different from a report, review, book chapter, or submission to government. And each is independently valuable insofar as each teaches discrete writing skills.

I know that there is a shift away from manuscripts, and towards PhD by publishing in the social sciences. I can certainly appreciate how this publication approach enhances CVs for postdoctoral fellowships (e.g. demonstrates a track record of publishing) but it also seems to take away from learning a key skill: book writing. While many people who receive a PhD won’t continue on into the academy there is a certain discipline associated with building, and sustaining, and argument over 80-100 thousand words.