Thursday, February 02, 2006
Ask the Admin: The Good Girl at the End of Her Rope
I am an ABD student at a major research university. This is my fifth year there, and my first year on the job market. I spent the last two years, roughly, out of residency. Grad school city and Spouse City are pretty far apart, so frequent trips were not exactly feasible. Before moving to Spouse City I hadn’t finished my prospectus; I did it here, and defended it via conference call.
My advisor (an Old, Venerable Superstar) was from the very beginning against my moving out, and claimed that finishing a dissertation out of residency is basically impossible. Skeptical as he was, he was still supportive, and in fact, he was generous enough to invite me to spend a 2-week vacation with him and his wife – a time when I actually started to make some progress on the diss. After that, things deteriorated.
I should also mention that I’m married to a professional who makes a lot of money and that, without the structure of grad school around, I’ve gradually slipped very much into the role of housewife. Add to that that my husband (whom I love very much and have no intention of leaving) is very demanding on housekeeping and organizational stuff, and that I come from a country that encourages such a view of women, and that no matter how feminist my views have become, I felt obligated to pay for the benefits of a good life here by focusing on my wifely/housekeeping duties and not on my dissertation. I read, I gathered my sample (a very large, rich, and hard to tame sample), but I couldn’t really focus on any of that in writing. Plus, I had online teaching to do, which sort of drained me of my remaining time.
At the end of last April, I went back to grad school city where I received a very stern lecture from my advisor, which amounted to “you’ll never finish. Go home.” I cried, I went home, and over the summer, I cranked up 2 large chapters. When Fall came, the job search began (major time guzzler), plus I had the equivalent of 3 classes online (60 students), which, toward the end of the semester, in particular, bogged me down to no end…
[The advisor told her that he will remove his letter from her file, due to a lack of confidence that she will finish anytime soon. He offered to continue to work with her, but only if she agreed to return to grad school city for a year.]
While he can’t retract the letter from the places where I’ve already sent it, he will withdraw it from my file – so I won’t be able to apply for jobs between now and whenever he changes his mind.
A year away from my husband will result in immense strain on our marriage – which already went through some really strenuous times in the beginning. I am positive we would not make it, were I to leave.
I proposed instead 1-2 week stays over a period of several months. This is still going to be bad since we just bought a house (we plan to move in the summer) and we have a dog who is unnaturally attached to me, plus it’s a logistical nightmare (in terms of renting, etc.), but it’s better than a 1-year stay. I also suggested that we do this after we sit down with my sample and I show him what I’ve been doing so he can tell me where and why or if my study is fundamentally flawed. I requested a meeting in the following weeks (in between my campus visits).
He has yet to reply to this. I know that he’s disappointed in me and I’m making no excuses for myself. I knew it would be hard to write a dissertation out of residency but I didn’t imagine that being ensconced in a department is actually that crucial. It is. I wouldn’t advise anyone to leave like I did.
Still, I’ve invested so much time and effort in grad school (believe it or not, I used to be a model student with a 4.0 GPA, lots of conference presentations, and even a couple of published articles). I have a very strong will to finish, but I can’t move back for that long. I’m thinking that I won’t be the first or last to take longer than two years to finish a dissertation. I know I can’t realistically be done in September.
And more crucially, do you have any idea at all how I should handle my next job search? Should I drop out altogether, or should I still go to the interviews? What if the school I’m interviewing at next will get a hold of my advisor and he tells them that, in his opinion, I’ll never finish? I want to be honest with them and tell them that it’s going to take me at least another year longer to finish than I originally planned (and wrote in my resume). Is this going to eliminate me from the competition by default? Is there even any sense in me going? I already think I’m at a disadvantage for being a non-native English speaker (with an accent!) in the humanities; I’m not sure how correct this is, but it’s a fear of mine.
At any rate, many tears and much hyperventilation and anguish have been happening over this. I am trying to focus, but it’s hard.
So, any advice?
(re-edited for greater anonymity)
Wow. And I thought my life was stressful!
Several impressions, then some suggestions.
