“My name is Sofia Georgiadou, I am from Greece”, spoken with a very Greek accent and extra-rolled r letters used to be the very first (and sometimes only) words my classmates would hear from me during the first few months of my MA studies in Marriage in Family Therapy at the University of Louisiana at Monroe in 2007. Fast-forward to 5 years later in 2012, I graduated with a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy from the same University. During these five years in an American University, I got to observe and learn a great amount.
While completing my dissertation in a little over 3 years, I sometimes gained the hard way insights and hands-on experience. Today, I am happy to share these lessons in my dear colleagues’ blog with the hope that I can help future PhD students feel more encouraged and avoid some common (yet often unspoken) pitfalls during the process of writing a doctoral dissertation. Please blame my background as a foreign student from Greece and an “outsider” looking into the politics and culture of US Universities for my often uncanny perspective. So, here are the things I wish a fellow PhD would have shared with me, when I began my PhD studies:
- When you consider and/or approach Professors to discuss your dissertation topic, try to weigh in YOUR individual relationship with them before you make final judgments based on who others (e.g. fellow classmates and doctoral candidates) select as Chair/Committee members or who others work better with. One Professor who other students have difficulty working with can be the one whose name you will end up swearing by. We all have our individual quirks and different people develop different relationships with each other.
- From a systemic perspective, seeing is believing. I came to acknowledge the true value of this statement during my PhD studies, while listening in countless conversations of classmates anxiously discussing “dramatic” developments between Professors and rumors about Professors’ terrible relationships with each other. If you believe in drama, you will see lots of it. Take the initiative to have an honest conversation with each of the Professors you want to include in your Committee and ask them if they think they can work with one another in order to help you finish your project.
- There may be changes in your Committee formation – do not get distracted by them. Most of our Professors have gone through this process hundreds of times; they know the ups and downs of this much better than you at this point in your life. If somebody agrees to work with you halfway through your process of proposing/defending that means they appreciate you and your work enough to support you. Score!
- Make peace with the fact that there WILL be setbacks: from Professors who do not have time to look at your document and give you feedback in a timely fashion, to administrative deadlines of the University you did not meet or were unaware of, to the printing machine that was not working at the Computer lab.
- Did you just get a brilliant idea in your head? Did you just come up with the final title of your dissertation? Did you JUST finalize the main categories in your qualitative study or run the last multiple regression on your quantitative data and you ARE ITCHING to send any of the above to your Chair for review? Breathe. Let it sink. Do NOT send the first thoughts that pop into your head to your Chair/Committee for consideration. They WILL change as you continue working further on your study, whatever stage you are in (formation of research problem or data analysis). Sit with your initial thoughts for a while, and then send the final version of your draft to your Chair/Committee.
- Discuss preferences of communication for each of the Committee members and Chair. Some Professors as Chairs want you to speak with the rest of the Committee AFTER they have reviewed your document and make corrections. Others want to be the ones who communicate with the rest of the Committee on your behalf. Others treat their role and the Committee members’ roles as equal and want everybody to weigh in on the judgment of your document simultaneously. Make sure you clarify those preferences with your Chair FIRST while you start the process of submitting drafts to the Committee.
- If you catch yourself thinking of how much emotionally invested you are in making this a great manuscript, congratulations, you chose a topic you feel passionate about and you are on the right track!!!
- After all, it is YOUR name on the manuscript: Sometimes I had to remind myself this was MY original study. This reminder became necessary only a handful of times in my experience, when I happened to become overwhelmed by a few professors’ requests for changes on my manuscript. Yes, there might be revisions that your Professors endorse and YOU do not agree with. Stand your ground. Explain your position. Having several highly experienced professors inspect your work can make one doubt their abilities and choices, but sometimes it is absolutely essential to remain true to yourself and your original intentions. Your dissertation’s authorship will follow YOU for the rest of your life, and it is best to carry it with pride, rather than regret.
I would love to hear your very own personal lessons from the dissertation writing process. What did you wish someone would have told you when you started this process? Please leave a comment below.
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