To Finish Your Dissertation…

"The dissertation is the monument to the moment when the committee gave up" ~ Dr. D. Barry Lumsden

I constantly hear from dissertants how their professors have had personality changes at the beginning stages of writing their dissertation proposals. In fact, some professors abdicate their helpfulness verbally, even though the declaration seems counterproductive, counter-intuitive, and logically fallacious. At least the professor is being honest.

Dissertants believe in the myth that was told to them during the recruitment process: “Your dissertation chair is here to guide you through the process and ensure you graduate <insert the norm at your school: on time, in a timely manner, etc.> with a quality study that you can use for publications after graduation.” The reality of 90% or more of cases, the professor is not and likely unwilling to spend added time with the dissertant.

The myth is that the dissertation is a solo, independent project by which the dissertant shows the culmination of all coursework in a final comprehensive, generative task. The dissertation includes evaluating literature, synthesizing literature, creating a process for collecting data to address an identified problem, and creating or adding knowledge for the body of work. The dissertation represents the creation of knowledge as the highest form of cognitive ability in the learning taxonomy, which is used throughout education to develop curricula, produce rubrics, and determine student achievement.

The reality is that the dissertation is a team effort, whether or not that team involves the professors assigned to the dissertant. The team can include the dissertant’s significant other and family. The team can include the editors, coaches, and statisticians hired by the dissertant. The team can include friends and pastors. It is very rare that the dissertant works literally alone, as if stranded on a deserted island.

It is all too common that the professor tells the dissertant to operate as a solo artist and not to bother the professor unless a full draft of the proposal or final product is being sent. In fact, it is common that the professor who said the student’s work was good before the dissertation process changes position to argue the dissertant’s writing does not meet standards of academic rigor during the dissertation process. The good doctor version of the professor turns into a version of Mr. Hyde during the dissertation.

If you have the experience of the turn from Jeckyll to Hyde by your dissertation chair, please note the following: You are being hazed. You are not crazy. This behavior is nothing you can control, your choice for success is to persist, to put on your sharkskin coat and cover your head with its hoody, and to keep bothering your professor.

I received this message at the midnight hour, the witching hour, the proverbial last minute about a fundamental shift in the design or draft that “it’ll only take 20 minutes,” and I have seen several dissertants undergo the fallout of a professor sending this same message. The professor purposefully overwhelms the dissertant with this message, whose underlying tone is either “go away” or “I don’t know what is going on.” In the “don’t know” case, remember, the professor doesn’t want to be caught not knowing, so take the statement as a challenge to justify why you know what you know with evidence.

In the case of the “go away” message, don’t go away. Persist. Your professor knows full well that you lack his or her seasoned prowess for research report writing. You want to receive guidance and wisdom so you need to seek it out with external resources like books, articles, and valid websites.

Recently, I had a dissertant come to me with this exact problem: The professor wanted a fundamental shift in the design of the study that included a complete change in the hypotheses and presentation of the results in a 180 page, five-chapter dissertation and had the audacity to say that making the adjustments was a 20-minute task. The dissertant came to me for help based on recognizing how the adjustments were going to affect all five chapters. I took on the editorial part of the task, noting that copy and paste from the change was most of what was needed, and it was not a 20-minute job, not even for me!

Here’s what is important to recognize when a professor pulls the “it’ll only take 20 minutes” crap, I am a seasoned veteran of research writing. In the case of my example, I needed 1.5 hours to complete the editorial elements of the task; the student had spent over an hour in my office just conceiving of how to make the cognitive shifts in thinking, and those shifts led to hours of rewrites. I literally felt like I was having a traumatic flashback episode to my own dissertation defense when a professor on my committee decided that my complete study required a different statistical design–at my final defense. I had done one type of statistical model, but he decided that my combination of variables would have been better presented with a different statistical design at the proverbial witching hour during my defense. He had the audacity to say that I only needed “a couple of hours” to complete the statistical procedure’s tasks and revise the entire Chapters 4 and 5 of the dissertation. The gasps had by the peanut gallery at my defense were audible!

Now, my advice is the find the middle ground or to use the evidence supporting your previous set up to reduce the impact of the 20 fictional minutes floating around in your faculty’s head. In my case, I found the middle ground, I did perform some additional statistics because the requested modeling was not feasible, literally. Nonetheless, I spent 3 days working on the adjustments that affected four of the five chapters. I went to the professor’s office and showed him my additional 48 hours of new content and multi-chaptered edits. We agreed that my adjustments were an appropriate compromise, and he passed me at that time, and that happened because I brought evidence, and I showed that I learned a new statistical technique and could talk cogently about it in the 3 days following my final defense meeting.