First, your advisor sounds like a jackass of the highest order. You may be stuck with him, for professional reasons, but you really shouldn’t internalize his issues. His desire for control (a two week vacation with his wife?) is clearly stronger than his desire to help you flourish as an independent scholar. Look at him as an obstacle, not an oracle.
Second, if you don’t need the money, why are you teaching all those courses? If it’s for love of teaching, you can love one section just as much as three. Scale back!
Third, it is absolutely possible to finish a dissertation out of residence (unless you’re using a specific lab or specialized equipment). I have friends who have done it. One actually finished her dissertation in law school, which struck me as a bit extreme, but she did it. In the humanities, what Virginia Woolf referred to as a door with a lock and a room of one’s own (updated to include a good internet connection and a sturdy printer) is pretty much what you need. You can find that in grad school city, on the East coast, or in the middle of nowhere; it shouldn’t much matter.
The whole residency thing strikes me as a proxy. After all, it’s likely that your academic career will be someplace other than grad school city; if you’re only productive when in your advisor’s shadow, you won’t be productive as an assistant professor. You need to learn to produce on your own, wherever you happen to be.
Which brings me to the bigger issue. You’re trying to please two dominating men, while also fulfilling some internalized idea of what a good academic is (my explanation for all that teaching). Bluntly, it can’t be done. In trying to be the Good Girl, you’re stretching yourself way too thin. The concept of spending one week per month in grad school city strikes me as insane – the advisor will consider it too little, your husband too much, and your sanity will pay the price.
I won’t address your marital dynamics, because I’d be waaaay out of my depth on that. But you’ve clearly chosen to make preservation of the marriage a priority, so let’s go with that.
From the tone of the letter (the original was considerably longer and more agitated than the excerpt here), it’s clear that you’re badly frazzled. You’re trying to please everyone, to make everyone happy, to not say no. You’re trying to please 60 online students, a control-freak advisor, a high-maintenance husband, and any number of prospective employers. The advisor and the husband are in a tug-of-war over you, and either or both could easily become upset if you received a job offer requiring you to move (having just bought a house!). Plus the stress of the dissertation itself, the vagaries of the market, and whatever else happens along.
My recommendation? Radio silence with the advisor until you have a full draft to show. Scale back the teaching dramatically, if not altogether. Have a very frank talk with your husband about the time it takes _per day_ for you to write productively. Skip the market for now. Focus on writing. Finish the dissertation. Finish it on your terms, so that it’s your work (rather than an extension of your advisor’s). Get the confidence and standing that comes from owning your craft. Stay the hell away from grad school city until you’re there to defend the dissertation.
More broadly, give yourself permission to take a break from the Good Girl role. When necessary, and it will be, embrace your inner bitch. You will have to become your own scholar.
Will the advisor welcome you back when you arrive with a finished product? I don’t know, but you certainly aren’t going to get anything constructive from him any other way. Help that’s premised on control isn’t help. Whether he’s disappointed in you or not is irrelevant; you need to produce, to own your own worth.
Will the husband be able to deal? I don’t know, but I’m guessing that the payoff from increased sanity should more than compensate for a few hours each day at the computer.
Less juggling, more focus. Get the degree in hand, earn respect as your own person, and hit the market on your own terms. Since you don’t need the money, I don’t see much reason to do a panicked search. Solidify your standing, and the chips will fall where they may.
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.
A longer, more personal version: I just graduated, having left my grad school city after exams/before prospectus and diss in order to make a long-distance relationship a same-city relationship. It took me a while, but I did finish and I went back to grad school city exactly twice in 4.5 years: once to meet with a prospective committee member, once to graduate.
Part of my struggle was academic--defining my project and all that; I would have struggled no matter where I lived. But another big part was circumstantial: I needed to arrange my life in such a way so as to facilitate my dissertation writing.
Like you (I think), we didn't need for me to be earning a lot of money; my partner could and basically did support us both. For a time, I was adjunct teaching because I thought that's what I should be doing. Finally, I decided it was either the diss or teaching. So, I gave notice at the end of the semester and found myself a part-time (2 day/week) job that I didn't have to think about the other 5 days/week. This job was still in my field, though more as a practitioner than as an academic, so it wasn't bad experience to have. From that point on, I made steady progress on my prospectus/diss. It still took about 2.5 years, but I was always moving forward.
