What They Don’t Tell You About Coursework

It’s not about the courses.

There are a lot of reasons that PhD programs start with two years of coursework but it’s not about the courses.

One of the biggest mistakes that new PhD students make, that I 1000% made, is thinking that PhD coursework is like the types of coursework we’ve done previously in either our undergraduate or MA courses.

In reality, PhD coursework is completely different and the skills that served you well in your previous career as a student will hinder you as a PhD student.

The reason for this is because the point of the entire PhD process is to turn you into a producer of knowledge. Because the PhD process in the United States is built on a Medieval apprenticeship model you are not just learning to be a producer of knowledge in general but you are representing your graduate institution, your program, and your faculty as well.

That is to say, you aren’t just learning to be a producer of knowledge but,specifically, a producer of knowledge steeped in the tradition of your place and professors.

For instance, in my own discipline of American Studies, PhD programs fall into two broad categories. The first takes a historical bent and the second a cultural studies approach. There can be a great deal of overlap between these two approaches but that’s the broad breakdown. My own PhD program of American Studies at Purdue University is widely known to be focused on the cultural studies approach to American Studies scholarship.

Thus, when I tell someone in American Studies that I got my PhD from Purdue they have a sense of how I approach my work.

That’s what the PhD process is designed to do–turn you into a specific type of producer or knowledge.

That’s what PhD coursework is about.

In contrast to the coursework you’ve done at other stages of your career where the goal of the course was for you to learn a set amount of material the goal of PhD coursework is to start your journey as a producer of knowledge.

As such, the goal of the course is less about memorizing content or reading a book cover to cover and more about developing the skills you will need to write your dissertation and represent your field, and your institution, well.

Things that served you well in previous coursework where your goal was to learn content may actually hinder your PhD coursework.

Basic things like how to read, how to take notes, how to structure your assignments, and how to allocate time to your classes ALL change when it comes to PhD coursework.

I learned this through painful experience. I did almost everything wrong during my PhD coursework and the few things I did right I mostly did by accident.

I don’t want you to go through that.

That’s why I’m debuting a new group class for people who are in the coursework phase of their PhDs.

This course will detail how and why PhD coursework is different from your previous coursework. I will cover what you should do and what you shouldn’t. Most importantly, I will always tell you why.

I’ll tell you why the things that seem like good ideas aren’t and why the things that seem like a waste of time might be the best use of your day.

Topics covered in this course will be:

  • What the real goal of PhD coursework is
  • How to approach your PhD coursework from course selection to getting that A
  • How to make your coursework work for you (even if you don’t know yet what your dissertation will be about)
  • How to read for PhD coursework (Yes, really. I wish I had known this SO much earlier).
  • How to take notes for your coursework
  • How to balance teaching and coursework
  • How to use your coursework to prepare for your prelims/fields
  • How to use your coursework to build your scholarly reputation

I’m open to including other topics of interest to participants.

The weekly time commitment will be around 90 minutes with about 30 minutes of recommending reading and a one hour weekly group meeting.

The course will run for 5 weeks starting June 8th.

Participation in the inaugural course will be free since you are my guinea pigs 😉

If you’re interested then fill out the contact form! Admission will close once we have ten participants.

Circles (Not Post Malone Related)

I’ve always thought that “writer’s block” is a horribly named phenomenon. It certainly describes that feeling of not being able to make progress but, in my experience, writer’s block feels less like being stuck and more like not knowing where to go. I’ve found that most of my clients feel the same.

I propose that writing block isn’t about being stuck but about not knowing how to move forward.

What’s the difference between those two things?

Think of it this way. If you’re driving through town and have to stop at a railroad crossing then you are stuck.

In contrast, if you’re GPS tells you that you’ve reached your dissertation but all you can see is a fork in the road and no buildings in side you don’t know how to move forward. You might be able to go any number of places but lacking a clear destination it may seem like the best option is to stay in place.

That’s the difference. Most PhD candidates I work with are capable of moving forward: they have the sources, they have the data, and they have the talent.

So, if they have all the key ingredients then what is keeping them from making progress? It’s lack of direction.

In the dissertation your direction is your argument, and it’s surprisingly easy to lose track of.

Part of what makes the dissertation so difficult as a genre is because you have to account for the trees and the forest. When you’ve been spending a lot of time on the individual trees (e.g. evaluating sources, editing syntax, picking out the right words) it can be hard to remember the path through the forest, so to speak.

