I've witness 3 defense failures at my university, in different departments. In each case the student was unproductive, had a fairly adversarial relationship with their PI and voided communicating them. Two of them had failed their candidacy exam, and really should have been dismissed from their program thens, but they both managed to scrape a pass on the re-examination.
All 3 of these students insisted on defending against the advice of their PI, who eventually gave in hoping this would either result in the student learning a lesson and applying themselves more diligently or just going away forever.
Post-failure, two of the three then spent 6-12 months fighting to get the result overturned or invalidated, rather than revise their dissertations substantially and produce something worth a pass. Regrettably, they both made enough noise and trouble and managed to push the right political buttons to have their failing results overturned. They received doctorates they didn't deserve, but were told to please not attend graduation. There was a lot of ill will in their departments towards them, especially from their peers.
The third student spent several weeks crying all over the university administration about how mean her PI was and trying to affiliate with another lab. I had to sit her down and explain you can't lab hop to get the exam results you want, and definitely not in your fifth year. She cried for a few more days, but finally accepted the result and left with no degree and a lot of mutterings about her mean her PI was for telling her to stop watching movies in the lab when she should be working.
The first 5 months of 2017 are kinda a blur to me.
I started data collection on January 3rd, 2017 and successfully defended my dissertation on April 11th, 2017. I don’t suggest this timeline to anyone.
I sometimes have difficulty believing that I am Dr. Lacy. I get questions all the time about the process.
Do I have any advice to give?
What did I wish I knew before starting the process?
The dissertation process is a very individualized process. This is a cliche response and a very true response. However, there are some things I’ve learned from this experience that I believe can help others.
Here are the 4 unexpected things I learned from writing my dissertation:
Make the decision to complete your dissertation.
Your dissertation is not happening to you. No one can make you complete it. The proposal is just the beginning. Getting to the dissertation defense is the part where it is all on you. The dissertation is the ultimate test in how bad you want to be #PhinisheD. You have to make the commitment EVERYDAY that this is what you want. It will be lonely. It will make you question if you really NEED this degree. Life will continue to happen. There will be celebrations, heartache, and everything happening in between that will make you question this process. You may have to miss some things, people, or events. How bad do you want it? It also doesn’t have to be all about sacrifice. It could also be the most enjoyable experience in your life. However, it is up to you make those decisions.
Write every day.
No doubt you’ve probably heard this often since beginning the doctoral process. It is especially true for the dissertation process. Writing every day is not only about sharpening your writing skills. Writing every day doesn’t mean just academic writing. Write whatever comes to mind. Writing can be therapeutic, reflective. Writing can capture your thoughts about what is happening with data collection, data analysis, your position on what is happening, and your life. You will not be able to hold all these thoughts in your head and accurately recall them later when you need them. Writing everyday will also develop your discipline in being able to sit and write for long periods of time, which you definitely need to do during this process.
Reading is also a part of writing. Reading will improve your writing. It is especially helpful to read as many dissertations as you can, particularly paying special attention to chapter 3 and 5. These are the chapters that are difficult for most. Chapter 3 is about outlining your plan and needs a level of detail that beginner researchers are not used to providing. Chapter 5 is explaining what should be done with this data. The “what now”. Chapter 5 is also the end of a tiring process. Your brain is done and over it. Strengthening these chapters requires reading other examples and giving yourself time to work through it.
Your advisor is on this journey with you; it’s not just about you and your timeline.
I have the BEST ADVISOR in the world and I dare you to challenge me on this. #FightMe
Seriously, I couldn’t have asked for a better advisor. In November 2016, after I defended my prospectus, she informed me that I would be graduating in May 2017 instead of August 2017 like I planned. She then proceeded to send out a direct and clear email to all of her advisees outlining that she will not be putting up with any foolishness and that there are some strict deadlines to be met.
“I think you’re planning to graduate in May, so I wanted to review these deadlines with you and give you something to work toward from my end. As you all know, I strive to be direct, clear, and good with boundaries and not make our emergencies other people’s (e.g., your committee!) emergencies. I don’t want to sound like a jerk, yet I also don’t want there to be surprises later, so I want to say up front that for me, there is no compromising on the two weeks time required for your committee to review the dissertation and then if you have edits to make (and you will – everyone does!), you need time to make those. In some cases, committees will want to see your edits before submitting them to the graduate school, which will mean you need even more time. I have been on too many committees where students have expected me to drop everything and review their dissertations as soon as I get them and I don’t want to put other people in that position, so we won’t be doing that! Give yourself (and the people supporting you) plenty of time!” Dr. Chris Linder
This means that a completed draft of my dissertation had to be completed by March 6, 2017. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I didn’t. I made it. The truth is I forgot that advisors are also being evaluated on their advisees. This year, my advisor would hood her first Ph.D. students and she waited (over) 4 years to do so
Redefine your personal understanding of productivity.
It took 3 hours to write chapter 3, 1 day to write chapter 1, and three months to write chapter 2. I started my proposal June 2016 and had a completed draft in September. I completed data collection February 6th, 2017. Chapter 4 was due two weeks after. Chapter 5 due on March 6th, 2017. If you’re following along with the math then you know there is a lot of time in between. Writing is a process (see point 2). The pressure was on! Plenty of days where I felt in the groove. Other days I cried, laughed, or just couldn’t even look at my laptop. And all of that had to be okay. There was no other choice. I just told myself to keep moving forward. I didn’t beat myself up about “wasting time”. I had no time to think about if it was perfect and I honestly believe my dissertation is better for it. Because the beauty is in the editing process. First drafts are meant to be shitty. No (successful) writer exists in isolation.
Completing a dissertation is more of a mental exercise than it is about actually writing 200 pages (arbitrary number). Some days the writing will just flow. Other days you will spend five hours staring at your screen. Both are productive. Have kind and realistic expectations of yourself. There is no “should” “supposed to be” or “right way” to this process. Already there is enough pressure and expectation built in this process, try not to put extra on yourself. Cry if you need to, have that shot of Crown, spend hours on Facebook, re-watch all 13 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. It’s all a part of the process. You will need breaks. Just don’t stay there too long.
There is so much more I could say about lessons learned. These four lessons had the most impact. My dissertation allowed me to connect more with beautiful souls who graciously shared their time and their stories with me and each other. The beginning of the year was more of a spiritual journey where I learned about who I am as a writer, a researcher, a person and who I want to be in the future.
Dr. Marvette Lacy currently resides in Milwaukee, WI where she is the Women’s Resource Center Director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She also works with graduate students to better understand qualitative research. Need help with your dissertation or research assignment? Sign up here for a free 30-minute consultation.
Tags:DissertationsDoctoral StudyGraduate SchoolPhD CompletionPreparationWriting