Second, I have yet to go on the market in the typical way. I've applied for a few jobs here and there and am now in an academic (though staff, not faculty) job in my field. I narrowly missed out on a tenure track job in my field because I was ABD. In the long run, it doesn't matter how much teaching experience you have; if you don't finish your diss, you won't get the jobs you really want. I'm willing to bet you have enough teaching experience already; even if you love, love, love it, consider not teaching for a semester or two. If you don't have to work at all, don't.
As for the housewife bit, I did take on that role because I felt it was a way I could contribute to the household since I wasn't contributing much financially. Fortunately, my partner sounds a lot less demanding than your husband--my dissertation was always top priority. But I still took care of a lot of errands and chores because I had more flexibility in my schedule. I hope you and your husband can come to a more workable agreement on that front.
Sorry for the length of this comment, but I just want to emphasize that it is possible.
Oh, as for the advisor: perhaps once you've figured out what, if any, changes you need to make in your life in order to prioritize your dissertation, you could share that with the advisor. It may not be his version of the way to do things, but maybe he will get the message that you are determined to finish, with or without his support.
I read your advisor's withdrawal of letters of support a bit differently.
First, he's gone out there in those letters to say that you're ready for a job. And now he realizes that you're NOT going to be ready. He's put his name on the line, perhaps with old friends/colleagues/competitors, so from his point of view about those letters, his is about himself, if that makes sense.
Again, as a potential hiring person, I see in Dean Dad's iteration of your difficulty an issue that I'd probably never actually see were I to read your application, but which you should think about. If your spouse is so inflexible about his job, and geographical locations, how are you going to manage if you get a job offer a thousand miles away?
Are you being realistic in thinking that you'll be able to move or be a successful assistant professor without changing your spouse's expectations and attitude?
It's not fair, but MANY academic communities expect faculty members to put the career first, and family second, expect faculty spouses to think of themselves as faculty spouses.
Go for the interviews, for sure. Be honest, and say that while you won't be done in September, you are making steady progress. You MAY be able to get the start date deferred until January. And having an offer may help you work faster. It may also convince your director to help you condense your dissertation.
Once you have the job, the dissertation has done its job; it doesn't have to be your life's work, it just has to get you the job. Until you have the job, you have to think of your dissertation as the BEST thing you could ever write, though.
And, get on the PHONE to your advisor. You can communicate a lot more in a phone call, with far less confusion and delay. Don't depend on email. (Call the office and find out his office hours first, of course. Don't just call whenever.)
One more thing to consider... what will you do with this PhD when you're done? Will husband move to a job with you? I had a similar issue... Husband couldn't realistically move with me because his market is here, so in the end I never went on the market in a meaningful kind of way. It means my PhD has never been put to great use.
All is not lost however. As others have said, it's entirely possible to finish a dissertation out of residency - I know, because I did it. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with scaling back on teaching at that point (I didn't teach at all during the year that I was on the market and revising my diss). I won't speak to the marriage stuff because i think others have responded better than I could. I will say, though, that it strikes me that you mention a lot of obstacles that have gotten in the way of your dissertation. Is it possible that you don't actually want to do the dissertation but that you feel like you can't say that because of the time that you've put in thus far? Would you be happier if you just didn't finish? If so, there is absolutely no shame in that. If not, then you'll have to put it first, at least for a while. That's not to say you should move away from your husband, but it's got to come before housework at the very least (says the girl with a very messy living room at the moment....) Good luck, and don't be discouraged!
(Incidentally, my adviser threatened to drop me when I was a few months away from my defense. I think it was a rhetorical move to force me into one last revision. Yes, that is a totally jacked up thing with which to threaten a person, but this may be a bit of what's going on here. With my adviser it was resolved by a big fat apology on my part and then much comforting. But I did that last round of revision, in spite of my initial resistance.)
Sorry to be so long-winded!
I managed to write my dissertation totally in absentia--didn't even have a clear topic when I moved 2,000 miles away. (My university didn't require a topic defense. I had some ideas for a topic when I moved, but wound up choosing to write something entirely different.)