[TRUTHBOMB: This literally just happened to me while writing this post. I started asking myself, “Is the forest analogy too confusing? Is it overblown? By the time I decided to keep the damn analogy I had completely lost sight of the argument of the larger post. So, you know, just imagine this post multiplied by 500 and that’s the dissertation experience.]

Okay, so now that I’ve remembered where I’m going with this post I’m going to double-down on the forest analogy. There’s all kinds of advice on how to get out of a forest safely. If you’re in an isolated area but there are telephone lines you can follow those to civilization. If there’s a river you can follow that. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere then moss mostly grows on the north side of trees so you can use that as a guideline and head where you want to be, but what’s the equivalent indicator that will help you know which way to go when you get lost in your dissertation?

It’s circles. Specifically, using a circular narrative structure.

In a circular narrative structure you end your narrative where you started. In fiction, this often means that the character physically ends up where they started out but the journey has changed their perspective. One example would be The Hobbit. The novel starts and ends with Bilbo in the Shire but his perspective on it has vastly changed because of the adventures in between.

Your dissertation, of course, is not a novel, but circular structure still applies. You should always bring the reader back to where you began but you should have given them enough information in between to change their perspective on your claims.

In fact, a dissertation argument is circles within circles within circles.

Your introduction lays out the argument for the entire dissertation so the reader knows what the goal of the argument is, where you’re going to develop your claims, and the sources you’re going to use to support your claims.

Your conclusion reminds the reader of the claims you made in the introduction and shows them how, chapter by chapter, you fulfilled those claims. Like all good circular narratives a dissertation conclusion can also point to the future implications of what you’ve argued.

Just like the dissertation as a whole follows a circular structure each chapter should follow a circular structure. The introduction of each chapter lays out for the reader what claims you’re making and how you’re going to support them. The conclusion of each chapter reminds the reader what claims you proved and how.

And here’s the good stuff: each section of your dissertation should also follow a circular structure.

That is, each section of a chapter should start by stating the specific claim you’re elaborating on in that section and what types of evidence you’ll use to support that claim. The conclusion of each section reminds the reader how you used your evidence to prove your claim.

That means, when you get stuck working on a particular section you can find your direction by looking at where you are in your circle.

In addition, remember that the author’s journey is the exact opposite of the reader’s.

While the reader starts at the introduction and follows the path you lay out to the conclusion it’s often best for the writer to do the opposite. As the author, you often know where you want to get to but don’t always know how to get there.

That’s why one of the most important things you can do as an author is write the conclusion first, whether that be the conclusion of your section, your chapter, or your dissertation.

Let’s look at how this works in practice. Say you’re in the middle of your third draft of chapter three and struggling to incorporate your advisor’s feedback.

Instead of looking at your advisor’s feedback and trying to decide how to incorporate it into the particular section (which can be paralyzing) fast-forward to the conclusion and type out what the conclusion would need to look like to make your argument while incorporating the most significant parts of your advisor’s comments. With your conclusion written out you now know what you’re working towards. Now you can go back to the section you were working on and ask, “What does this section need to do to move my reader from here to the conclusion?” Does it need to set up the next section? Does it need to explain what methods you’re using? Does it need to lay out your claims more clearly? These are much more manageable questions than “How do I make this section work?”

Quite simply, when you know where you’re going to end, you can do a much better job of deciding how to get there.

The last step, as you may have guessed, is writing the introduction to whatever piece you’re working on. Now that you’re laid out what the conclusion looks like and assessed how the various components, be they paragraphs or chapters, lead your reader to your conclusions you can think about writing the introduction.

This is a great time to get feedback on your draft as well. Personally, this often the stage when I would take what I was working on into whatever class I was teaching. I would share with them what I had so far and then ask for the questions. My students, as educated and inquisitive young people, often had great questions like “What does that word mean?” “Why aren’t you talking about X?” “Why are you talking about 1938 instead of 1940?” Essentially, the kind of questions any educated reader new to your topic would need to know. I would then incorporate their feedback into the introduction by, essentially, modifying the conclusion I had already written but reflecting the questions. The general format looks something like this.


In this chapter/section I have shown that [claim is true]. First, I looked at how X is related to claim and argued Y by way of Z.

You repeat some version of that second sentence for as many claims as you’re talking about. If it’s one section you may have made one big claim and two or three sub claims so you’ll start by talking about how you proved your big claim and then break it down into how you proved your subclaims and end by reiterating that all of that together shows that, yes, you did prove your claim. If you’re concluding a chapter you’re gonna have one big claim, 3-5 subclaims, and about a dozen sub-subclaims. You repeat the same process breaking it down by level.

