|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 careers, for others it is just a launching pad for a career as a writing professor. But for everyone, it is a hurdle that takes incredible work to jump. And while you are writing the dissertation, the end is never assured.
The first step in getting on with it is accepting that it is going to be a struggle. This is hard. If it were not hard, many more people would try to earn their Ph.Ds. But it 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.
Every student deserves helpful respectful feedback. If your major professor isn’t reading your draft chapters within a month of receiving them, or is responding in ways that are undermining your confidence or self-esteem, it’s time to think about changing advisors. Or at least scheduling a meeting to talk about a way to move forward where you can meet his or her expectations, and receive the mentoring that you need. If you need deadlines to finish a chapter, ask for them. If you’d like to know what you got right, as well as what needs to be improved, ask your advisor to be sure to point out what’s on-target as well as what is wrong.
If you don’t seem to have time to write, that’s your problem, not your professors. You have to prioritize yourself. You have your research assistantship or teaching responsibilities or perhaps an outside full-time job. All of those responsibilities come with 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 dropping your children at the day care center. That’s moving forward. You need to schedule in some time every day, and significant time, several days a week.
Think about it this way. Once you get a full-time job, even if you are young and 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. What are the long-term consequences of taking a year or two longer to get your degree? The sooner you are finished, the sooner you begin a full-time professional job, the higher your lifetime earnings. A delay of a year, or two, will significantly depress your overall lifetime earnings.
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 in your discipline, and the requirements have escalated so that you must have several peer-reviewed publications, book chapters, and an encyclopedia article or two, 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. In many fields now, certainly in my field of sociology, tenure-track jobs require publications, and that may mean more time in graduate school. This means more time writing, different kinds of articles and book chapters, as well as a dissertation. Daily writing is even more important and so is assessing whether you enjoy this kind of work.
The big question about writing, for graduate students, is do you enjoy it? Once you have defended your dissertation, 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 part of your work makes you want to get up in the morning and go to campus. What part 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.