Dissertation Interruptus: Seven Cautionary Tales

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A guest post by Noelle Sterne.

From my longtime academic coaching and editing practice guiding doctoral candidates through the peaks and gullies of completing their dissertations, I have noticed that women in doctoral programs can easily become diverted by compassion for others in trouble. Well-meaning decisions and actions may result in calamitous consequences to a dissertation.

Men candidates may succumb also. Although my experience has been primarily with women, if you are a man reading this, you may recognize some of these scenarios. In these seven stories of doctoral candidates (names and identifying details changed for their protection), you will see that tender-hearted consideration at the wrong times dangerously waylaid dissertation progress. Perhaps these tales will help you stick to your decisions to let no major interruptions complete your dreamed-of doctorate.

Marcy’s House

Marcy had just reached a major milestone: approval of her dissertation proposal. Her husband found a piece of land at a bargain price and wanted to build a house together. Marcy’s next dissertation step should have been to collect her data. Instead, she collected designs and architectural plans and interviewed contractors for their house—and took a leave from her studies.

When they hired a builder, Marcy thought she could get back to her dissertation as her husband held down his office job. But . . . she became the general contractor of the general contractor. Her days and nights were filled with supervising every square inch of the building process. I don’t know if Marcy ever reentered the university, finished her dissertation or got her degree.

Tina’s Clock

Tina entered a doctoral program “late,” as she called it. She and her husband wanted to start a family, and she feared her biological clock was ticking faster than the doctoral statute of limitations. Tina became pregnant and, reading every book she could find on “academic mommies,” with great motivation worked on her dissertation until the eighth month. Then she withdrew from the university for “only a year,” she promised me, “until I can get the kid into pre-pre-school.”

I received the birth announcement of a beautiful baby boy. Tina, though, underestimated the demands of motherhood at the same time as pursuing her doctorate. I didn’t hear from Tina for six years. When Matthew was seven, she reenrolled at the university. Her statute had run out and she was forced to start from the beginning. She spent more time and money to retake the required courses before resuming her dissertation. She rehired me to help her, she said, regain motivation and momentum and plow through her chapters.

Elizabeth’s Son

Grown children can also pull. Elizabeth’s son had been let go from his firm and needed financial help while he looked for another job. Elizabeth had been making steady progress in her dissertation and we both anticipated the finish line in a few months. However, she gave her son a credit card to “get over the hump,” she told me. Unfortunately, the hump lasted for two years and Elizabeth paid his bills with the money she’d set aside for tuition. When she saw his latest bill, she put her foot down and cut the card up. But her dissertation had been delayed and she had great trouble getting back into the scholarly mindset.

Brenda’s Granddaughter

After years as a high school principal and close to retirement, Brenda finally took the doctoral plunge, a lifelong dream. She enthusiastically completed the coursework and did preliminary research on her dissertation topic. Then her married daughter had a baby girl, who in her first month developed breathing difficulties. With the first of several operations scheduled, the baby’s life seemed in danger.

Brenda raced out to the Midwest to comfort her daughter and care for the baby. She stayed for three years. When the child eventually regained health, Brenda returned. But her earlier degree fervor had dissipated and instead of putting “Ph.D.” after her name, the only letters she could use are ABD (All But Dissertation).

Jenny’s Parents

Jenny lived on the West Coast. With elderly parents on the East Coast, Jenny gave up a six-figure job and moved back to her family home to take care of them. She also took a clerical job, the first thing she could find. Her doctoral program was stalled, but to her credit, she continued slowly. Somehow she fit in her work between her 9-to-5 job, ferrying her parents to incessant doctors’ visits and policing their medications. The last I knew, Jenny was still in the early stages of her dissertation proposal and her parents were thriving.

Anne’s Romance

The excitement of a new romance has waylaid more than one dissertation writer. When Anne moved to a suburban development, one of her neighbors was a helpful and attractive man who became a friend. As he introduced her to the mysteries of crabgrass and weed killers, they became more than friends.

Anne felt elated and young. Between dinners on each other’s verandas and forays together to the home supplies store, she doggedly kept chipping away at her dissertation. Soon, though, Anne and her lover combined their homes and lives.

She applied for and got two extensions. As the second ended, Anne started collecting her dissertation materials. Her lover, who had a master’s, became more distant. She told me in tears that he admitted feeling threatened by her imminent advanced degree. Anne was shocked but wasn’t willing to give up her goal. They broke up.

Anne was too depressed to think about school. She applied for another extension, her third. Within a month of it ending, she resumed her dissertation work but she had great trouble concentrating. Anne withdrew, sold her suburban house, and moved to another state. No degree.

