The Dissertation Bottleneck

There are a lot of weird things about dissertations. Some of them are just inherent in the writing process (#writingisweird) but some of them have to do with the fact that dissertations are an especially difficult genre of writing.

If you are in a PhD program, or grad school generally, chances are your social media is filled with memes about the oddities of grad school and dissertation writing, but as much as grad students love to discuss how f*ing weird grad school is we rarely discuss the absolute weirdest things about writing a dissertation: The Dissertation Bottleneck.

The Dissertation Bottleneck is the term I’ve given to the fact that no single part of the dissertation process prepares you for any other part of the dissertation process.

We’ve talked about the many oddities of the dissertation process before, particularly because it is one of the few truly medieval processes left in modern culture. Even among the modern apprenticeships the PhD process is unique in that each separate part of the process requires a completely new skill set.

In an ideal world, your committee, and particularly your advisor, would be able to mentor you as you transition from stage to stage of the process. But this is not an ideal world and faculty are overworked and overwhelmed. In fact, when coming up with the idea for this website, several faculty said the thing that there grad students most needed was a guide on how to transition from coursework to exams to prospectus to dissertation writing to defense. So, due to the dictates of capitalism I have jumped into the breach!

Below is a brief description of each of the four parts of the process, from coursework through defense:

Course Work: This is the most familiar part of the PhD process. If you are in a PhD program it’s probably because you are a good student who likes learning. If you did a Master’s before your PhD program your two years of course work will feel similar to your MA program in many respects. If you’ve gone straight from undergrad to a PhD program, or if you are coming to a PhD program after working for a while, the course work portion of your PhD will feel most familiar to your previous experiences as a student. There may be some differences in the amount of material you are expected to cover and the metrics by which you are evaluated but this part of the process is learning in classes. You can do this, for sure.

The dissertation bottleneck effect is most pronounced near the end of coursework. The entire point of coursework is to prepare you to move beyond coursework. By your last semester of courses you’ll feel frustrated with reading other people’s work. You’ll have a broad sense of your field and where your work falls within it. You’ll be looking forward to starting your own research.

You will celebrate turning in your last seminar paper, and you should, but you will come to miss the structure and relative simplicity of coursework.

Prelims/Exams/Fields: In brief, your preliminary exams, or prelims are the time at which your committee assesses whether or not you are familiar with the fields in which you wish to contribute as a scholar. We actually had a whole series on how to prep for prelims and, though we say it ourselves, it holds up pretty well. If you want to know more about what prelims are we recommend this post.

What’s important for this post is that the entire prelim process is drastically different from what you’ve done before and is, typically, not explained well.

The biggest connection between prelims and coursework is that prelims can be partially understood as your own ideal course–the course you would put together for yourself to prepare you for your dissertation. Then you read all the books (not really) and take a test on their concepts.

By the time you’re done with prelims you should be able to articulate the major conflicts and themes in the fields you wish to contribute to.

Prospectus: Personally, the prospectus was my absolute least favorite dissertation task. The prospectus itself isn’t terribly long–often shorter than a seminar paper–but it is hard. The prospectus is like planning a road trip to a place you’ve never been. What you’re trying to do is think ahead to what the journey will look like while simultaneously being frustrated by the fact that you have no idea what variables will inevitably fuck up even the most perfect plan. Don’t let the seeming paradox of the prospectus–drawing a map of a place you’ve never been–daunt you from the task. The big gap from the prelims to the prospectus is that, while the prelim exams make you aware of the gaps in your field of knowledge, your prospectus is your plan for how best to fill one of those gaps.

The thing is, knowing that a gap exists is not the same as knowing how to fill it. Anytime you’ve called a plumber, an electrician, or your apartment’s maintenance person you know acutely that identifying a problem and being able to fix a problem are very different skill sets.

Coursework is your training on what things should look like. Your prelims are training on how to identify problems in your field. Your prospectus is your plan on how to fix a part of those problems. The progression of steps makes a certain logical sense but require different skill sets and different training. Knowing what things should look like does not inherently prepare you to fix problems in the way things are anymore than enjoying ice cream prepares you to manage a restaurant.

Finally, after all of that there is the final stage in your graduate program.

Dissertation: Writing a dissertation, like writing any book, is an experience that is hard to describe. Just as learning how to identify a gap in your field doesn’t necessarily equip you to fill that gap your training in how to identify and critique the manuscripts of others does not inherently prepare you to write a manuscript of your own. It is necessary, but not sufficient, preparation. There are a lot of very successful editors who wouldn’t want to be authors.

Our October series is going to be a deep dive into how to manage the writing process.

Our point here is that, if you have felt lost and confused as you move from one stage of the process to the other then You. Are. Not. Alone.

No part of this process is clearly explained and, what’s worse, some of the skills you need to get through one part of the process are actually antithetical to other parts of the process. I know a lot of grad students who were very good at coursework. That is, they were very good at showing up to class on time, prepared, and writing seminar papers synthesizing other people’s work. In every case I can think of, the better someone was at coursework the more they struggled to write the dissertation. While coursework rewards your ability to follow a schedule that’s been set for you through the syllabus writing a dissertation requires you to be able to set, and stick to, your own schedule while also identifying all of the relevant materials and why they are relevant.

In contrast, I know a handful of graduate students who absolutely slogged through coursework or prelims because they were more interested in generating original answers to intriguing questions than reading what everyone else had to say about their topic. Several of these students put off the prelims process for over a year because it was so antithetical to how they worked. Once these students were allowed to build their own schedule and do their own research they flourished, often finishing their dissertations quickly.

It’s not that any of these people were dumb. They just had skill sets that didn’t work at parts of the process. In fact, part of the genesis of this website was a moment when, over drinks with a dear friend (who is now a PhD) I confessed that I had no idea how to start writing my dissertation and had tried to Google it late at night. I was completely surprised when this scholar I respected immensely told me she had done the same thing at every part of the process! Our confession made, we discussed how frustrating it was that all of the clear advice on how to move through a PhD program was geared towards STEM students. In that moment, abd2phd, was conceived.

At this point you might reasonably be asking yourself what this long diatribe has to do with our September focus on letting go of perfection to be productive.

A lot, actually. A lot of PhD students have always been very good at school. Their PhD program might be the first time they have significantly struggled. Combine this with the lack of clarity on the parts of the process, the fact that the skills for one part of the process aren’t the same as the skills to get you through the other parts of the process, and a perception that everyone else knows what they are doing and you wind up with grad students mired in shame.

Shame that they don’t inherently understand the steps of the process. (Who would?!)

Shame that they aren’t doing as well as everyone else. (You are!)

Shame that they are no longer “good at school.” (Because you aren’t “in school” anymore! You’re a young professional!)

Shame that while they did well in one part of the process they are struggling with another. (That’s normal!)

Underlying all that shame is a deeply held sense that we need to be perfect on the first try. But that’s ridiculous. And impossible.

It’s this shame, rooted in the idea that we need to appear perfect, that keeps us from asking, “What the hell are prelims?” and, instead, googling, “What the hell are prelims?” at 3:00 a.m. and then going to bed crying because none of the answers are helpful.

If you want to get through this process you need to understand that you will not be good at every part of it. That doesn’t make you dumb. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t cut out to be a scholar. It means you’re human, and that’s ok. At least, that’s what my therapist spent five years telling me and she always kept it 100.

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