Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Doctoral Student's Favorite Question

To be innocently asked at holiday parties, social gatherings, random interactions with old acquaintances, generally at a moment of the doctoral student's height of self-doubt, worry, and fear.

So, when do you think you'll finish?

It's a question that's hard for many reasons. First of all, a doctoral program is not like a law degree, MBA, or medical degree, spaced out and designed to be finished at a precise time.

The question does not always factor into other responsibilities, such as a job, teaching, family responsibilities.

The question does not always take into consideration department changes, such as faculty on sabbatical, developments in the material, changes in funding, etc.

On the surface, it looks like an easy question, to be answered quickly and precisely. But no.

It's a question that we've had to prepare and revise often, as the project has developed. Our original defense date may have been pushed back by an advisor's recommendation, our own delays, unrealistic goals, or a set of other circumstances. It's a question that we often fear that when we answer, we will have disappointed or let down the person who asked it, showing that we were unable to meet our original deadline. It is our least favorite question, because our response is carefully crafted to hide any fear of failure or feeling like an imposter (just one article of many on Imposter Syndrome in grad school:
Feeling not smart enough to successfully write a dissertation looks like this

I read an article on Inside Higher Ed before the New Year that was a response to a concerned parent (also an academic) whose child who like her, became a professor, but had yet to get her book published.
I’m writing because she will be visiting us for the holidays, and I don’t know what to do. I wish I could finish the book for her, but I can’t. I’m not even sure if I should ask the dreaded question: “How’s the book coming along?”
A Professor's Parent
The author, Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, came up with an excellent response ( and I think her main points can be applied to the support network of graduate students. We all need our squads, but I think sometimes our loved ones don't know what to do say or do, for fear of hitting the wrong nerve. I'm including a few relevant sections, with my own comments in italics. 

Create the Space for Real Conversation
If you decide you want to have a meaningful and supportive conversation about your loved one’s progress on her book, ask about it in an appropriate setting where you can have a private conversation and when there’s enough time to have a meaningful exchange. In other words,
  • Do not ask the dreaded question in the first 10 minutes of her arriving at your house.
  • Do not ask the dreaded question as casual conversational banter over the snack table (“Did you get a haircut?” “How’s the book coming along?” “Wow, your cheese dip is yummy. Can I get the recipe?”).
  • Do not -- under any circumstances -- ask the dreaded question in front of a crowd of others (at the holiday dinner table, in the middle of a football game on TV or during a gift exchange).
All of these examples send the implicit message that the answer is one sentence and that you’re not interested in listening to what’s really going on in a writer’s life. You want the opposite: a quiet, private space where you can have a supportive conversation. Amen. Part of the reason it's not an easy question to answer is that we want to discuss with you the various components that we've been working on within the dissertation, and how they impact our defense date.
Ask Permission
This may be hard. But if you want to have a meaningful conversation with someone you love about her progress on a book manuscript, you need to ask if she wants to have that conversation with you. That means being open to the range of possible responses: she may be relieved to discuss it with you, she may be hesitant and/or she may be completely uninterested. You can simply say: “I love you, and I’m genuinely curious about your book project. I also know how hard it is to talk about a book project when you’re in the midst of it. So I’m wondering if we can have a supportive conversation.” Then stop talking.
If she says anything resembling “No,” “Back off,” “The best support would be to stop asking me about it” or “I really don’t want to talk about it,” that’s OK. It’s her choice as to whether she trusts you, wants to confide in you on this topic and wants to talk about it in that particular moment. If you are rebuffed, all you need to do is let her know you’re there for her if/when she wants to talk. That can be as simple as saying, “OK, I respect that and want you to know you can talk to me if you ever need to. I’m here to support you in any way I can.” Yes! I am generally not one to say "back off," but the thing to take away from this is that the questioner is ready to offer support no matter what the response.
Listen and Reflect
If she wants to continue the conversation, encourage her to share how she’s feeling, what she’s experiencing and how she’s thinking about the project. Your job is to listen. By that I mean literally listen (i.e., don’t talk over her, interrupt her or give her unsolicited advice). But also try to listen deeply by staying open, being curious, asking questions and remaining entirely focused on her.
The reason listening is so important is that writers who are stuck in a project tend to self-isolate, and it may be the case that, up until now, the only conversation she’s having about the book is in her own mind. So her thoughts and feelings may come out messy and disjointed and/or sound irrational. But in that moment, writers just need to be seen, heard and understood. That means your primary job and greatest gift in that moment is to listen. If it feels as if you need to say anything, try reflecting what she’s entrusted you with. (“What I hear you saying is ….”) Or ask the kind of questions that encourage further sharing: “What is that like for you?” or “How is that impacting you?” I really like this point because it addresses the issue of self-isolation. Most days, I am completely in my own head about my writing and don't get an opportunity to discuss it with others until my husband comes home, or my mom gets off from work. So I certainly appreciate and welcome opportunities for real discussion, and to get a sounding board outside of my head.
Offer Support
At a certain point in the conversation, you will be able to sense that the writer has fully described where she is the writing process, the challenges she is facing and where she may be stuck. At that point, offer your support by asking directly, “How can I best support you now?” Because you’ve been listening closely, you’ll have several ideas in mind. But it’s important to ask her first because she may need a very specific form of support.
Alternatively, she may be so stressed out that she doesn’t know what she needs. If that’s the case, then you can suggest several concrete forms of support. The most common types of support I see offered are: 1) household assistance (child care, cleaning service, help with errands, food delivery, etc.), 2) task support related to manuscript completion (editing, proofreading, formatting, etc.) and 3) social support (someone to call, a listening ear, a hug, etc.). We all can use help. I know I can keep my house in order, but as I get closer to finishing, I'll want someone to look at my work. I can always appreciate social support, because I definitely benefit from my loved ones.
I hope that these suggestions will help you move from asking the dreaded question to having a truly supportive conversation. And for all the  writers out there who are already anticipating the dreaded question over the holidays, I hope these ideas help you to recognize that many family and friends truly want to support you and are often just looking for the best way to do so.
Okay, and a little love from Ryan Gosling doesn't hurt either.
But seriously. Do I have an answer right now? Not a precise one. It is my hope to defend by the end of 2016, which would mean earning my degree at age 30. If I can get into a good rhythm and get into a good submission and revision routine with my advisor, it is a possibility. The university gives me a deadline of end of Spring 2017, so most likely I will be finishing either slightly early or right on time. It's not something that can just be cranked out, and if I could just use sheer determination and will power, I would. But it's neither a simple nor straightforward process.
All of this is to say, I don't always have an answer at the ready. I know what I need to do to make it to the finish line - I just can't precisely predict my finish time in the great marathon project of my life.
But when the question comes from a place of genuine love and concern, I'll always be glad to give an answer, even if it's vague or full of feelings and worries. And even happier when I can answer with a set defense date.
Will make this dream a reality someday!And there will be many people to thank who I know will help get me to the finish line.

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