And now, the end is near…

…and so I fear… I really, really fear the dissertation afterlife. It’s been a huge part of my life for the past two years, plus that year when I pretty much searched between furniture cushions and under rocks for a topic. For the past 750-or-so days I have woken up thinking about the dissertation: a work-in-progress, a huge mess, a to-do list that never ends. In a few days, it will be submitted. A few weeks later, I hope to successfully defend it. What will it be like the day after that?

Before facing that question, I’ve been working on the idea that the dissertation will never really be finished. There will always be a to-do list; things I’d like to improve about it, things I’d like to do differently, possible extensions… I feel like I owe it to myself to leave academe on a high note. If this is the last mark I make in social science research, I’d like it to be a damn fine one. Besides, I’m a perfectionist. I like to get it right. I’m always aiming for the best.  I can’t deny that a few times, I’ve liked being the best more than I’ve liked an activity itself.  That’s probably what got me into this mess in the first place. My perfectionism affects the dissertation through an incessant urge to check my data for coding errors, daily Google Scholar searches for papers contradicting my theses, countless paragraphs obliterated and then rewritten with the same idea. Sometimes I wonder how different these paragraphs are from each other. I suspect not much. In any case, there is a tension between this feeling and my urge to move on and put this PhD thing behind me.

There’s also the insecurity that comes from having so little feedback from my committee.  Before, I was their top priority. Their reputation and TNRU’s reputation would have benefited from my performance in the academic job market and as a researcher, so I had their full attention. Now, because they are disappointed, because they don’t see how my future career could benefit them, and because there are so many other promising students in the department who have not betrayed them like I have,  I got moved to the back of the classroom. The bottom of the pile.

My new position has taken a while to get used to. My committee’s evaluation of my research has determined my PhD path, but my opus magnum is being made in the dark. “Popping in” to talk to committee members has been a small-talk disaster. Scheduled meetings haven’t been better –my questions are shrugged off or dismissed with dull comments. Emailed drafts have gone unacknowledged. Before, I thought that dissertation writing was a very lonely experience, but this new loneliness doesn’t compare. I don’t resent this. I really don’t. I understand why I am no longer a priority. I’m just saying it’s tough. Ultimately, I’m afraid that one day they will decide to see my work and be even more disappointed, or find horrible mistakes.

Side note: I think it’s funny that dissertations are so frequently viewed as opera magna. Haven’t we all heard someone say “it’s not like this is a dissertation!” when someone is putting too much thought into something? Academically, though, the dissertation seems to be a huge deal and the one printed piece of research all scholars wish to keep out of everyone’s sight. Everyone I talk to hates theirs, and some will admit to these being less-than-ideal works that were approved because of a job offer.

In closing, this “finishing up” stage of the PhD took me by surprise. I think it’s the down side of my “one day at a time” approach to my past years in academe. From now till D day, I repeat:

Don’t get it right. Get it written

A good dissertation is a defended dissertation

Hey, you’re okay. You’ll be fine. Just breathe

(the last one is from Ze Frank’s “chillout song”. It’s here)



  1. apostropheisha

    The day after my dissertation defense was uneventful. My entire dissertation defense was uneventful too. I think that as dissertators, we work the idea of a defense up in our minds as the culmination of that opera magna you describe. Don’t worry about the people who can’t understand your decision. They’re so enmeshed in the academic cult mentality that they don’t understand how another life is possible. I would see if I could mend my relationship with them a bit so that I could have some job references, but when you feel that something is not for you, you are wise to leave it. Life is too short.

  2. Barry Beazley

    Really unhealthy preoccupation. Time to get out in the world and start DOING something meaningful? Higher Ed is overrated

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