|Barbara J. Risman||
One ritual shared by all of us with a doctorate is writing a dissertation.
For some of us, it’s the most major writing project of our lives, for others it is just a launching pad for a career as a writing professor. But for everyone, it is a major hurdle to overcome. And while you are writing the dissertation, the end is never assured. So what to do?
Trying to focus on writing right now, while the pandemic still rages, is nearly impossible. If you are overwhelmed home-schooling your kids, or taking care of elders please realize that life is long. It is just fine to take an extra year or two to finish this degree. Yes, it may lower your life-time earnings some, but your mental health and the well-being of your loved ones must be your prime directive. Give yourself a break. Many departments are giving graduate students an extra year of funding, and extra time to meet specified academic goals. If you are struggling to manager your daily life, stop reading now, and prioritize your own health and sanity! We are in a crises of pandemic proportions, you do not have to pretend otherwise.
Others of you are sheltering at home, alone, with a partner or with roommates, and do not have caretaking responsibilities. You have the time to move forward but perhaps not the focus. I’m writing this column for you. And keep reading if you want to learn about a free online writing community to join to help you make progress. (Registration info below). It’s hard to stay focused when the world is in uncharted territory, a full-blown crises. Perhaps you are worried about your parents, who cannot yet find a vaccine. Perhaps you’ve lost a loved one to Covid-19 and are still grieving. It is incredibly hard to focus right now. But if you have the time, I advise using it. Use writing as a retreat from the craziness of the world around us. Sometimes intense focus itself can be relaxing. Isn’t that why people play bridge?
But, of course, writing can be a struggle in the best of times. And we are definitely not in the best of times. So the first step in getting on with it is accepting that it is going to be a struggle. This is hard. Writing a dissertation was hard in the before times, and it is even harder now. If it were not hard, many more people would do it. But working toward your Ph.D. shouldn’t break your spirit or dampen your enthusiasm for your discipline. And if it is doing either of those, you need to veer course and assess the situation. Talk to your advisor. And if you can’t do so, maybe you need a new advisor? But that’s for another column.
If you haven’t been able to write consistently, you need to assess your daily schedule. If you really do not have time, give yourself a break, and go take care of that child that really should be in day care or at school! But if you really can make the time, but are not doing so, stay with me.
You have to prioritize yourself. You have your research assistantship or teaching responsibilities or perhaps an outside full-time job. These all take more time on-line! So perhaps you can’t write as much as you would have otherwise. Most other responsibilities come with more immediate deadlines. You may also have a family that needs you, and you can’t be writing instead of cooking dinner. All this is true. But it doesn’t matter. You need to find some time, hopefully every day, to move forward toward your degree. It may be that some days that is only listening to a podcast of a book you need to “read” while you are driving home from picking up your weekly groceries curbside. Give yourself credit, that is moving forward. In the before times, I would have urged you to schedule some time every single day. But we aren’t in normal times. Still, if you want to move forward toward your degree, schedule time at least three times a week. I suggest setting aside two hour blocks at least three times a week. That may not seem like much, but by identifying times when you are least likely to be interrupted, and committing to not check social media, and focus on your writing, you will make progress. Join a drop-in writing group. Or join the Risman’s Writing Retreats online spring writing community. We will write together within a framework of group accountability, with daily writing tips and monthly zoom calls where I will share Risman’s Writing Strategies.
Think about it this way. Once you get a full-time job, even when you are just starting out, you should be saving a very small amount of money every month, having it taken out of their paycheck before you ever see the money. If you do that, you just may have savings for your children’s college, or your own retirement. Even if you save just $10 a month, that is a start. So too with writing. Even though you are scarce on time, you must pay yourself first. You do not have to finish your degree as quickly as you might have if we’d never heard of Covid-19. But you do want to finish it!
Now that doesn’t mean you necessarily should finish as fast as is humanly possible, even if the Department’s Director of Graduate Studies insists you should. What are some good reasons for taking your time? If you hope to land a tenure-track job, you might want to take an extra year or two before you defend your dissertation. Why? It’s going to take universities at least that long to bounce back and to resume hiring in any serious way. And there are those who believe the tenure track job market will never rebound. What is clear is that with more candidates for the same (or fewer) jobs, you will need to have even a stronger curriculum vitae in the future. In addition to that dissertation, you will probably need several peer-reviewed publications, book chapters, and an encyclopedia article or two as well. So by all means, stay a graduate student long enough to build the vitae you need to get the job you want. But that means more writing, not less. A commitment to writing is even more important if you want a tenure track job at a research intensive university. But do you really want that kind of job? It is vital to assess how much you enjoy the process of writing.
The big question about writing, for graduate students, is do you enjoy it? Once you have defended your dissertation, and are collecting data and writing it up, you are often doing the same work as faculty, for far less money. You are doing research, often teaching, and writing. Do you like to write? Think about it, seriously. There are a variety of jobs open to incredibly well-educated Ph.Ds. And only some of them mimic the job of your major professor. Most of them do not. Now is the time to take stock and really pay attention to what tasks in your professional capacity make you want to get up in the morning and get to work. What part of your daily work responsibilities are you doing just to jump thru the hoops for your degree? Be honest with yourself.
Do you love research, but really dread writing it up and presenting it? Maybe a career as a research scientist in a big lab or major research or policy Institute is right for you. Do you just love to teach but dread writing? Perhaps a full-time tenure track community college position would make you most happy. Do you just love to do research, write and teach, but prefer to spend more time on the research and writing? If so, you are probably someone who should take an extra year to build up your vitae to be competitive for a research intensive university. If you love to teach, and research and writing is something you enjoy but don’t want to spend too much time doing, build up your expertise as a scholar-teacher. Even here, however, writing matters. But try writing something about pedagogy, or make yourself an expert in the scholarship of teaching and learning.
Whatever you decide, you need to write to finish your degree. If you want a research intensive faculty job, you need to publish soon, and often. If you want any academic job, you need to finish your dissertation and create a writing practice that nourishes your soul. If you don’t enjoy writing, many academic jobs are not going to be a good choice for you. But don’t despair, at least half of all Ph.D.’s work outside the academy. Some non-academic jobs require intensive writing, but others do not.
As you write your dissertation, keep a journal about how you are feeling. Use that to steer your course into the job market. But first, remember, a good dissertation is a finished dissertation. It is only the start of your career and not the measure of your worth. Now that you’ve read this, make yourself a writing schedule and go back to your keyboard. Or commit to the 8 week writing community that starts Monday May 3rd. I will give writing tips, we will write together, and there will be an additional voluntary weekly meeting. To register send me a link at Rismanswritingretreats.com. Space is limited.