If this case happens to you, you can persist by staying on top of the crisis hourly–don’t wait it out because it will get worse. Professors notoriously forget what is going on with your study, and if you take a hiatus, then you allow them to forget enough to come up with a new “20-minute” problem you have to address. If you remain active with the problem solving and keep an open mind about how to work around the new mental grenade that went off in your head, then this too shall pass.

Let’s talk for a minute about the excuses, excuses you get from professors DURING THE TERM FOR WHICH YOU PAID TUITION. Let’s start with a list of this litany of excuses that I have seen in the emails and other forms of communications that occur between dissertants and professors over a nearly 20 year period, including when I was still a graduate student. Of import, there might be 6 to 8 weeks left in the current time when any of these statements come to you. Additionally, it is likely you got these excuses after you submitted the draft 2 weeks prior to finally getting this much communication. I have broken them into the two categories of online versus brick & mortar doctoral professors:

Online Professors’ Top Excuses

  1. “I can’t get to your document till after this semester, because we have so much going on in the family [or with my kids, etc.]. So, just wait until the first week of the next term, then I will be able to spend time reviewing your draft.”
  2. “I have to attend the funeral of [insert random person who is not a direct relative] in [insert name of some X amount of hours away place] so I won’t be able to read your draft for at least a week, so you need to give me extra time.”
  3. “My grandkids are staying with me for a month.”
  4. “Thanksgiving is coming up in a week, so let’s make an appointment to talk afterward because I am too busy planning for my family to visit. I don’t have time to deal with you now.”
  5. “Until you send an APA compliant document, I don’t see any need to read your proposal because I am not an editor.”
  6. “Why do we need to talk? I insert comments in the document; you should use those comments to guide you. They are very clear.”

Brick & Mortar Professors’ Top Excuses

  1. “I have classes whose students are a higher priority than you are.”
  2. “You don’t understand the pressure on me to get articles written and papers graded, so you just need to wait your turn.”
  3. “I teach three classes and have to grade 17 total papers plus give finals, so your draft will wait until after finals.” (This one was given to a student right after spring break with 7 weeks left in the term during which the professor originally had agreed to allow the student propose.)
  4. “Our department is being scrutinized for <insert administrative crisis, e.g., certification and accreditation, reorganization> so I don’t have time for you. The department chair told us to make the <insert crisis solution> process our main priority, other than classes we teach, this term.”
  5. “I don’t get paid to read drafts. You need to write a final, complete draft of your proposal; then we can talk.”
  6. “I have office hours but those are for students in my classes; you aren’t in one of my classes. Email is fine. You don’t need to come to campus.”

Common Excuses Among Both Types of Schools’ Professors

  1. “How did you ever get through classes, let alone comps? Your writing is not scholarly, and there is no way your proposal will pass with how it looks now. You should consider hiring an editor.”
  2. “I already have a student defending this semester, so I don’t have time to deal with you. You have to wait your turn.”
  3. “Why do we need to talk? Can’t you just send an email?”

These excuses for not attending to students are pretty typical. I have heard about them over and over again for decades. They are examples of how sad it is that you pay good money for academic malpractice to be committed at you every semester. Dissertation students who have careers off-campus or attend online programs rarely have dissertation professors who remain accessible to them by simply answering the phone, allowing students to take advantage of office hours, or using free time to interact with or shoot a short email to students.

You want to persist every 12 to 48 hours, depending on when you made first contact as follows:

  1. Send your email, and expect a reply in a timely fashion: 24 to 48 hours.
  2. Surreptitiously resend the email and drop a text to check for email. Wait 24 hours.
  3. Make a phone call, and leave a voice mail if necessary. Wait 24 hours, repeat text.
  4. Wait 12 hours, call, and keep doing the same thing in 12-hour intervals.

They will get back to you when they realize that their cruise or other trip or wild goose chase is going to have to be interrupted by their job.

Final thought: When you have the sensation of feeling crazy or not sure about what is going on with how you are being treated or how you are receiving the messages sent to you by your professors and their overlords, do not assume you, dissertant, don’t know things (see a previous blog).