I didn't have a controlling advisor. He was too busy to do much. There was no email in those days. I flew back for one brief meeting once I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do and had a chapter written, and he gave encouragement to keep going in that direction.
My husband was extremely supportive, and encouraging--a sort of cheerleader--and that made all the difference in the world. He also gave me tips on how to reach my advisor, who was impossible to get on the phone. He said, "Call his office early in the morning, before his protective secretary arrives to run interference," and it worked. Advisor picked up the phone himself.
(Husband had had his own problems connecting with his advisor, even though he wrote his diss in residence. Advisor was always overbooked and absent-minded, never made it to appointments, but he had a distinctive sports car, so my husband would stake out his car in the faculty parking lot and wait until advisor got to his car to talk to him on the fly!)
It can be done, but local encouragement helps a lot. If she could somehow get her husband to be part of her support team rather than part of the problem, that would make a big difference. But maybe that's too much to ask. Maybe she could find another local grad student struggling to write a diss and they could form a mutual support group.
Also, this sounds like it might be a case where services from Academic Coach might be helpful.
And I know he withdrew his letter because he honestly believes I will not be ready in time for the job, which he thinks would be professional suicide. He didn't want to lie for me, he told me. I certainly don't want him to!
I agree that the diss has to come first. I truly want to finish it. I need to shift my priorities and, yes, start being a bitch every once in a while.
Forunately for emotional reasons, Spouse's being a grad student too meant he 'got it', but it totally stank for the financial 'bottom line'.
I took on full-time but not intellectually demanding work as an ESL teacher to finance those last years. Diss was defended on time. Advisors just had to deal with reality.
But when I got the coveted academic job first, we did what we always agreed we would do: we moved to where the job was. Spouse, who had not finished the diss by then, and who remains ambivalent about it to present, took up a univeristy post in an adjacent institution. Each of us was willing to make that kind of move for the other.
Sounds to me like control freak advisors can be worked around (But um NO MORE trips to resorts. That's just twisted, a little too Frida Khalo meets Anais Nin in an absinthe bar I think). You are going to have to think about what to do about control freak spouse and the job market for sure.
I agree with Dean Dad: find your inner bitch.
The techniques there actually can apply not just to the housekeeping but also to the dissertation work. I'm dealing with similar time management issues (the genders are reversed, but my wife is the busy professional and I'm the grad student/househusband).
You must be clear with your husband about what you're facing with the dissertation, and you need to potentially face some choices/clarify some goals.
For instance, is your husband willing to support you in your dissertation work or not. If not, is finishing the PhD more important to you than your marriage?
But I admit I don't know how I would have done it without the full support of both spouse and advisor. Advisor didn't initiate contact, so sometimes I was adrift, but she always believed in the project.
When my house got too clean I knew I was avoiding diss work.
Finally, I found teaching 2 classes was ideal for me to stay focused, have a framework and colleagues, and still not too much grading to leave 3-4 days a week just for the diss.
(I'm also curious about how you see the market with your husband. Is he mobile? Willing to be?)
Straight up, I think you realize what the problem is, but you'd prefer to displace the blame onto your advisor who, IMO, is behaving reasonably.
Oh, and if your advisor DOES dump you - is there anyone else there who can step in? Are there other faculty you've worked with who might be more supportive? A faculty ally could be very helpful.
Two pieces of advice I haven’t seen already...
1) too many students assume that they HAVE to have a long unbroken string of time to work. I found it useful to grab any piece of free time, even as little and 5-10 minutes, to work. For example, I’d take books with me into the bathroom and read a couple more pages. A few short periods of time every day would add up quickly.
2) hire a maid. A decent inexpensive cleaning service will help keep your husband at bay. They don’t have to come in every day or even every week. Once a month can help! Of course, this suggestion only works if you can afford it, but it’s cheaper than living in your dissertation city one week a month.
His primary job is to help you get your dissertation done. I suspect he realizes that your situation seriously undermines that goal. He isn't being nice to you, or sympathetic; and he is seriously increasing your stress--but I also note that his technique has helped you get two chapters written.
