Big news: I am set to publicly defend my dissertation in a few weeks at my university! 🎉🎉🎉
This means that, although I will have to make committee-suggested edits afterward, the end is close. Soon I'll bind a few copies of that sucker and ship it off to the dean, and even more important: I won't have to explain my dissertation to family, friends, and strangers anymore.
This all took a really long time.
I wanted to write about my grad school experience, because I remember feeling comforted by the perspectives of students who had escaped grad school in some way or another. So, here it is. Here's why a dissertation takes so damn long.
A PhD was a hell of a life choice, and at times, it was, in fact, hell.
Some PhD struggles were expected, like long work hours and low income. Others were a persistent surprise. If I had understood the mental and emotional challenges that awaited me, I'd have been too afraid to begin.
But as it happened, I naively joined a PhD program after college, moving halfway down the east coast with an empty bank account, no health insurance, and a Jeep Cherokee that would not survive the first 12 months. I didn't know anyone with an advanced degree and I didn't know what to expect. I had fuzzy ideas about cognitive psychology and product design, and a now-unfulfilled intention to work at NASA, but I didn't yet grasp how much there was to learn.
My first four years in the PhD program were a whirlwind of graduate coursework, research studies, a Master's thesis, conference presentations, journal publications, involvement in professional organizations, and, finally, a set of terrifying and totally fail-able qualifying exams.
In our program, once you get over all those hurdles, and only after those things are behind you, you begin dissertation research. The purpose of a dissertation is to contribute new knowledge or a new theory to landmark your place as the foremost expert in a specific knowledge area. (My area of expertise? Designing virtual characters for training empathy skills in healthcare. 👍)
The problem is that those prior grad school years are unrelenting and demanding on mental health, physical health, finances, and relationships. It feels impossible to continue that breakneck speed into dissertation land.
Because once we have the slightest opportunity and schedule flexibility, we claim our nights and weekends back. And when our ungodly productivity falters to the productivity of a normal human, we might feel like a fraud, like a burnout, like a failure.
And some students dip out of the program before this point because they nab a quality industry job. That's a perfectly awesome thing to do. A dissertation is hard and, frankly, not a necessary evil. It's full of unique complications and complexities, and it's emotionally draining, and unwieldily, and we can never predict when it will be finished because so much of the process is out of our control.
But I stuck it out. After my four years of coursework and exams, it took me another four years to plan, create, and conduct the experiments and write my dissertation. And to make things more difficult, I'd moved back to upstate New York after the first dissertation year. To make this distance work, I shoehorned my experiments into an online methodology so I could collect student data remotely instead of by scheduling in-person sessions. This all took some figuring out.
And in the meantime, I took a research position at a university. Then I started a consulting company. Then I worked at a tech startup. My attitude was that my dissertation was not a beast to be forcefully tamed. I worked on it in sprints, and whenever I got burned out, I turned to other projects or took a giant break to keep my energy from dimming too much.
This method worked for me. But it became unexpectedly challenging to face the world and deflect streams of criticisms and misunderstandings. I found myself on the receiving end of comments that non-academics intended to be motivating, but really became frustrating.
Countless people, often acquaintances or strangers, offered suggestions to "work on it a little every night," as if I were sewing a quilt instead of pushing my exhausted mind to intellectual and emotional limits.
Others suggested that I'm being a perfectionist and I should just "get it done," not realizing that I was tirelessly working through an unplanned follow-up experiment because my first set of results were too poor to defend to my committee.
Sometimes I got whiny and defensive. But I trudged through all the frustrations and setbacks with the help of long chats with trusted friends who faced similar struggles.
And now that it's almost a memory, was the PhD process worth it? I think so, yes. I can't tell you how many times over the past eight years I considered breaking free from academia. Every time, I decided to not quite walk away.
And let me describe the good parts of the whole PhD thing, too (because it's unfair to paint it as unrelenting agony):
I've made incredible friendships with incredible humans -- in my program and in others across the country. I am continuously inspired by their integrity, kindness, and ambition. 💕
I developed a hefty amount of knowledge and skills very quickly, including the softer stuff like leadership and public speaking.
I've had a great PhD advisor with high expectations, who guided me to improve myself.
I've traveled around the country to give conference presentations, visiting several cities I wouldn't have experienced otherwise.
I am an expert in ways that are useful for innovative companies and organizations. I can help people!
And ya know what? I love my work. I couldn't possibly do all these amazing projects if I didn't forego normal adulthood and follow this jagged path.
And, of course, despite all those "hardships," working through a PhD program is a notion of incredible privilege. Being poor while a grad student is still viewed as admirable, while being poor in other contexts is seen as lazy. It was our choice to face those challenges. Even when we felt stuck, with no options, it was equally a mental barrier as a systemic one, and for that we were fortunate.
I think the whole PhD process, with all its highs and plunging lows, was worth it. But I also think it was right for me to start building a business and creating happiness at the expense of a speedy dissertation.
I hope that current grad students realize that they are not stuck, that they can do other things if something doesn't feel right about the PhD. And if they decide to stick it through, I hope they know it will get better, and they are not alone. The outside world will never understand how it feels on the inside, but that's okay. We are lucky enough to do kickass things, and sometimes that pays off in funny ways.