Claudia’s “Husband”

Claudia lived through one of the most dramatic examples I’ve encountered of misguided judgment and compassion. A bright single woman with a brighter future, she went back to school to complete her master’s when she was 32 and came to me feeling shaky about the academic requirements. Claudia’s goal was to leave the deadening administrative job she’d held for years so she could teach in college.

With no family responsibilities and great excitement, Claudia whipped through the master’s coursework and thesis. We rejoiced on her acceptance to the doctoral program, and she was able to arrange her work schedule to take the required courses during the day. She finished the courses quickly and began the dissertation. I helped her organize her first two chapters, and we were both elated at her positive committee feedback. She promised to get her draft back to me for editing in two weeks.

Two weeks came. No draft. I emailed her with a gentle reminder. No response. At three weeks, I called. On her answering machine I left a slightly less gentle reminder. I then phoned her office, got her voicemail, and left an even less gentle reminder.

In the fourth week, Claudia called. She didn’t mention her dissertation at all. Instead, she reeled out a complicated story about having to help a friend. The friend’s brother was living in their home country, a warring African nation, and his life was in great danger. They needed to bring him out and couldn’t get the appropriate visa, so the only way he could enter the U.S. was by marriage. Claudia felt she “owed” it to her friend to help.

She married the brother—I know this sounds like a supermarket novel but it’s true. He came here and they worked out some way of looking like they lived together. But additional legal problems surfaced. Now there was the possibility that he would be deported and they feared for his life. Claudia too was legally vulnerable.

She told me, “I’ll be embroiled in this for a long time. I’ve got three lawyers working on it.” She took a deep breath. “My friend is devastated. I can’t desert her now.”

When I last I heard from Claudia she was plodding along in her dead-end job, collecting retirement credits and frustrations and probably seeing her dream career recede like low tide. Several years after beginning the program, she was still ABD and seemed to have lost heart.

Selfish?

No one can argue with a wife’s, mother’s, grandmother’s, daughter’s, partner’s, or friend’s love and concern. But there’s a time and place to say yes and a time and place to say no. If an apparently dire situation entices you, stop and think. Think about your own goals and desires and the life-altering consequences to you of helping. Think about how you’ll feel quitting the dissertation—that’s what it is.

Alternatives

If you face a situation, or are tempted by one like these I’ve described, think again. Learn from them (yes, it can happen to you) and talk to someone you trust. Like the candidates in the stories above, what may seem at first like a harmless little pause in your doctoral program or dissertation or a favor to a loved one can stretch to a permanent break that will never get you your degree.

Think about other options than your total involvement for your significant others in need. Get help if you need to. Talk with a neutral other person; a dialogue can open up possibilities and resources you may not have thought of. Explore many resources, including other family members and agencies. Claudia, for example, might have been persuaded to help her friend without making such a radical move that bred more entangled problems than propagating octopuses.

Granted, saying “no” may be very hard. You can explain why you’re saying no (although often any explanation doesn’t convince). Practice gently refusing, especially when you can offer alternatives. Sometimes, saying no is the kindest thing you can do. Elizabeth may have fed her son’s weakness by giving him a credit card rather than, in AA terms, practicing “tough love.”

You can also make promises for the future, A.D. (After Degree)—a vacation together, an extended visit, special dates, offers of help that are particularly meaningful to the other person.

Take Yourself Seriously

If you really want to complete your dissertation, take it seriously, like any large, important project. It needs time, concentration and focus. You’re an athlete in training: no excessive booze, no late nights, no DIY massive projects, no offering to host a 30-guest Thanksgiving, whirlwind romances, or impulsive marriage proposals or acceptances.

When you’re tempted to anything that will take you away from the dissertation for more than an hour, or at most an afternoon, reconsider. If you’re drawn to put well-meaning help ahead of your long-dreamed-of-and-revved-up doctoral program, please heed these cautionary tales.

What would be the extent of your involvement, the probable consequences of your actions, and the costs to you in time, effort, energy, emotional and physical investment, depletion, and money?

Will anyone will be really harmed by your declining?

Most importantly, remember you haven’t lost your compassion for others. You’ve channeled it toward yourself and will come out stronger for it. For all you know, when those who don’t receive your help seek other solutions, they may come out stronger too. And more—you will honor your desire to complete your dissertation and, finally, will achieve your precious and hard-won doctorate.

Adapted from “Dissertation Interruptus: Seven Cautionary Tales,” Women in Higher Education, vol. 23, no. 10, October 2014, pp. 16, 17, 19.

Author, editor, writing coach, dissertation nurturer, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne publishes writing craft, spiritual articles, stories, and essays in print and online. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelleassists doctoral candidates in completing their dissertations (finally). Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com.

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