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Thoughts on the factors that contribute to a lengthy dissertation process, and on impulses to reform by changing the diss. | Thoughts on the factors that contribute to a lengthy dissertation process, and on impulses to reform by changing the diss. – Paige Morgan

Paige Morgan

Thoughts on the factors that contribute to a lengthy dissertation process, and on impulses to reform by changing the diss.

I wrote the essay below on October 22, 2013 after attending a workshop on Impostor Syndrome and Assertiveness at the Seattle Attic feminist makerspace. The discussions during that workshop helped me realize some of the reasons that contribute to the length of time it takes to complete a dissertation; and made me think that reforming/dramatically changing the format of the dissertation was not necessarily an effective way of shortening/solving the “problem” of time to completion. It is important to say, I think, that I wrote this happily, rather than out of anger; and I wrote it because I like thinking about infrastructure systems, and how people navigate them. I hope that in whatever sort of career I end up in, I am able to do more of that sort of thinking.

I’m posting the essay here and now because it’s related to another essay that I’m working on, responding to the MLA Task Force Report on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature. In many ways, I think that what I have to say complements what the Task Force is recommending, especially regarding the acknowledgement of multiple forms of scholarship, and what I interpret as the need for more opportunities for graduate students to present their work.  My approach tends to be more one of systems/ecology analysis than that of the task force; or in other words, I see the question of emotional energy as central to the problem of time to degree. I interpret the Task Force’s approach as focusing on the (in)compatibilities of the dissertation with the current careers available. Those (in)compatibilities are an excellent set of issues to explore; however, I think that they (and the issue of time to degree) are more complex than simply changing the format of the dissertation.

Disclaimer: These are my thoughts, based on my experiences, and conversations that I’ve had with other graduate students, and things that I’ve read. Some of them (like point #4), are not new, or unique to me. My experience and perception is necessarily limited, and it’s important to me that I avoid positioning my perceptions as more valid or important than anyone else’s (especially other graduate students). Posting this essay led to a long discussion between several of my readers; I may publish those comments, because I think they’re smart and useful, but I need to check with the authors about whether they would prefer for them to be kept anonymous.


1. Conversations that I have seen about reforming the dissertation only occasionally seem to involve input from graduate students about what makes the experience and completion difficult. That lack of dialogue renders all such discussions (that lack dialogue with graduate students) about reforming the dissertation at least partially suspect. Avoiding graduate student input/dialogue is not just infantilizing towards the graduate students, it is terrible problem solving.

2. The problem of the dissertation is a problem that involves the relationship between graduate students and their professors. This relationship is not auxiliary to thinking about the dissertation; it is central.

3. The questions of “why does it take graduate students a long time to finish the diss?” and “is a dissertation still valuable within the structure of academia today?” are two separate questions.

These two questions can be related, that is, you can hypothesize that one factor contributing to time to completion is anxiety about whether the dissertation will have value within the structure of academia today — and you might well be correct. However, too often, these questions are treated as inseparably linked — and to treat them as inseparably linked disappears several other factors that are involved.

4. Anxiety about the utility of the dissertation is not merely about graduate students and time to completion, or about the academic publishing industry, and the “fitness” of the dissertation genre within that industry. It is also about graduate faculty’s sense (and uncertainty) of their own responsibilities and capabilities in the wake of changes in the academic environment and in regards to shifts in print/electronic culture and media.

5. Hypothesis: the problem is not so much the genre of the dissertation as uncertainty about what it is supposed to accomplish. It is caught between the goal of meeting the requirements for graduation (and foreshadowing meeting requirements for tenure); and demonstrating competence within a discipline.

6. Especially for graduate students who teach while writing their dissertation, developing competence will manifestly be about a larger and broader skillset than is required for completing the dissertation. These two skillsets are almost certainly likely to conflict with each other, and create unproductive anxiety.

7. Teaching while completing a dissertation also means that the graduate students have less time to work on the dissertation, as many people have observed. However, what is less observed, but also true is that the conflict of skillsets tends to amplify the exhaustion factor involved in the work of teaching.

8. One can either confront this conflict, or ignore it, and hope that the amount of anxiety that it creates is ultimately less than the amount of energy and enthusiasm that the graduate student is generating and collecting at the same time.