I think it's a sad but sometimes true fact that male mentors can be better for women than female mentors. Empathy (not that all women are empathetic, but presumably the opposite of the "I don't care about your personal life" approach is the "yes, I know from experience that being a woman in academia presents especially difficult choices and conflicts" approach) can too often be made into an excuse--after all, you're under enormous pressure, and it's only logical to look for some way to take the pressure off. A guy who doesn't give a rat's ass about feminist issues, and cares only about achieving in the work place can, ironically, be great for women who tend to try to do both: what he's saying, basically, is "this needs to be your first priority." He's not really wrong. I take his inviting you on vacation, his demanding that you move back to Grad School City, etc., as ways of demanding that you put your dissertation first, and as ways of getting you away from a situation that you're in because you're putting it second (i.e., to your marriage).
Of course, he could also be an ass: but his techniques, as described here, are hardline but not without rationale.
Anyway. The advice is, sure, go to the interviews. But also keep in mind that you will do *much better* career-wise with your advisor's backing. So the choice depends on what you want. If you will be happy with a low-status, probably low-wage, possibly untenurable job at a local institution because that will allow you to better be the kind of wife your husband wants, then you don't need your advisor's backing, probably. If you are more ambitious than that, you probably do need your advisor's backing, and you'll have to make some serious decisions (and possibly have some major fights with your husband) over getting it back by showing him you are serious about your career. AND, I suspect, showing him (as well as yourself) that you have SUPPORT in pursuing that career (which currently, you don't). Your advisor probably realizes, as most academics will tell you, that you can do it without support, maybe; but doing it when you have a partner who actively tries to undermine your work is basically impossible.
I think that either choice is valid. The real question, and it requires some real honesty with yourself, is do you want to finish the diss and pursue an academic career, or do you want to be a good wife to this husband as he is? You shouldn't have to make that choice, but from what you've said of your situation, it sounds like that's the choice your husband is forcing on you. You might, with a great deal of work, be able to persuade him to change and therefore save your career and your marriage (perhaps he is worried that if you are ambitious, you'll leave him). Or you might not, in which case you have to choose which is more important.
The way I'd try to figure out my feelings on the question is this: if you choose the husband over the career, and the husband leaves you, will you regret it for the rest of your life? If you choose the career over the husband, and the career doesn't work out, will you regret that for the rest of your life?
And whatever you do, I beg you: don't have children until you know the answer to that question.
Although, again, if you're primarily interested in a job that's compatible with your marriage as it currently is, then you might be able to find a position where being permanently ABD is fine.
- housecleaner's on the way
- I'm making active efforts to find an academic coach
- my advisor and coadvisor are asking for some stuff (coding schemes and results of said coding) in order to proceed further
- I will also give up cooking (although I have to say, I really love cooking)
- I will not have children in the near future.
I'll take it from there. I want to finish, but I'll have to rethink this academic job thing. I might need to look into alternative careers, frankly. But it's imperative, for my own well being, that I finish, and my recent discussions with hubby-unit reveal that he understands that too. Hence, the prompt hiring of a cleaning lady as a first step.
(Cooking can sometimes be therapeutic--maybe promise yourself that if you meet your daily writing goal, you'll cook something you really enjoy for dinner/dessert!)
THat was never clearer to me than when I realised that years of compromise had convinced my husband I didn't really want to be an academic -- if I had wanted it, I'd not have compromised so much!
Husband is now X. We're both happier. It might not have happened if I hadn't finished and come back to teaching. But I know that, if I hadn't, I'd still regret it. I think Dr. B. nailed it pretty well -- which will you regret losing more, if it comes down to it? Because you might. But for me, not finishing, not trying to do this academic thing for a living, was a negation of some very essential parts of myself. It wasn't a choice of X or my career, it was whether I could live with the me that I'd become to tryi to keep my marriage together. I couldn't.
You can only do what you think is best for YOU in the long run. No matter what else happens, you are the person you will always have to live with.
* teaching as an adjunct at a local CC
* seeing my significant other for nearly four months
* the job search
The Ph.D. had to be the number one, two and three priority.
Once you (anon author) find your path, I wish you the best of luck and happiness on it. (I think the changes you have planned already are a great start!)