Now, for the introduction, after you get feedback in the form of questions you edit your conclusion to flip it to your introduction like so,


In this chapter/section I will show X. Although, I could focus on elements A to Z about X I have chosen to limit my study to elements D, E, and F as most relevant to my argument for reasons Y and Z. (This could be something like the other elements are already well-covered in the secondary literature or they are outside of your time frame or whatever your reason is). I will begin by looking at D in detail including examples 1, 2, and 3. Once I have shown that D is, in fact, an important element of X I will move on to element E.

And on and on it goes in a similar vein where you are setting your reader’s expectations telling them what you will show, how, and why it’s important while also telling them what you won’t cover and why.

So, my dear friends, if you are feeling stuck in your writing and not sure how to make progress feel free to go in circles. Specifically, start at the end and map out the section/chapter so your reader can get from where you’re writing to the conclusion. When that’s all done, have fun writing the introduction!

Video Recording/Conferencing Tips and Tricks

A Dedication: This post is for my dear friend who gave me some lovely compliments on recorded lecture on virginity and the patriarchal nation-state. She has an important interview coming up soon that’s taking place through zoom and I want the committee who sees her to know what an imitable bada** she is. Originally, I was just gonna share this with Tehmina, but we are both educators and we figures, if one person has the question someone else probably does too, you know? So, this is dedicated to Tehmina, may she shine in zoom, and a gift to all of you who are feeling antsy about being brilliant in front of a camera.

Tip 1: It’s okay to acknowledge this is weird.

No, really, it is. We don’t all have to sit and pretend that a recorded lecture isn’t different from an in-person one or that a zoom teaching demo won’t be the same as an in-person one. In fact, when you acknowledge that the situation is a little strange you build rapport with the audience and you build your credibility a little bit. The audience feels something like, “hey, this person knows what’s up they aren’t one of those weird people that pretends this is normal, that’s cool.” So, go ahead and acknowledge it’s a little strange, but, like, don’t make it weird.

One of the ways I do this when I record a lecture is to say, “When I give this lecture in person I ask students to do X activity.” This acknowledges that we’re all making concessions to do this video thing but, more importantly, it allows students to think through the activity with you which gives them a little bit of ownership over class and helps them take the lesson of the activity with them.

There’s a lot of variations of this. You can say, “If I was doing this teaching demo there with you I would walk you through this activity but I’m not sure it translates to zoom so let me tell you how this normally plays out . . .”

Tip 2: Eye Contact All The Time Is Creepy

I haven’t watched the show “You” but I’ve been told one of the creepiest things the main character does is make intense eye contact with his victims. Think about it, in real life, one of the things that gives you a creepy vibe is when someone’s eye contact is too intense.

In normal conversations our eyes move around a bit. They are naturally drawn to motion. Don’t think that just because you’re in a video conference you have to

Stare. Directly. Into. Camera. At. All. Times.

Normal eye contact rules apply. Yes, your gaze should come back to the camera and should mostly be on the camera, as it would be in a conversation, but don’t worry if you look away while thinking or do anything you would normally do in conversation.

Tip 3: Remember Your America’s Next Top Model Basics

If you never watched the hell and glory that is America’s Next Top Model and don’t have Tyra’s rules for modeling drummed into your brain there are two things you need to know.

First, find your frame. Play with your camera and know what is in frame and what isn’t. We all joke about zoom meetings where you’re professional above the waist and wearing pajama bottoms. It might be comfortable and you can get away with it only if your torso is the only thing in frame at all times.

Second, you gotta find your light. You don’t need a professional lighting set up just make sure there aren’t any weird shadows hanging out or making you look weird.

Tip 4: Trick Yourself Into Looking At Camera

There are a million ways to do this. Some have suggested putting a pair of googly-eyes on either side of your camera so you’re drawn to looking at the eyes. You can put a small picture of someone you love right above the camera. My computer reflects my own face near my camera so I wind up talking to myself–this is where my narcissistic tendencies help. While you don’t have to look at the camera all the time it should be your anchor, the thing you keep coming back to, and this is unnatural for most of us so find a trick that works.

Tip 5: Don’t Worry About Vocal Fillers

Again, even though the medium is different normal conversational behaviors still apply. It’s normal to use vocal fillers. It’s okay. It really doesn’t through off your audience off. If they aren’t excessive your audience probably won’t even notice.

