Remix: There’s A Reason You Can’t Do It

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re remixing a post about how the skills you developed as a student might be hurting you as a dissertation author. Enjoy!

Last week we talked about the role of executive function in your life/dissertation.

While executive function in adults is understudied we do know that problems with executive function are part of ADHD, ASD, and anxiety.

I’m not a neuroscientist, or a psychologist, but as someone who lives with anxiety I’ve noticed two important things. First, most of the PhD students I know are neurodivergent in some way. (I know, I know–there’s all sorts of caveats here: maybe all my friends are neurodivergent because I am, maybe it’s a self-selecting population, etcetera–but I’m not worried about the mechanism here.) Second, it TOTALLY makes sense that people with anxiety, ADHD, ASD and other brains impacted by executive dysfunction are really good at PhD programs.

Our brains are really good at finding connections other people might not see and weaving them into arguments to create knowledge.

This natural propensity is enhanced by the structure of a PhD program itself which encourages us to think not in five paragraph arguments but in five chapter monographs.

When we train brains that are already good at making connections to make more connections we really shouldn’t be surprised that we have a bunch of people who struggle with the executive function skills of breaking a task down into parts, planning, organizing, and completing it.

I would argue that humanities students struggle with this more than STEM PhDs because STEM PhDs are often based on fieldwork, an equation, and experiment, and so on. In short, STEM PhDs have a definable start and finish in ways that humanities projects often do not.

For instance, in my own project I was looking at how U.S. doctors and legislators talked about virginity in World War II and the War on Terror. Part of my committee, the part made up of historians, wanted me to do a longitudnal study instead of a comparative study. Even when I got them to agree to a comparative study there was still the problem of how to define WWII and the War on Terror. For instance, did I define WWII as when the US entered the war? When the war started in Europe? Or when the US army started preparing to enter the war? Defining the War on Terror was even more complex as a War on Terror is, by definition, and endless war.

My point here is that breaking our projects into workable pieces is HARD and it’s made harder by the fact that our job and our training are teaching us to look for connections between those pieces.

When you look at your project you see all the connections. The inside of a dissertating brain usually looks something like this:


If it feels crazy-making that’s because it is.

You are not crazy or dumb for having difficulty sorting through the connections. It’s antithetical to everything you’ve been trained to do. That’s why, sometimes, you need someone else to come in take a look at your project to help you sort it into doable pieces.

In theory, your committee should be able to do this for you. That is, after all, what committees are for. In reality, there are a lot of reasons you might not seek this sort of feedback from your committee. Maybe they’re on sabbatical. Maybe they only read finished work. Maybe their feedback is contradictory or unhelpful.

Fellow graduate students can be a great resource to give you this type of feedback as well. I’ve known graduate students who have been able to get reading/writing groups together that meet regularly and give each other feedback. This has been extremely successful for them.

I tried, several times, to set up a graduate student reading group during my PhD. It never worked out.

In general, I’ve noticed that reading groups tend to work out if you have a group of people who are on fellowship. If you have a group of graduate students who are teaching or TAing it’s a little harder to get going and may never take off.

Sometimes graduate students can offer you much needed sympathy and support but not the perspective you need. Sometimes you need the help of someone with more distance from your project and your program. And that’s okay.

Getting a PhD isn’t about how smart you are. Getting a PhD is about persistence and persistence is, among other things, about knowing when to ask for help.

If you need it, or think you might need it, we’re here for you.

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