9. Currently, graduate school in the humanities (and perhaps in other fields) has fewer opportunities that generate energy/enthusiasm, and more opportunities that generate anxiety.

10. This balance of energy/enthusiasm and anxiety-generating opportunities is not new; in the past,it has been more or less consciously used as a filter in order to exclude all but the students who are most focused and devoted to their subjects, and who were therefore considered to be likely to finish. Thus, we need to ask ourselves why this filter isn’t working for graduate school in the humanities as it exists today.

11. One factor that is operative today is the perception of risk. Some of the risks that graduate students deal with include the risks of teaching challenging courses, selecting supportive advisors, and eventually, directors and committee members, passing exams, finding good mentorship, finding a job, repaying student loans, and balancing academic work and life.

12. Devotion, focus, and enthusiasm for a particular subject and/or subfield are entirely different traits than being able to deal with risk.

13. The higher we set the bar for getting into an MA/PhD program by displaying specialized knowledge about a subject, the less we encourage (the more we discourage) students from developing skills for assessing and successfully navigating these risks.

14. One example where the disjunction between devotion skills and risk skills is evident is in the oft-given advice to “just finish the diss!” On that subject:

An academic career involves a multitude of responsibilities and risks that newly-minted PhDs have to deal with. We could imagine the path forward as a wide open field, full of obstacles. (I imagine this as rather like the genre of video games in which you are constantly moving forward, jumping over barriers, firing at obstacles, and collecting power-ups).

Graduate students enter this game when they begin graduate school, starting with an easy level, and progressing towards ever more difficult levels that are closer and closer to the obstacles involved in holding down a permanent job.

The common advice to “just finish the diss!” is akin to saying “stop paying attention to the game!” or “don’t worry about collecting power-ups; just focus on moving forward.” Anyone who has played one of this sort of game at a higher level can tell you that this is fatal advice. Failing to collect power-ups will inevitably lead to running out of energy before the end of the level.

The moral of this story is this: telling someone to “just finish the diss” is unlikely to be useful. At best, if the graduate student has a relatively perceptive awareness of “the game,” the advice will be neutral, and s/he can dismiss it as well-intentioned. An example: if the graduate student is trying to gather experience that may be useful on the alt-ac track, then working on something other than the diss may well be important to gain that experience. If the graduate student is less aware, then the advice will be in conflict with what they already unconsciously know about the game. While advice to “just finish!” might be characterized as comparatively minor (a grain of sand compared to some obstacles that dissertating students face), it adds up, as grains of sand are wont to do.

15. Following on point#14, graduate students will instinctively look for opportunities to collect “power-ups,” or energy/enthusiasm boosts as they dissertate.

16. How successful graduate students are in collecting lots of energy/enthusiasm boosts; or in collecting the best sort of power-ups will be directly related to whether they realize that such boosts are necessary, and helpful, to the process of dissertating.

17. If graduate students are aware that such boosts are necessary, then they are more likely to be able to effectively seek them out, and perhaps even work to build boosts from scratch using the existing components of their environment. To use another gaming metaphor, they can identify which stats (aspects of their skillset) need boosts, and choose which boosts will be most productive.

18. If graduate students are not aware that such boosts are necessary, then the reverse of #17 follows: they’re less likely to be able to seek out effective boosts,let alone create them. This is probably (I say “probably” because I am not a medical professional) more likely to contribute to depression and/or self-destructive behaviors, including seeking boosts by attacking others. People who are desperate get mean; people who are emotionally desperate while still physically strong/healthy get more mean, i.e., they are more dangerous predators.

19. On a side note, it is entirely possible to become a highly effective predator of other people, finish the diss, and even get a job, and tenure, etc.

20. One thing is certain, and that is that graduate students will seek out power boosts,either in productive or destructive ways (or in a mixture of both).

Because of all of the above factors, before we say “the diss doesn’t work! We need something new!”, we ought to first ask why the dissertation isn’t maintaining energy efficiency for graduate students, i.e., why they’re having trouble seeking out the energy/enthusiasm boosts that they need to complete it.

21. One problem is that in the structure of most graduate programs, students move from having a larger audience (comprised of seminar classmates) for their ideas to a smaller one,usually involving between 1 and 3 people (their director and possibly other members of their committee). This creates strain both for the graduate student and their director, because the director may be the only person who can provide boosts, and that is potentially exhausting for the director. (See also point #2).