In reality, most people who think they are worried about vocal fillers are actually worried about forgetting what they are trying to say. When we have a panic moment and forget what we we’re trying to say we is when the vocal fillers proliferate and we sound like we don’t know what we’re talking about.

When I coach political candidates on speeches I don’t teach them to avoid vocal fillers. I teach them to replace their vocal fillers. Instead of saying “um” and “uh” I often coach them to replace the impulse towards a vocal filler with their slogan or with standing up straight and taking a deep breath.

My teaching version of this, which you can see in yesterday’s video, is “Why is any of this important?” I ask that question when I feel like I’ve gone too far into a tangent and want to say “What was I saying?”

By posing the question “why is this important?” I create a transition for myself back to my thesis statement and from there to the rest of my argument.

What is the thesis of your job talk? Is it, “this relates to the position because” or is “as you can see, this relates to your programs emphasis on” or something similar?

Don’t eliminate your vocal fillers. It’s a pointless battle. Replace them with something better.

Tip 6: Give Yourself An Outline.

Keep it to bullet points, if you can, and print it in big a** font. I do this for all my conferences and most recorded lectures.

Again, you don’t want to be reading a paper, but it’s okay to glance over at your outline every now and then.

If you’re not familiar with talking and reading at the same time allow yourself to do a dramatic reading of your favorite book for whoever you have at home: your partner, your cat, your wall.

As you read, practice reading the next few sentences and, as you say them, looking at your audience and using your face to express the emotions of what you’re reading.

It sounds weird and artificial but I promise you it helps develop your speaking skills immensely.

Tip 7: Practice

As a veteran public speaking teacher (with excellent evals, I might add) and part-time speaking consultant, I cannot emphasize enough that the key to ALL of the above tips is to practice as much as you can.

Practice in the medium you’re using. Zoom with someone in another country or another room but get someone to be your audience and do your talk four or five times. Get feedback on your outfit, your light, your background. What sounds natural, what needs to be broken down, and so on.

I particularly recommend getting an audience who is a smart layperson. They can give you feedback on whether you are breaking your topics down well enough for an intro audience.

When I’m doing a talk I always imagine I’m giving it to my mom–smartest lady I know but no college education. Would she understand what I’m talking about? If not, what definitions do I need to break down further. What analogies would feel relevant to her life?

Get your audience to listen to you 4 or 5 times.

That’s it friends, those are all the tips I have you. I don’t have a tip on how to make you sound smart or seem brilliant because you already are smart and brilliant. You don’t need any help there. Just follow the tips above and your brilliance will shine through the grainiest of laptop cameras. Sending you love and encouragement in this time <3

WTF: Making Progress

Last month we covered the fundamentals of dissertating: what a dissertation is, why you have to do one, and different ways of thinking of your dissertation.

This month we’re going to give you some tips on how to overcome writer’s block and make progress.

Before we dive into that, though, it might be worth spending a little bit of time talking about why it can be so hard to make progress.

One of the biggest problems is that very few people read a dissertation before they write one and it’s incredibly hard to write in a genre you’re unfamiliar with.

SHAMELESS PLUG: This is why we created the Dissertation as Narrative webinar which we will be hosting again soon. Use the Contact form to reserve a seat!

Aside from the multiple problems with the dissertation genre and how it’s taught to Phd candidates, there is a problem with the process as well.

Many, many, many people I have talked to found that the PhD process stole the sense of wonder they had around their project.

I said “people” there because I don’t just mean clients or friends. I mean faculty. I mean tenured faculty.

I spoke to a professor who was crushing it: she had recently become the director of her program, she was publishing, she was teaching, she was an in-demand speaker. By every marker of academic success she was making it and she told me that, by the time she deposited her dissertation, she didn’t want to look at it ever again.

She did, eventually, look at her dissertation again and edit it and publish it, but if you are getting a little sick of your subject you are not alone and it does not mean you are doomed to be an academic failure.

Even if you still love your project, you might be struggling to maintain the balance between what you really want to say about it and the feedback you’re getting from outside sources. Sometimes, in trying to make your project “marketable” you lose your compass and don’t know how to move the argument forward.

Sometimes you just lose track of what you’re trying to say. There are so many important points its easy, and common, to lose track of what the most important one is.

These are some of the most common reasons that people stall in their writing.

Well, the most common reasons are that life rudely keeps happening like you aren’t trying to write a fudging dissertation, but, assuming life is manageable these are the most common reasons people stall.

The good news is, I went through several of these in my own writing process, and I’ve coached clients through the rest. For the next month we’ll be sharing tips and how to work through each of these. Progress guaranteed or your reading time back 😉

Our New YouTube Channel!

