dissertation DOCTOR
Avoiding the Dissertation


Jayne Higgins, Northern Illinois University

My pencils could not be sharper. My house could not be cleaner. My students have never been better taught, and I even have all the grading caught up. Although I have spent many hours at the library and have amassed an impressive array (if I do say so myself) of research, I still find myself staring at a blank computer screen. You might say I have writer's block, and it will eventually clear, but I know this condition as a specialized form of that malady. There is a symptom I didn't mention- I go to any lengths to avoid my dissertation director in the hallways of the English Department. I have a bad case of Dissertation Avoidance Complex or the dreaded DAC.

DAC, as I like to think of it, comes to most who pass the rigors of doctoral pre-lims and enter into the suddenly self-dependent world of the writing of the almighty dissertation. We all know that we have one more step in the process to complete. Most of us in English, as we are well-trained writers, do not even dread the writing itself. Rather, the avoidance comes with the actual starting of the project. I think that a whole complex of excuses, real and imagined, come into play at that point of the process.

In my case, I think I worked so hard and worried so much about the exams themselves that I just couldn't expend more energy to begin the writing process. My mind and spirit are a bit bruised from three long years of coursework beyond the Master's degree as well as another long year spent preparing for exams. In the courts, pleading mental anguish reaps big monetary awards; in the English department, mental anguish is an accepted part of the process. My professors (other than the aforementioned director) smile and nod when they ask how the dissertation is coming, and I begin to talk of the weather, or an upcoming conference, or an article I am working on--anything but the dissertation. They murmur encouragement when I speak at length on the wonders of the research I have accomplished. And then they ask the dreaded question. When do you hope to finish? Finish, I think? Finish? I haven't even started!

DAC is a sneaky disease. It can be hidden in so many ways. I can find solid reasons to coach my daughter' s softball team. (You may want to substitute niece or nephew or another sport.) Why, I spent months volunteering for community groups that were functioning just fine without my help but which I was convinced could not go on without me. I told myself that I had neglected my family and my community for so many years while in grad school that I must now give them the quality time they had missed. My family and my community probably just wished I would go back to writing and leave them in peace.

As a Teaching Assistant, I have had to teach continually more advanced levels of courses while accomplishing my own research and writing. Although I love my students, they have become unwitting participants in my syndrome. I can no longer justify to myself taking a month to turn graded papers back to them. I have learned, as my studies have progressed, to be a much more effective teacher. I have learned the value of preparation. I have learned the effectiveness as a learning tool of the well-graded paper with extensive comments. Besides, all that grading and preparation time gives me a wonderful excuse not to work on my dissertation. In my DAC-muddled mind, it is a win-win situation.

In the throes of DAC, I could even avoid actual writing by finding dissertation-related tasks that kept me from the real work. While working on my prospectus for the project, I could always find a new angle I had not considered. I could always find solace in the library stacks and the new and exciting materials (probably irrelevant) I was finding. I could find a new critic who shed new light on my subject, and whom I could not ignore and must read exhaustively. I could wait a couple of extra weeks while interlibrary loan found that obscure book without which I could not begin. In short, everything became more important than actually writing a real dissertation.

The process of the dissertation is a sort of bildungsroman of its own. 'Mat's a big English term I learned while I was in the library stacks lost in a DAC daze. It means a coming of age story, and that is exactly what the process of dissertation is meant to be. It is a coming of age in the profession of English. I have taught; I have read and researched; I have written so many twenty-page papers my head is foggy with the thought; and I should be ready to enter the ranks of those who have gone before me on the same path. Perhaps that thought is part of what makes me stall. Am I really ready? Am I good enough? Have I read enough? I know my answers should be yes, but then I always meet another grad student who has read more, written more, presented more, and I rush back to my computer to re-work that prospectus one more time.

After all, I want this dissertation to be perfect. I know that I am a great writer, just waiting to emerge into the academic spotlight. In my head, I have written and re-written the whole thing many times. I have added and rearranged chapters. I have thought of new, brilliant transitional passages. I know if I really start, the whole thing will just begin to flow like a stream cut loose from its swollen banks. Or so I believe in my DAC delirium. In reality, my computer file marked "disschptr1" V is still blank.

There is also the question of the part-time job. Whether it involves adjunct teaching at local community colleges, writing for businesses, editing for publishers, or even working at the local public library, the part-time job is both a necessity and a curse for most graduate students. Many departments tell us we cannot hold jobs other than our teaching assignments. It is the most open secret in the department that most of us do have part-time jobs despite these warnings. In their wisdom, these well-meaning graduate directors and department chairs know that working extra hours will just compound the more serious symptoms of DAC. I suspect they know from their own like experiences. The reality of the situation, however, comes down to paychecks inadequate to pay the rent and the utilities every month. Food, beyond ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese, becomes a luxury. I have been in grad school for almost seven years now. The economic facts of my family don't allow me to subsist on only the TA salary. I have, at one time or another, held each of the jobs mentioned. I could not have stayed in grad school without them. In the worst of my DAC days, however, I used the paycheck excuse to do anything but write my dissertation. I picked up some wonderful business writing jobs, and I worked extra shifts at the library for anyone who asked. I reveled in the extra paychecks, but shortsightedly ignored the larger one waiting for me if I can just finish.

That brings me to the jobs prospects in the teaching of college English. They are certainly not great. The longer I stay in the womb of my friendly English department, the longer I avoid the fray. The realities of the profession dictate that we must pad those vitas with publications and presentations. Even if we do, though, we will have a tough fight for a real tenure-track job. I cling to the vestiges of DAC in part to avoid the confrontations I know lie ahead. At a certain point, the writing of articles (including the one you are reading) becomes part of the complex. Although I need these credits on my vita, the more I send out, the longer I can avoid writing that other thing I should be writing instead.

There is, however, hope. I have begun to shake off this dreaded, cursed disease and begun actual writing. I have quit avoiding my dissertation director and started meeting his deadlines. My family has told me I must finish, or they will be forced to take drastic action -- like my colleague's wife who actually moved out and left him until he finished. I have gotten beyond sharpening pencils and doing research, and begun to pull all of it together into a coherent whole. I have done all these things because I have realized that putting it off only postpones the inevitable, and I am really ready to move on. But the bottom line? The thing I dread more than writing my dissertation is another year, or even two, as a graduate student with a graduate student's income. That fact, in itself, has given me the fresh motivation to leave my state of DAC and take my place in the profession for which I have worked for so long and which I believe I now deserve -- as soon as I actually finish my dissertation.



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Reprinted with permission from Academic Exchange Quarterly, Summer 2000 pp. 126-128.

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