Dear Dissertant,

Over the years, I have come to know the novice dissertation advisor as one who chooses to write “this is all wrong” rather than try to figure out how to tell you what the nature of the “wrong” is so that you can efficiently overcome it and make it “right.” The reality is that the novice advisor is capable of identifying wrong but lacks the needed training or experience to recognize what they see as an error or why what they see something you wrote as “wrong.” Meanwhile, the senior, veteran advisor who enjoys “making them sweat” uses the “all wrong” as a way to get under their students’ skins and keep them from coming back to the professor for a while with their questions. (My advice: Never be your professor’s first dissertation.)

It is actually rare, sadly, that a professor says one of the following: “You made a good effort but your effort was filled with problems and holes that need to be cleared up or solved and here they are….”; or “I want to help you so I will lay the issues as I seem them out and enable you to fix them…”  I refer to those professors as “the dream,” and when I have knowledge of such professors, I usually tell dissertation writers who have those dream professors advising them that they don’t need a coach but might want a formatting editor for the entire end product. The dream professor conducts less hazing (i.e., uses less humiliating communication) with students who spend less time on the process of completing and defending their dissertations. The dream professor happens less than 10% of the time.

I share this information in order to debunk the myth that dissertants know very little and faculty know more. For the new-to-dissertation advising, dissertants have only one round of experience less than the new advisor. Additionally, professors generally don’t know the rules of APA any more than you do, which is irritating, especially for editors, when these professors may deride you or your editor as poor writers to create the “illusion of them knowing.”

Know that professors do hire editors, especially when submitting to those top tier journals! Professors can be inclined to use Grammarly and Reciteworks tools as shields or throw those results like metaphorical rocks to look like they know more about writing research than you do. But here’s the rub: APA isn’t accurately embedded at a 100% rate within those tools. Consequently, you–the dissertant–must always have your current APA edition at your fingertips.

Keep this nugget in mind: Professors speak in a special “I’m in the doctor club” code. I was told years and years ago by a mentor, who had been one of my graduate professors, that the one thing faculty never want students, let alone dissertants, to see is them “not knowing.” They will go to great lengths and even tell lies to ensure they look knowledgeable, including using Grammarly as a shield to prevent a student from seeing the “not knowing” in action. Faculty would rather make up rules that are easily debunked, such as “no footnotes are allowed in APA” (yes, that happened and they are allowed) than look up footnotes in the manual’s index and see that a student did apply the APA 6th edition manual’s content on footnotes correctly. Sometimes, professors even say, “Well, if that is what APA says, it’s not what I want, so do it my way.” At least then, we know the professor got caught not knowing! That’s how you start the process of breaking down the gate to get into the club–show the professor you can use evidence to prove your point.

In short, don’t believe everything your professor says–look for evidence to support what they claim! Don’t play the “trust but verify” game. Play with postpositivistic skepticism and daily persistentce!

Dear Dissertant,

Do you really want to finish? Here are the first three or so things I can think of that you ought to be doing and are not.

  1. Having trouble getting replies from your chair/mentor/advisor? Send your email, and expect a reply in a timely fashion: 24 to 48 hours. Then surreptitiously resend the email and drop a text to check for email. Wait 24 hours. Then make a phone call, and leave a voice mail if necessary. Wait 24 hours, repeat text. Wait 12 hours, call, and keep doing the same thing in 12-hour intervals. They will get back to you when they realize that their cruise or other trip is going to have to be interrupted by their job.
  2. Don’t expect a professional, respectful RELATIONSHIP with your chair/mentor/advisor/etc. Sorry. They want to be sure you know they are in control of your fate. I recommend you playing by the rules of parliament and be NICE (noble, intellectual, compassionate, empathic). Show some respect, but ASSERT yourself–never don’t make contact, never shrink away, always persist. Note the important aspect of this process. They were hazed by their chairs and cannot help themselves 90% of the time, so they say things like “you finish when I tell you you are done and not one semester less.”
  3. If you attend a for-profit or online school, your chair is working on a contract, basically like a part-time adjunct. The school will have a full-time professor who will overthrow all control over your chair and your work because the full-timer outranks the chair on every dissertation. Consequently, you can add 1 year to your sentence of dissertation hell. And know that you the student will be blamed for the usurper by telling you things like, “but I thought you hired an editor” (really!?! that’s a cop-out). That behavior of delegating responsibility to the powerless is part of the power trip of the hazing ritual in this relationship and in this dissertation process.
  4. Don’t believe the professor cares, until the professor has approved your final draft of your all done dissertation and calls you doctor in return. Meanwhile, you do your best to be NICE while you PERSIST, always every 12-48 hours.

Sincerely,

Dr. C, on behalf of 144 done doctors and counting.