Hi Everyone,

A few days ago I offered to record some lectures on my areas of expertise for any of you looking for online teaching resources suddenly.

The response was bigger than expected so I did something I never thought I would do–I created a YouTube channel.

The first video on the connections between virginity and the patriarchal nation state is up now and you can find it here!

The YouTube comments have suggested pre and post lecture discussion questions and the external sources I drew from most heavily in putting together this lecture.

My goal is to get a new lecture up every through this weekend. The videos are stand alone, you don’t need to bring anything else to them to understand them, but together they will form a short series on virginity in the contemporary United States.

I hope these help with your online teaching adventures!

Come back tomorrow for the link to our next YouTube post and our regular Friday post. Our upcoming theme is overcoming writer’s block!

The Best Online Teaching Resource You Might Not Know You Have

Hi Friends,

Yesterday I offered to record video lectures related to my areas of expertise for y’all to use in your newly online classes.

Due to the volume of response I’ve decided to record a series of videos and put them on a soon-to-be-created abd2phd YouTube channel.

Each lecture will be stand alone–you won’t need any other material for context–but I’ll also structure them as a short series covering virginity in the contemporary United States.

My goal is to have a lecture out every day starting with a lecture tonight on virginity and patriarchy. I’ll also provide some discussion questions and open source articles for you.

HOWEVER. I’ve also been telling people about Kanopy. Kanopy is one of my favorite things. It’s a film database that most universities subscribe to. It has documentaries on *everything.*

If you’re teaching about gender and sexuality I have a couple of recommendations below:

The Purity Myth: The Virginity Movement’s War Against Women–Just shy of an hour long this is a great overview of virginity in US politics and life since the early 2000’s. It covers a lot of ground is narrated by Jessica Valenti who wrote the book the film is best on. My problem with the documentary is the same as my problem with the book. Women who choose to engage in purity culture aren’t dumb–purity culture fills a real need that they have and to portray it otherwise is, at best, problematic, which is why I often pair this with . . .

A Courtship–This is an in-depth, balanced look at an extreme version of purity culture. It does a great job of showing why people embrace this type of life. For people not familiar with Christian purity culture or thing that modesty culture is only an Islamic thing this documentary is a fucking trip. There’s a lot of subtle things that are easily missed. Watch it twice to catch more things to discuss with your students. In particular, watch for the signs of white-supremacy woven into this version of Christianity.

Virgin Tales: Evangelical Christians and Virginity–This documentary takes an in-depth look at the first-family of purity culture, the Wilsons. The Wilsons created the first, most well-known, purity ball in the United States. The documentary crew spent a year with the Wilson family so there is a lot of depth here. Things to watch out for in particular are the differences between the lives of the Wilson sons and daughters as well as father Randy Wilson’s full time job with the Family Research Council. This is a great one for discussing how purity culture isn’t just a choice individuals make it is something that is being actively pushed through political families like the Wilsons and the Duggars. SHAMELESS PLUG: You can check out my article about the Duggars and their political importance here.

How To Lose Your Virginity: Myths & Misogyny Around A Rite of Passage–A great look at the increasing cultural importance of virginity in US culture since the early 2000s. This really focus on the policy and federal spending around educating and enforcing virginity. It’s great to pair with Virgin Tales. Filmmaker Therese Shechter also created an online archive of virginity stories organized around unconventional markers such as “first time doing X” or “first same sex experience” and stories of deferring experiences. Together they provide a great new way to think about our sexual experiences.

Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm–Did you know that the vibrator was created as a medical device? Did you know it was seen as less sexual than the speculum? Women’s medical history is a fucking trip. This documentary digs into a fascinating medical history around hysteria and it’s treatment. There’s a narrative version of this history in the film Hysteria starring Maggie Gyllenhaal which you can sometimes find on YouTube.

We Were Here: The AIDS Years in San Fransisco–Do you want to cry? Do you want to fucking sob?! Well, get the tissues. An important documentary for all Americans. Perhaps particularly timely as some of our students are grappling with how the government can be mishandling an epidemic so badly.

Screaming Queens: The Riots at Compton’s Cafeteria–A few years before Stonewall drag queens rioted at Compton’s Cafeteria. Susan Stryker’s documentary interviews several of the people who were there and it does not go where you expect with some of the characters. A great documentary all around it can also be a good way to dig into how we categorize folks. For instance, several of the folks who were labeled as “drag queens” we would now call trans*.