22. Good dissertation writing groups can help with this problem, but it’s harder than it looks to setup a writing group where the ratio between opportunity cost and power-ups generated is effective. For example, members of a writing group may be able to generate excellent power-ups if they know each other’s subject areas well enough and/or read enough of each other’s writing, but of course, this takes time and energy.

23. From the exam process, where the dissertation formally begins (at least in most departments that I’m aware of), it becomes highly oriented towards personal survival, first through the question of whether one will pass the exams, and then through the questions of whether one will meet benchmarks on schedule, and be allowed to stay in the program/given funding.

24. However, the purpose of a dissertation is not, ostensibly, to survive, but to provide useful knowledge to others.

25. If these two objectives (to survive, and to provide useful knowledge to others) become entangled, or wholly merged, it is detrimental to the graduate student’s ability to create, structure, and present such knowledge in a legible format which will be acceptable to the graduate student’s director and/or committee.

26. Factors that are in conflict with the putative goal of providing knowledge to others tend to slow down the speed of dissertation progress.

27. To put this a little bit differently, the *idea* of the dissertation, and what is meant to accomplish, is profoundly social. But the experience of actually being and working in the academy is increasingly *anti*social, and driven by questions of maximum quantitative utility, i.e., speed and profit.

28. This drive towards maximum quantitative utility has a tendency to be in conflict with the social impulse of academia. I’m reluctant to say that it is actively hostile towards it, or even that it is antithetical by definition. The problem is that the drive towards maximum quantitative utility tends to take the social side of things, and the contribution of sociability, for granted.

29. This is why, a couple of weeks ago, I wrote that intertextuality is not sociability. When I said that, I didn’t mean that intertextuality is useless, but instead, that it’s a vestige of a larger set of social behaviors and activities that have since been minimized or collapsed.

Now, it’s important to clarify that I’m not wishing for a return to academia’s golden days of yore, because A) I don’t think that they existed, and B) to the degree that they existed,they existed mainly for a small and privileged subset. Also, C) we can’t go back. We have a far different environment, with different boosts and obstacles.It is both better and worse than the 1960s, or any time before that where this “golden age of academia” might have existed.

30. What I am saying is that insofar as humans are naturally social beings, and that graduate students are humans, that we need to think about academia as a social environment in order to understand what is working, and what is not, when it comes to the task of writing a dissertation.

31. The slow average time to completion may be partially a problem of the dissertation as genre; but I suspect that it is equally a problem of the environment in which that dissertation is produced.

32. If the problem does involve the genre of the dissertation, I strongly suspect that one factor involves the incompatibility of the fairly narrow focus of the dissertation (which is often necessary in order for the student to finish quickly) with our current range of social behaviors, and the environment and resources which we are provided to use in order to be social.

33. Dramatically changing the dissertation looks like a very big move – a “game-changing move,” in fact.It looks like a move that changes the rules, or the goals, of the system – two areas that are fairly powerful in Donella Meadow’s rankings of effective leverage points. See: “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.

34. However, the dissertation is not in itself a goal, as all the tests and gatekeeping behaviors we attach to it demonstrate. To quote Meadows, “Even people within systems don’t often recognize what whole-system goal they are serving. “To make profits,” most corporations would say, but that’s just a rule, a necessary condition to stay in the game. What is the point of the game?” (Meadows, Leverage Points, #2, “The Goals of the System”).

35. The answer (to the question “what is the point of the game?), depending on which graduate student you ask, might be any one of the following: knowledge, fulfillment, autonomy, employment, or other answers that I haven’t thought about. What’s the dissertation, then? It’s a standard – or in Meadow’s terms, it’s the one of the least effective points of intervention in a system.

36. Of course, a good reform of graduate education might involve major changes to the dissertation. But for them to be effective, we would have to recognize that the dissertation, for all it’s talked about, is not the entire structure of graduate education. It might be said to be the justification for the structure – but it isn’t the structure itself. And to borrow from Meadows again, until we see “the relationship between structure and behavior”, we can’t “begin to understand how systems work, what makes them produce poor results, and how to shift them into better behavior patterns” (Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, 18). Once we start doing that, then the issue is not one major change, but many small and potentially more significant ones.

Works Cited

Meadows, Donella. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” Donella Meadows Institute. Web. 30 May 2014.
–. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008. Print.