Thursday, February 02, 2006

Ask the Admin: The Good Girl at the End of Her Rope

A woman in dissertation hell writes (edited for length):

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.

Time out.

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.

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.