Dissertating and the Academic Term (Or, Caution: Slow-Moving Dissertation Ahead)

ABD. For those of us who are hell-bent on the path to the PhD, perhaps the only more thrilling moment is the one when your dissertation committee chair reaches across the table, shakes your hand, and says, “Congratulations, Doctor Professor” following your dissertation defense. Obviously, we’re in a tearing hurry to get to that glorious end; job market notwithstanding, we’re ready to Get There, to do this thing. We’ve been dreaming the impossible dream, some of us for so long now that it actually has seemed well-night impossible, until we hit that ABD milestone. Now, it’s right there, within our grasp. It’s now only a matter of writing and defending four chapters on an original subject we came up with ourselves, on our own timeframe, right? It’s all up to you now!

Well…… SORT of.

As I have mentioned before in this blog, graduate school has a tendency to set you up with a pair of blinders; things tend to seem to be all about you, and to a great extent they are–it is, after all, your degree. However, one thing I think we can all too easily forget, is that in order for you to finish writing and defend your dissertation, your committee has to read, comment on, and help you revise the dissertation into something they won’t be embarrassed to promote. This means three, and possibly four, members of the graduate faculty at your school have to carve out time in their own research, teaching, and service agendas to accommodate your need for feedback on fifty-plus page drafts of each chapter. Multiply that by the number of graduate students for whom a given faculty member is serving on committee, and you’re looking at hundreds of pages of graduate student drafting that each graduate faculty member is expected to help turn into polished, acceptable doctoral-level prose.

Something I have learned is that no matter how motivated and driven I am, how much of a hurry I am in to complete the dissertation, when in the course of an academic term you are teaching two classes and taking an external seminar life is good, you’re learning and growing and stretching in very important ways as a thinker-scholar, but there’s precious little time left open for research and writing. If that’s true for me–a graduate student not currently on the job market or in a tenure track position or seeking a promotion or a raise–how much more true might it be for the members of my dissertation committee, whose jobs are dependent upon their intellectual production and visibility?

The graduate faculty I am working with are wonderful. They see this work not only as part of their job, but as a responsibility to the profession and a personal honor. They genuinely enjoy working with graduate students. They are generous readers and mentors, and very willing to give freely of their time and expertise. However, they are also human beings, actively teaching both undergraduate and graduate-level classes, and working in important service positions (director of undergraduate studies, associate dean of the college of arts and sciences…….) All this, of course, in addition to writing, revising, submitting for publication their own work. And right now, they are also smack-dab in the middle of admissions and Fall advising season, and therefore involved in helping to recruit incoming undergraduates, make personal contact with accepted graduate students considering their choices, and advise ongoing undergraduate and graduate students on what classes they need. On top of that, my particular advisors also have had the annual Shakespeare conference and the International Medieval Congress is nigh. April really is the cruelest month for academics.

Something that we might consider as graduate students working on our dissertations, then, is the drafting schedule we set up for ourselves (and, consequently, for our committee members). We know that April is when our professors are juggling an insane workload–grading final essays, writing and administering final examinations, writing last-minute recommendation letters, recruiting the incoming, helping to advise the ongoing, and trying to calm the outgoing/ graduating students, finishing up writing projects in advance of looming publication deadlines. So, handing in a chapter draft in April or the beginning of May? Maybe not our wisest choice, unless we don’t care if they take a month or two (or more) to get those comments back to us.

THINK about it. Academia works on a very specific time frame, and you as a long-time student (and, perhaps, a TA) should by now be very familiar with the rising and falling workload tide; the busiest, crunchiest times of the year: the two weeks before classes start in August; midterm (in the US, generally around the end of October/beginning of November, in the Fall, and the end of March/beginning of April in the spring), the final week and a half before winter and summer break, when ALL THE PAPERS and ALL THE EXAMS are due. It might seem counterproductive, since we are used to working on that schedule ourselves and so, papers (and dissertation drafts) should be turned in ’round about December and April–but, in fact, it’s maybe not such a good idea to schedule your chapters to go to your committee members or adviser at those times. After all, your deadline is much more flexible than the University grading deadlines. You’re probably going on the bottom of the to-do pile; not because your dissertation committee members don’t care, but in fact, because they actually do care, and want to give you good feedback, rather than rushing through it alongside fifty other essays. If, like me, you have ever had one of those to-do piles where the really important things go last because you want to devote good, quality time to them, then you know just how long it can sometimes take to get to those particular things.

When you’re thinking about how you’re going to schedule the dissertation, then, consider the academic year, the workload graduate faculty carry, and adjust your expectations accordingly. Consider submitting drafts for approval towards the beginning of a term, before they start receiving student work from their classes to grade, rather than the end, when they’re swamped and often backlogged with things that need to be graded. Consider submitting drafts a few weeks after the term ends, when they’ve had a chance to rest and recuperate a bit (and maybe gotten some of their own research and writing done). Or, consider asking them when they would be most able to devote their attention to a draft, and base your schedule around that.

