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6 Things Your Dissertation Director Wishes You Knew

(photo by Drew Coffman via Flickr/CC)

1. Only you can figure out how to manage your personal and emotional life; as advisers we can listen, challenge comfort, and offer guidance. The guidance we can offer most effectively is of the professional sort.

You must handle your domestic conflicts in the appropriate arena while keeping a check on how they affect your productivity.  Please don’t ask us to assist you with anything apart from your work too often, too regularly, or with too much of an emphasis on the thought that we are somehow responsible for getting you into this in the first place (we didn’t get you “with doctorate” the way some fly-by-night lover might get a woman “with child”).

It’s imperative that you learn to find out what works for you and this is the time to learn it. This is the best place to practice it. Trust me on this one: the obstacles only increase and become trickier as you get older. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that once you reach some sparkly-rainbow goal–a job, a full-time job, a tenure-track-job, tenure, full-professorship, a named-chair, a corner office above ground–the anxieties will dissipate or disappear. They might dress better and keep you awake at night on better sheets, but if you learn how to work with your stress now, you’ll be thankful later on.

2. When writing your dissertation, you’ll need to discover and practice a set of very specific strategies that’ll help you push through whatever the next piece of work happens to be–that next piece, especially, that you simply can’t bear to face.

While it might be terrifying for you to consider this early in your professional life, you’re probably going to rely on precisely the same sorts of strategies, strengths, tricks, prompts, and methods of persuasion when you’re sitting down to write your second book. And your fifth.

3. It is not our job to keep you on schedule. It’s our job to help set a schedule and, when you hit rough patches, help you to meet it.

4. We do not feel the same away about all of our students. Just because we took our last advisee to dinner, does not necessarily mean that we are going to dine with you once a month. But we will work hard to make sure that we treat you fairly and with equal attention and professional respect. We like your work, we admire your intelligence and your willingness to embark on the daunting task of writing a dissertation. We are committed to helping you achieve every measure of success.

But working together doesn’t necessarily mean that we are going to be eternal friends. Just as happens in every other work relationship, these sorts of professional connections can and often do lead to more chummy ones—but not all of them do.

5. Stop wasting your time by calling time-wasting by another name.  If you’re in a support group but the support group only serves to make you anxious, insecure, or cynical, for example, tender your polite resignation and spend the time more effectively: by writing.

If your research has become a series of increasingly diminishing returns in the study of irrelevant minutiae, then stop reading and start writing.

If you spend time talking to everybody about the time you spend doing your work or about all the problems you have doing your work instead of actually doing your work, then take yourself out of the café or bar, get yourself out of the library carrel that traps you, leave where you are, take yourself offline, and simply sit in front of the keyboard. Start writing.

Set yourself a clock if you need to. Pretend you’re doing a timed exam. Do whatever works for you. Give us something to help with so we can help you get yourself closer to doing the good work you’re meant to do and get you closer to completing your degree.

6. The reason we’re working with you is that we want you to succeed. If we stopped believing there was a possibility that you’d finish, we’d have one of those long hard talks over a cup of coffee. They happen all the time; many people don’t finish their degrees. But if we continue to be your adviser, it means we continue to think about you and worry about you. You might not believe it, but you actually occupy lot of space in our heads. We’re the ones who know how hard you’re working; we want to help you get it right.

But you have to do it.

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