Surviving dissertation isolation

This post was originally published in Reflections on Academic Lives: Identities, Struggles, and Triumphs in Graduate School and Beyond, edited by Staci M. Zavattaro and Shannon K. Orr, as one of several short pieces offering advice for grad students navigating the (often confusing) waters of academia. If you’re interested in reading more, you can find the book here.

As a PhD candidate in the nebulous “writing phase” of my dissertation, I am frequently offered unsolicited advice:

You know, you just need to get it out. You can make it pretty later.

Have you read [insert dense, complicated theorist here]…?

And my absolute favourite:

The best dissertation is a finished dissertation.

To be fair, much of this advice comes from people who have actually gone through the ugly doctoral process and come out alive on the other side – often even with faculty positions. And they do have many good tips about chapter structure and the revision process and how to prep for your defense. But what no one tells you, what everyone fails to mention, has nothing to do with research or analysis or formatting your references properly — but with something so much worse.

I’ve heard it said that no one talks about just how painful it is to give birth because if they did, no one would get pregnant ever again. I’m beginning to think that there is a similar cone of silence around the process of finishing a dissertation – what happens in your writing phase stays in your writing phase, so to speak. But the best defense is a good offense, so I’m breaking this weird unspoken rule and letting the big secret out so that future doctoral students might prepare better than I did: The worse part of writing your dissertation is the utter and complete isolation that it brings. 

Truly: writing up the document that will one day land you those coveted letters behind your name will make you feel totally alone. It will feel like being the lone passenger on a one-way mission to Mars, or like that poor guy who befriends a volleyball in Castaway. In the early days of your doctoral program, you may have taken classes and befriended other students. But once you’ve moved past your coursework, it can be easy to lose touch with others as you become mired in the writing process. You may even find yourself avoiding friends, family, committee members, and (especially) your supervisor in order to dodge the ever-present question: So, how’s the writing coming?

Because let’s face it: for many doctoral students, the answer is not well. And the longer it takes, the more likely you are to start feeling like perhaps there has been some major mistake: perhaps you don’t have what it takes after all, perhaps you are merely an imposter in the world of academia, a fraud, a failure, a disappointment…

And when that happens, it’s best to be prepared, so here are some (hopefully) helpful hints for surviving dissertation isolation:

First, remember that while you may feel like you’re the only inhabitant of a remote town called Dissertation Ville, you are not alone. More importantly, you are not a failure (sometimes it helps to repeat that point, or even to make a sticky note reminder to put up on your bathroom mirror).

Then, find allies. Those other students you met in your classes? They are likely feeling the same way, so be persistent about staying in touch (or reconnecting) with these people. If you are geographically isolated, connect online. There are wonderful, supportive communities out there – try #phdchat on Twitter as a start. 

Writing your dissertation doesn’t need to feel like travelling down a lonely desert road. [Photo credit: adifferentbrian: Flickr via Compfight cc]

And don’t forget about faculty. Unless you and your supervisor have some serious bad blood, this person is likely one of your best allies. In my own case, I was so used to doing everything school-related by myself that I was somewhat embarrassed to let my supervisor know that I was struggling, and I imagine that many of us who reach this level of education are similarly averse to seeking assistance. But like me, you will probably find that your supervisor is helpful and supportive (remember, they went through the same ordeal at some point). If not your supervisor, then find a committee member or other faculty member to provide some guidance and support. 

Remember that it is sometimes okay to preface a conversation with Please don’t ask about that pesky PhD thing today.

Finally, remember that it is sometimes okay to preface a conversation with Please don’t ask about that pesky PhD thing today. Most people in your life will at least respect this, even if they don’t understand it. Then, move on to other topics of discussion: movies, sports, current events – yes, these things do still exist, and it’s okay to occasionally read/watch/discuss them. 

And ultimately, remember that this too shall pass… at least, I think it will. I’ll let you know when I make it through to the other side.

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