I’m speaking here from personal experience, in that even before I made it to ABD, I drew up an ambitious and aggressive writing schedule–defend the prospectus on February 1; first chapter draft to my committee chair March 1; second chapter draft April 1; chapter 1 revisions by April 15; yadda yadda yadda. You can see already that NO, this was NOT HAPPENING. Not only was I not able to maintain that kind of a writing schedule on top of teaching two classes and fulfilling my duties as the financial officer of our university’s graduate student association while also traveling to Washington DC for several days every week for the Folger seminar, but when I started writing I realized that my project was actually going to be quite different from the prospectus (as they often are). That meant I needed more time to reframe, research, and write than I had initially anticipated needing. More time to write was definitely not happening in March, with midterms to administer and grade; and I don’t really see it happening in April, with final essays, projects, and exams to grade, either. In short, more time to write is going to happen after the term ends, period. And really–really–even if I carved out more time to write, rendering myself and everyone else in my life clinically insane with my angsty, time-crunched, sleep-deprived, manic-panic “Must get it done STAT!” attitude, even if I stuck to that original schedule and administered that chapter draft, say, by the end of March or the first week of April, it’s not coming back to me with comments until mid-May, at the earliest–not with my dissertation adviser, also undergraduate studies chair, smack-dab in the middle of advising season and swinging into finals, herself. This isn’t because she doesn’t prioritize my work, it’s because she is a human being with human limitations–and, newsflash: so am I. Even if she did whip through those pages and make those comments as requested (which she totally would, if I asked her to) am I really going to be able to swing a fifteen-day turnaround on those comments by the first week of May, with 80 student essays and exams coming in? Puh-leeeeeeeeeeeeze.

In short, one thing I’ve learned during this first term of dissertating is that it is in nobody’s best interests for a doctoral candidate to try to stick to a writing schedule that really can’t work. I’m in as much of a tearing hurry as is anyone to finish my dissertation and earn that coveted “Doctor” in front of my name, and I still intend to finish and defend next spring, but I think the key is to work smarter, not faster. Right now, I’m exhausted, worn out, and barely pulling myself over the finish line for this term. Being driven and not a little headstrong, I certainly tried to maintain the breakneck drafting pace I set for myself; but when I spend three hours on a Sunday enjoying a lovely meal with friends, only to come home and promptly fall asleep for the rest of the evening well in advance of the sun’s going down, and then wake up on Monday not excited to get to work but wishing I dared call my classes off and crawl back into bed for another twelve or so hours, and not even bothering to think about the dissertation at all, it’s time to re-evaluate.

So, I did. I spoke with my adviser, and told her that I was feeling completely in over my head, and that I thought it would be better to scale back; I’ll keep working on my dissertation as I can–I’m not going to just abandon it entirely until May–but nor do I plan to push myself for a full chapter draft until the term is safely over. Just admitting this out loud has brought me to a much calmer and more grounded place. I feel relieved, and as though I can actually handle everything on this revised working schedule I’ve proposed. (I may have imagined it, but she seemed pretty relieved, herself.)

I think this very situation is one of the key contributing factors to the many, many people out there who remain perpetually ABD, not completing their dissertations. When we set up unrealistic schedules and expectations for ourselves or for our advisers and committee members, instead of acknowledging the many-headed hydra that is the academic calendar, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Being in constant communication with our advisers about where we are, how we are doing, and what we need–and being aware of and sensitive to their own extremely packed schedules–is a better recipe for success. Many full professors don’t find themselves with the time to work on their own research and writing for publication during the academic term–why should graduate students with teaching loads expect so much more from themselves?

More concretely–if I have 76 student blogs to read and assess this week, what is the likelihood that I am going to get those done and then also have the energy to  research, or to draft a few pages of my dissertation? Every few weeks throughout an academic term, that is the reality. While I might be able to swing it once or twice, expecting myself to just push through it all constantly and work all of the time to get everything done is the fastest road to Burnout City and the surest bet that I’ll end up a whining, complaining, cynical pile of goo. Nobody wants that, least of all me. Better to hedge my bets during the term and lighten up on the diss. work, focusing more on my teaching, and then make up the difference when I have the ability to focus my full attention on writing.

I’m not advocating for not working on the dissertation AT ALL during the academic term, which would most likely result in not finishing, or at least in not finishing in anything like the expected timeframe. But I do think that realizing that productivity will be limited during the academic term can help to ease the anxiety we can feel about not making as much progress as we’d hoped, and the concern that we aren’t really cut out for this kind of work. If I can re-train myself to think about the cycles of the academic term, then when midterm and finals period rolls along and I suddenly realize I haven’t even opened my dissertation draft in a week, it’s less cringe-making. I can make that time up at the beginning of the term, during term breaks, and of course, during the summer. Obviously, this means I’ll need to be very focused and disciplined with my time during those stretches in order to recoup my losses– but in my case, I am much more likely to succeed that way and, more importantly, to enjoy myself along the way.


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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1 Response to Dissertating and the Academic Term (Or, Caution: Slow-Moving Dissertation Ahead)

  1. Samantha says:

    It’s really interesting to hear about your ongoing process – thanks as always for being willing to share your experience!

    I’m not sure where I heard it, but I learned once that a decent dissertating schedule was to complete both a new chapter draft and revisions on a different chapter draft in a single semester, with summer counting as a semester (but also completing more additional work in a summer, like archival research, analysis, language practice, etc.). I was rather taken aback by your daunting writing schedule, and I would have been incredibly impressed had you stuck to it! But I think scaling back both for your own mental health and for the purposes of your other responsibilities was a wise choice. I’m not sure yet what my own schedule will be like, and quite frankly I look forward to trying out a few different sorts of writing schedules to see which one works best and is the most enjoyable. It is always helpful, as I think about options, to learn what has worked for others!

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