This is a tiny, tiny, tiny representation of documentaries on Kanopy, but they are some of my favorites. It’s definitely the best teaching resource you may not have known you had!

Teaching From Home: A Special Offer Just For You

Hi Friends,

Like many of you, I’ve spent the past several days trying to switch my teaching completely online for the rest of the semester.

The dirty truth of online teaching is that it is either WAY harder or WAY easier than teaching in person.

If you do it right, it’s way harder. You have to put in a lot of extra planning and work to simulate the in-class experience of discussion, lecture, and in-class experiences.

To all of you out there struggling to do online teaching right and wondering how you’re going to find the time and energy to do the extra work I’m here for you.

After all, abd2phd is here to make your life easier in as many ways as possible.

If you are teaching a Women’s Studies or Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies course; or a women’s history, american history, or WWII history class I’ll send you a recorded lecture you can upload to your online teaching platform.

My area of expertise is the rhetoric of virginity in the contemporary United States. In particular, I look at the mutual constitutive nature of the rhetoric of virginity in medical, legal, and popular cultures in World War II and the War on Terror.

Specialties related to these areas include sex education in the United States since 2001, Christian Nationalist politics, and women in popular culture.

  • Lectures I have prepped are:
  • How virginity contributes to rape culture
  • Why virginity is the foundation of the patriarchal nation-state
  • VD propaganda in WWII (this is a great one if you want to talk about mishandling a viral threat)
  • Sex Ed in the US (a great one for talking about handling and mishandling of public health)
  • Virginity, Christian Nationalist Politics, and the Rise of Donald Trump

For each lecture I’ll send you a half hour video lecture along with links to two open-source supplementary materials. I’m also happy to record a follow-up video answering any questions your class has.

This is completely free to anyone who is interested. I’m just trying to help out other instructors during this time.

P.S. Sorry if there are tons of typos here. I’m posting without proofreading to get this out as soon as possible.

Heart & Soul

This month we’re talking about what a dissertation is. Why do you have to do one? What does it do for you? Why is it so damn hard?

Today, we’re going to look more closely at that last question.

We’ve already covered many of the aspects of what a dissertation is: a dissertation is an institutional document, a dissertation is a story you’re telling, a dissertation is proof that you can produce new knowledge to the standards of academic rigor, a dissertation is a thousand cranes.

Among all of the things that a dissertation is it is also a little piece of your heart and soul.

This may be one of the biggest differences between the humanities and the sciences, both social and hard.

In the hard sciences you often apply to specific labs to work with specific professors who do research you are generally interested in. The work you do in the lab is often dependent on the funding that the lab is receiving. I’ve known many, many PhDs in the hard sciences who are broadly interested in their dissertation research–certainly interested enough to do it–but it isn’t their passion. In many of the hard sciences the expectation seems to be that you don’t get to work on what you’re really passionate about until you have a lab of your own.

In the social sciences you often do research that is an extension of your advisor’s research interest.

As in so many things the humanities are . . . different.

For instance, my committee had broad interests in the intersections of women’s lives and the state but that was it. None of them were particularly interested in virginity. None of them knew a thing about Christian Nationalism. My research was its own little bubble. This is the case for many humanities PhD’s and it changes the dissertation process in two important ways.

First, your committee can give you general but not specific guidance. In practical terms, this often means that many PhD students find themselves in the odd position of educating their committees on their dissertation topic while simultaneously being evaluated by their committee on the argument we’re making about said topic. In the best case scenario, a supportive committee can encourage a PhD candidate to take ownership of their role as a leading expert in their topic. Unfortunately, it’s much more common for a well-meaning but busy committee to leave their candidate in the dark not knowing how to navigate being both the expert and the person with the least power in the room.

Following from the first, the process of writing your dissertation is more isolating and isolated. For example, I briefly shared an office with two other PhD candidates who shared my advisor. Even though we all shared the same advisor our dissertations had nothing in common. I don’t just mean we had different topics. We used different methods. I combined feminist theory with rhetorical analysis under the framework of Gramscian common sense. One of my office mates did oral histories, participant observation, and autoethnography. My other office mate used interviews, medical journals, semiotics, and autoethnography.

Sure, there are some similarities which clearly drew us to the same advisor, but even when we used similar methods we applied them in such different ways that we weren’t really able to help each other in substantive ways. We could certainly be sounding boards or commiserate about the process in general but, unlike folks sharing a PI/dissertation chair in the sciences, our work was not related enough for us to share sources, methods, data, or even disciplinary conferences.

