Leonard Cassuto

Professor at Fordham Univ

How to Write a Dissertation During a Pandemic

Full vitae graduate adviser

Kevin Van Aelst For The Chronicle

There’s not much good to find in a destructive pandemic, but here’s one potentially positive outcome: Covid-19 may bring graduate schools to a long-needed reckoning with the dissertation requirement. The coronavirus has effectively blown up the academic job market. Many doctoral students feel a crisis of purpose: Should they bother to keep writing? If you’re a graduate student working on your dissertation — or a faculty adviser guiding a student — you share in this unfortunate reality.

A dissertation is a large and challenging project to manage. It’s a constellation of tasks, each of which can be hard to focus on even in the best of times, let alone now. Project management has become decidedly tougher amid Covid-19, as researchers face barriers to travel, limited access to archives, and difficulties getting equipment and materials. And then there are the problems that attend working from home.

All of that is hard enough, but the pandemic also has decimated an already weak academic job market, while other career paths for Ph.D.s have been hemorrhaging jobs, too.

Any doctoral students who feel a sense of existential dread certainly aren’t alone. Dread is exhausting and soul-killing, and you should get whatever help you need to cope (including therapy). Only you can decide whether stopping work on your dissertation will make you feel better or worse. Affirming your own sense of purpose — whatever that is — will help you pursue it.

In an occasional series on the dissertation, I’ve written about how to demystify the proposal, write the introduction, and benefit from writing groups. Here I’ll explore the “why bother to finish?” doubts that the pandemic has intensified. What’s the use of your dissertation?

To answer that, it helps to understand how we got to this point. Only in recent years have more and more academics started to view a dissertation as a project with multiple possible purposes. For too long, we saw the Ph.D. primarily as a pathway to the professoriate, stemming from a brief postwar moment in the United States when there were more academic jobs than qualified Ph.D.s to fill them. It’s hard to imagine now, but if you finished a doctorate during that 1960s heyday, you could actually choose where in the country you wanted to live and work as a faculty member.

That brief state of affairs cast a long historical shadow. When the academic job market first constricted, in the 1970s, students and faculty members alike believed it was a blip, and they waited for things to get better. It turned out that the real blip was the abundance of tenure-track jobs in the 1960s, but few academics accepted that diagnosis at the time. Studies even predicted a faculty shortage in the 1990s — a rebound that never materialized, mostly because institutions turned to adjunct labor. Long before Covid-19, most Ph.D.s produced by American universities were not finding full-time faculty jobs.

Meanwhile, dissertations took longer and longer to finish, and time to degree slowly climbed. It attained levels that once would have been considered absurd and today are all too familiar. A growing movement to cut time to degree has been underway for several years now. (That reform movement has its critics, too — such as this recent essay in The Chronicle about why it’s “a good thing” that a doctorate takes time.)

During those long years in graduate school, students grow accustomed to the primacy of “academic placement” — i.e., that you write a dissertation to get a faculty job — because that’s the only career path that professors are able to knowledgeably advise you on. A key problem with the academic-placement model: It suggests you will be “placed” into a teaching position, which is not how faculty hiring works. More important, it obscures the larger world in which you create your dissertation, and your agency within it.

To assess the value of your dissertation, you need to consider not just the project itself, but also the skills you acquire while writing it. Those skills will vary by field and training, but the one skill that all Ph.D.s share is a sophisticated ability to work with information: to create, gather, analyze, manipulate, and synthesize it — and, perhaps most important, to teach it.

Your dissertation displays that sophistication. But the process by which you gain skills and savvy with information matters more than the dissertation itself. Your thesis is the most consequential part of your graduate education, not just a document that proves you’ve completed it. You learn while writing it, and that’s part of the reason it can take a long time to finish. The skills you gain while writing a dissertation form the foundation of your professional life — no matter where it takes place — and remain useful for much longer than the content of your specialized subfield will.

Few Ph.D.s draw on their actual dissertation research for very long. But for their whole lives, they continue to apply the expertise they gained while they wrote it. A Ph.D. who now works as a lobbyist told me (at a conference, back when we attended those in person) that he draws on his graduate training every day. His comment is typical of what I hear from the Ph.D.s I’ve talked with in a mix of career sectors.

In his excellent new bookLeaving Academia: A Practical Guide, Christopher L. Caterine describes how he moved from that familiar feeling of dread to a realization of the value of his skills. He then used those skills — starting with his research abilities — to look for the job he now holds in the corporate world. Caterine’s journey, which he describes with disarming frankness, is a model of self-discovery.

If you are reflecting on whether to finish (or if your doctoral student is), it helps to keep in mind that you, like Caterine, can rely on the lasting usefulness of what you’re doing right now. The process of writing your dissertation has independent professional value — independent, that is, of specific job markets.

That’s the big-picture take on the value of writing a dissertation. Now let’s look at the local context. Like everyone else, you’re living in a Covid-noisy, Covid-restricted world. The limits vary from person to person and place to place, but no people are living the same way that they did a year ago. So, for starters, don’t wait for this to be over. It could last a while, and we all have to live while it does. Second, and more important, acknowledge the specific limits you face, and figure out how you’re going to work inside them.

If writing will offer you the distraction you need in these anxious times, it will help to break down the project into task-centered chunks, rather than let the whole, giant project swirl around inside your head. Set up a meeting with your adviser (probably virtually), and devote it entirely to those tactical questions. Work together to figure out how to break up your thesis into separate jobs that fit your work habits.

Then tackle each task, one at a time, and complete it before you move on to the next. (Advisers: Keep your students fixed on the discrete task before them, and check on their progress regularly. I’ll have more to say about that next month, when I’ll write about how to advise a dissertation during a pandemic.)

As you work, remember that the audience for most dissertations is tiny. Outside of people with whom you share DNA or a bed, the number of people who will read your whole thesis is ordinarily fewer than five. And for now, the audience is just one: you.

Don’t let your dissertation grow to fill our slowed-down pandemic time. Your life is waiting for you — and the world needs the creative problem-solving you’ve learned in graduate school to help us out of the mess we’re all in. Here’s some good news: The regimen that I’m describing here will work after the pandemic is over, too.

Read other items in this The Graduate Adviser package.


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