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Flourish September 2005

vol. 1, no. 7

I know someone who is planning on filing her dissertation this Tuesday, let's call her Liz. I've watched her through the process and learned a lot from it so I thought it would make a good story for us this month's Flourish.

About this time last year Liz received a twelve-month fellowship with one condition: she had to finish her dissertation within a year. It would be a real challenge, since she had an outline for the dissertation and some data, but no actual chapters. Still, she had been in graduate school a while and wanted to be done. So, she made a plan.

First, she decided to continue teaching, since she was developing some relationships with local colleges that might hire her after she was done. But she made sure that all were classes she had taught before and that met in the evening or on the weekend. That way, she kept her days for writing, when she was freshest. As the year went along she found that this decision was a good one. Writing the dissertation involved spending so much time at home that it was good to get out and see other human beings once or twice a week. It also meant she had to manage her time efficiently.

Second, she made a monthly schedule, putting down the exact days when she would send each chapter draft to her committee. She gave herself five weeks for each. Third, Liz wrote down an exact date when she intended to file, the day after Labor Day, this September 6. Fourth, she made a daily schedule: get up, drink a pot of tea, gather wits, exercise for forty-five minutes, and write through the morning, about three or four hours. If she had the energy, she could write for another hour in the afternoon, but that time was scheduled for teaching prep or reading. Liz wanted to set up a sustainable writing pace, one that wouldn't burn her out in a month.

And then she got started. Some days she found it difficult to stick to the plan, she had little energy or “just couldn't face it.” Sometimes she had energy, but her thoughts didn't come together so she became frustrated. Most days, though, she wrote as planned. On the days when she couldn't, she sometimes managed to organize her files. Although it seemed like busy work at the time, she found that adding relevant articles and notes to topic binders made a real difference as the year went along.

After the first month, when the time came to send the first chapter draft to her advisor, Liz started to get anxious. She had been working steadily on the chapter, but knew how many flaws it had. “I can't send this!” she told me. “It's terrible.” Liz thought very highly of her advisor and didn't want the advisor to think badly of her. “If I had just another month, I know this chapter would be so much better and she wouldn't think I was an idiot.” At the same time, Liz knew that delaying would affect her final deadline.

We agreed, too, that withholding writing from dissertation advisors isn't a very good way to “manage” them. Inundating them with writing is better. That is, keep advisors focused on what they aren't doing for you (reading and responding) rather than on what you aren't doing for them (writing). Besides, it's better to get any severe critiques early on, when you can do something about them, than at the end, when you can't. Finally, after a year of receiving and reading a steady stream of chapters, an advisor is unlikely to say, “Wait! This is terrible, rewrite all of it!”

So, Liz started sending her chapters to her advisor. It was tough; the first criticisms, although fair, took some real work for Liz to absorb. Liz didn't always make her exact deadline (in fact, she was frequently a week or even two behind). But she kept sending chapters. And she kept up her daily schedule of writing for several hours in the morning. After about seven months of this, she had six of the seven chapters drafted and a good sense of what she needed to do to revise them. “I have a dissertation!” she thought. Her advisor agreed. Liz started to revise the six chapters, leaving the seventh chapter for later, since she had a good outline for it and knew how it should read.

About nine months in, her relationship with her advisor shifted. The more Liz wrote, the more ownership she felt of the dissertation and the more she saw herself as the expert on it. When her advisor's comments came back, she didn't just follow them exactly but thought carefully about them. The day came when the advisor offered a critique of one section, and Liz wrote back defending it in a short but firm email. The advisor saw her point.

About two months before the dissertation was due, Liz started to pick up the pace. She had done enough work that it was possible to actually file by her deadline. Feeling the pressure increase, she regularly started waking up at three in the morning. Instead of fighting it, she would get up and write, making a point to go to bed earlier. She was now steadily writing about six hours a day, something that would have been impossible at the beginning of the year. Her advisor was also steadily giving her feedback.

About a month before the dissertation was due, I gave her a warning, based on my own experience finishing my first book. “It's like the universe knows that you are about to accomplish something big and causes chaos,” I told her. “Stop answering your phone.” She laughed, but the very next day an old friend got angry with her over something small and a precious day was lost to stewing and trying to get past stewing. Then friends started to drop by, “Just to say hi--see how you're doing. We haven't seen you in forever!” and would end up staying for two hours during prime writing time. Then someone from out of town wanted to stay on her couch for two days. All perfectly innocent and all costing precious hours and energy. For the first time in her life, Liz found herself being firm. No, no, no.

About two weeks before the dissertation was due, disaster struck. Liz sent her seventh chapter to her advisor. Liz knew it was the weakest of the chapters, having received the least amount of work, but she was hoping to whip it into shape in the time left. The advisor didn't agree. Too much work remained, the advisor said, either cut the chapter entirely or change the deadline. Agony!

At first Liz said she would cut it, but the more she thought about it, the worse she felt. It was such an important chapter, the one where she pulled things together. But moving the deadline was impossible too, she had to finish by September 6 given the terms of her fellowship. It didn't matter to her that others had gotten the same fellowship and were nowhere close to finishing their dissertation. Having integrity was important to her. Plus intense feelings of failure welled up whenever Liz thought about changing the September 6 deadline.

What to do? What to do? In How to Write Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day (Owl Books, 1998), Joan Bolker recommends that if you need just one more week to file, ask for it! Advisors and administrators can help if you really are on the verge of filing but run into some snag. So, yesterday, Liz called the department and asked what the absolute last date was for filing and … it was September 29 not September 6! Saved!

So, what will happen? Will Liz file by her new deadline of September 29? Will some new snafu turn up? I'll let you know in the next Flourish!!