These three things: your dissertation being a part of who you are, having to educate your committee, and feeling isolated in the process are three of the biggest impediments to dissertation progress at the ABD level.

It is hard enough to offer up your research and your writing for critique.

It is harder to offer your research and writing for critique when it is tied to who you are.

It is still harder to offer up your research and writing for critique when it is tied to who you are and the people critiquing it may not know much about it.

It is hardest to do all of that and feel as if choosing this path has left you isolated with few professional support networks.

If you’re feeling frustrated, angry, or isolated because your work, a part of you, has gotten intense criticism from a committee or chair who isn’t very familiar with your topic just know that you are not alone. It is not something you did wrong in choosing your topic or your committee.

It is part of the current system of how we get PhDs. It is part of why I founded abd2phd.

What’s about to follow is something between a soapbox rant and a shameless plug so keep reading at your own peril.

I had a committee member who always used to tell me “T the P” or “trust the process.” It was only at the very end of my dissertation that I began to realize the process itself was not trustworthy.

I’m grateful for so many of the things I gained from my PhD process. I’m grateful for the way it honed my mind and made me a better thinker. I’m grateful for the expertise and for the chance to do this really rare, incredible thing.

But being grateful for what I gained from the process doesn’t mean I don’t think the process needs some serious changes.

One study puts the rates of mental illness in PhD programs at a third. One in three.

Yes, can gain some great things from the process of getting a PhD, but that doesn’t mean the cost needs to be so damn high.

And that’s why we’re here.

In a perfect world, what we do would be services expected of your committee, but faculty members are struggling to navigate the neoliberal university too.

My own experiences are what prompted me to start this site. I want to help other PhD students move towards work-life balance (to the extent they can), get sh*t done, and know that somebody is on their side. That’s what we’re here for.

Why You Should Send Your Draft Before It’s Done

[GRABS YOUR LAPELS] Listen to me.

I know you want your dissertation to be good, BUT YOU NEED TO WRITE A BAD DRAFT.

[Releases lapels. Pours you a sparkling water.]

The absolute BIGGEST problem that I have with every client is that they work on their dissertation for too damn long.

I don’t say this to you as someone who magically understands dissertations. I made this mistake when I was writing too.

I think it has to do with your perspective on the process as you are going through it compared to when you’ve completed it.

When I was writing my dissertation I really wanted it to be good. I wanted my committee to be awed by it. I wanted it to be smart and well-written. I wanted it to be impressive. I wanted it, in short, to need no revisions.

Here’s the truly wild part: I passed my dissertation defense with NO REVISIONS.

Yup, you heard that right, I made a thousand cranes and I got what I wished for: a pass with no revisions after my dissertation defense.


Even though I lived the dream there were still significant problems with my final dissertation. Due to a weird series of formatting errors there was a 15 page section that was, inexplicably, repeated in Chapter Three. There were typos.

It was not perfect.

But it passed.

(I may owe a significant debt of gratitude to my chair’s belief that a dissertation is an institutional document.)

Even dissertations that are passed without revisions have flaws.

A friend of mind deposited her dissertation with a typo in her motherfucking title.

I’ve read numerous deposited dissertations (aka, passed dissertations) riddled with typos.

This isn’t because there aren’t smart people proofreading the document and I don’t think it’s a problem of too many chefs either.

What is much clearer when you are out of the process is this:

Your dissertation is a draft.

In an ideal world, your dissertation is a manuscript that you will turn into a couple of articles and a monograph. It’s a basis for future work not a final thing.

For all of the blood, sweat, and tears we put into our dissertations the hard truth is that they are the beginning of our scholarly careers, not their culmination.

Nobody cares about your dissertation.

And that’s not because it isn’t great or valuable. It is both of those things!

It’s because your scholarly career is built on the things that come after your dissertation: the articles, the anthologies, the monographs, the classes, the postdocs, the professorships, and all that jazz.

So, let’s scale this backwards.

Your finished, passed, deposited dissertation is a draft of your future scholarly work. What then is the draft of your dissertation you turn into your chair for her feedback?

It’s a draft of a draft.

Given that we turn it multiple drafts of our dissertation to our committee we are, at best, turning in a draft of a draft of a draft.

Let me use my own dissertation as an example.

My deposited dissertation was meant to be a draft of my future scholarly career.

This means that the draft that I submitted to my committee before my dissertation defense was a draft of a draft.

Which means that the final draft I submitted to my chair, before I got her approval to submit it to defend, and therefore submit it to my committee, was a draft of a draft of a draft. And that was *the* most finished product my dissertation chair saw.

