One thing I didn’t learn in my now 20+ years of education was how to write a dissertation. Fellow students and professors have told me not to think of the dissertation as the end; it’s not my life’s work but only the beginning of my life’s work. I know they mean well, but whilst deep in the throes of dissertation writing—when my thoughts are sticky and globby, when I can’t understand the article I just read, when I’m not making sense to myself anymore—I think, “And this is only the beginning?!”
In a way, though, this kind of encouragement is misleading. The dissertation is an end of sorts. It’s the culmination of years of study, research, and fieldwork. It’s a liminal space (oh no, that word!), a place of becoming. One final rite of passage as a student. And as such, it’s freaking me out.
One thing I have learned is that everybody has their own process for getting through it. That seems so trite, just written out like that, but it’s actually a very powerful statement if you really believe it. And I really believe that everyone has to find that process for themselves. You can get advice from others and maybe some of that advice will help you, but everyone has different circumstances and ways they work best. I had a professor tell me once, very defensively, that they stayed up all night for months to work on their dissertation. This person had kids and a job and could only work at night. That was their process, and there was no need to be defensive about it. I can’t work like that, but for a very long time, I felt I must be doing something wrong because I didn’t work like that. I’ll pull six- and seven-hour writing stints during the day, but my brain shuts down at 10pm. I also get physically sick and emotionally depressed if I stay up too late. But because this was a professor and someone I admire, I thought their process should be my process. Heck, I thought it might even need to be my process if I wanted to succeed.
One of my cohort was writing his dissertation just a year or so ago. He and I and another friend would meet weekly to help each other through various writing projects. After grueling, two-hour sessions that ended around 10pm, this friend would sign off saying he was planning on writing for another hour or so. And I would start to panic. After a day of writing and two hours of intellectual arguments about writing, I was in no shape to keep writing. How could he keep going? Was I falling behind? Did this mean it would take me longer to finish? Should I push myself even harder, throwing mental and physical health to wind, counting on finishing the dissertation earlier to save me? I started hating anything that took me away from dissertation writing. And I mean anything: going for walks, playing in gamelan, showering. If it wasn’t dissertation related, I felt guilty. I felt I was indulging. I felt I was letting everybody down by wasting my time doing nothing.
And I was doing it to myself. Granted, writing a dissertation takes a great deal of self-discipline because we’re generally no longer taking classes. I don’t have an external schedule organizing my progress, so it all has to come from me. But the healthy self-discipline started to degrade into fanatical worry and stress.
When I was an undergrad, I remember hearing professors talk about colleagues and friends who had been broken by their PhD experiences. At the time, I had no idea what they were talking about. School was challenging to be sure, but how could a process of learning break someone? As I have moved through my master’s and into my PhD program, however, I’ve seen firsthand how this can happen. And I’ve seen the results: Professors who resent their students. People who’ve dedicated their lives to a dream giving up that dream to do anything else. People who feel like failures even when they succeed.
I don’t know if there is some mythical “right” way to write a dissertation and finish a PhD program. I hope I haven’t learned too late that my process is ok. That it doesn’t have to be anyone else’s process. That I can push myself without breaking myself.