But I submitted so many other drafts to her! I think I sent her 5 drafts of chapter 5 which means the first draft I sent her was actually a draft of a draft of a draft of a draft of a draft of a draft of a draft of a motherfucking draft.

We spend so much time working to get our drafts as perfect as possible without realizing that our most perfect draft is, at best, a draft of a draft of a draft.

It’s hard to see this when we are in the process, but when you understand that the draft you are working so hard to make perfect will never be the final draft but just one iteration of your project it can significantly decrease your dissertation anxiety.

When you submit a near final draft to your chair she’s going to give you feedback. Then you’ll write another draft incorporating that feedback before you submit it to your committee who will also give you feedback which you will incorporate before you deposit. And that’s when you are almost done!

Every other draft is even more stages of revision from being done and yet we tend to treat them as if they are the final judgment of our scholarly prowess.

At a certain point our desire to make our draft as perfect as possible doesn’t significantly improve the draft but it does significantly delay our timeline.

Without knowing your writing style I can’t give you a hard and fast number of when you should let go and let your advisor edit but I can tell you that for most of my clients that number is 80 percent.

That is, when you feel you are 80% done with your dissertation draft you are 100% ready to send it your advisor and get feedback.

A Dissertation Is An Institutional Document

A dissertation is proof that you can create new knowledge to the standards of scholarly rigor.

A dissertation is a story you tell about how the world is or ought to be.

A dissertation is a thousand cranes.

We keep talking about what a dissertation is and what a dissertation does for two reasons. First, because our mission is to move you from All But Dissertation (ABD) to becoming a PhD and the dissertation is the sine qua non of that process. Second, because a dissertation is a hard thing to wrap your mind around. It’s both similar and wildly different from things you’ve written before.

A dissertation is unlike anything but itself and so we use analogies and metaphors to get a grasp on it. The metaphor or analogy that works for you, that finally makes it click, like, “Oh! This is how I do this thing!,” is going to be different for everyone so we keep cranking them out hoping that you’ll find yours.

My PhD advisor used to say “A dissertation is an institutional document.”

She said this to me for four years and I never once understood what the hell that meant.


Until one day she told me that, for her dissertation, she had this idea to start each chapter with a short story and got lost in a creative quagmire which she was only able to pull herself out of when a friend told her, “A dissertation is an institutional document.”

That’s when I got it.

What she was telling me was that a dissertation was like any other institutional document:

  • A Passport
  • An Ikea furniture manual
  • A Job Ad
  • A CV
  • Teaching Evaluations

What institutional documents have in common is that they are meant to check off a series of boxes.

A passport establishes your citizenship and ability to travel as a citizen of a certain country.

An Ikea furniture manual is a legal document that prevents you from making a million dollars for suing Ikea because you didn’t know that the floof went in the florb.

A job ad is designed to recruit a qualified candidate while representing all of the interests of the parties contributing to the funding of the line.

A CV is designed to show off your experience in the three categories of an academic job: teaching, research, and service.

Teaching evaluations are designed to make sure that you don’t do anything that the university could get sued for in your classroom.

In some ways, thinking of the dissertation as an institutional document can be helpful. It can free you from the paralyzing fear that your dissertation has to be beautiful. Institutional documents are not beautiful. They are neither elegant nor eloquent. They check off boxes.

If that idea helps you get rid of some dissertating insecurities then take it with you.

The problem I see with thinking of the dissertation as an institutional document is that most of us don’t read or write institutional documents with any regularity.

As any successful writer will tell you, reading widely is an essential part of writing well.

It’s difficult to write well in a genre you’re not familiar with.

Familiarizing yourself with your genre is important for any writer to do. This is why we’ve previously advocated that, if you have time, you read the introductions of a few dissertations to familiarize yourself with the conventions of the genre.

However, you may not have time to look up and read dissertations in addition to everything else you’re doing.

That’s why we’ve come up with another technique that has helped our clients.

Instead of learning a new genre so you can write in it think of your dissertation as a story you’re telling.

The reason this works is because you are familiar with stories. From commercials to movies to novels stories are part of every day life.

You know stories. You know their benchmarks and how they progress. When you think of your dissertation as a story you’re telling you put yourself in familiar territory and writing your dissertation transforms from wandering lost in a dense wood to a magical adventure.

If you’d like to learn more about how to think of your dissertation as a story join us this Wednesday, 2-26, for our FREE Dissertation as Narrative webinar at noon PST. To receive your spot send us a message through the Contact page.