Do I Have to Finish My Dissertation?

Brian Taylor

January 24, 2012

Question: What do you recommend for a doctoral candidate who's lost her passion for her dissertation topic? It's been a quick-and-dirty end to a long love affair. I had been working as the director of a community program, which (I found out) needed serious help. I'd started turning my notes about the program into a case-study dissertation—when the ax fell. The boss abruptly and without any warning cut the program and left me unemployed.

There's an alternative site where I could finish the research, but I've lost my enthusiasm along with my job. I'm now teaching as an adjunct, but in a department that isn't connected with the subject of my research. Although I've finished my coursework and passed comprehensives, it's hard to get motivated to do the research proposal that's the next step. Do I tell my committee and my family that I just can't go on? Or do I suck it up and try to finish?

Answer: Some call it a dark night of the soul. Ms. Mentor calls it dissertation writing. It's a process filled with rage and despair, bursts of exhilaration and rivers of whining. A lot like real life—except that you don't really have to do it if you don't want to.

And so Ms. Mentor suggests you ask yourself the following questions.

  • Do I believe that it's character-building to finish what I start, and that I'll let down my team if I don't?
  •  That is a common delusion, especially among young people who go straight through school without pausing for real-life jobs. Just as you fought your way through the eighth-grade bullies, sat through strange electives as an undergraduate, and endured widely varying seminars in graduate school, now the last endurance test is at hand.

  • Do you have what it takes?
  • Ms. Mentor notes that half of the students who reach the A.B.D. stage where you are—with exams and course work done—never do finish the dissertation. Especially in the humanities, many of them decide it isn't a good investment for young adults. In English, it takes an average of 11 years from the start of graduate school to getting the Ph.D., followed by three years of applying for tenure-track jobs that most Ph.D.'s will never get.

    "I spent my youth on one dead general," historian Blanche Wiesen Cook has said about her dissertation on Dwight D. Eisenhower. She wonders sometimes about the roads not taken.

    If you mainly need to demonstrate your self-discipline to friends and relatives who've thought you were "farting around with grad school" for years, Ms. Mentor thinks finishing a dissertation is a very long and arduous way to seek their approval. If you're going to walk a long, lonesome highway, be sure you've chosen it for yourself.

  • Do I need a Ph.D. for my chosen profession?
  • In some fields you do, like in medical research, astrophysics, or any field involving large machines doing expensive calculations.

    You also need a Ph.D. for university teaching—but only if you want to work full time, on the tenure track. Adjuncts, who now teach the majority of college courses, may or may not have "terminal degrees." Some are working professionals, such as musicians, artists, and community organizers, who may have no degrees at all.

    You do need a Ph.D. to teach esoteric branches of literary criticism or political theory. The ivory tower is the only place where impractical ponderers may still be cherished. (And even so, philosophy departments are closing down everywhere. Studying the meaning of life no longer sells.)

    Your research, though, sounds practical and socially useful. You don't need a Ph.D. to write and publish a book about your project, especially if it has lessons for people who come after you. You've already done the community work—and you've been punished for it. Your book could be an inspiring tale of rising from the ashes, transcending failure and moving on.

    A book will reach a larger audience, and few people will care if you have "Doctor" in front of your name. (And once you do, you'll be disheartened by the number of people who ask "Are you a real doctor?," meaning a medical one. You'll be tempted to take out their appendixes anyway, just for fun.)

  • Is my work an original contribution to knowledge?
  • That's the traditional test. A dissertation should tell the world something new, although creators of new knowledge aren't always honored at first. Thomas Kuhn, the namer and discoverer of paradigm shifts, bounced around from physics to history to philosophy, and was even turned down for tenure at Harvard University because his book was "too popular." But his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) is now a landmark in the history of knowledge.

    He was an original thinker, not confined to a single academic department, and so are you: You're already doing research in one field and teaching in another. You have admirable versatility, and, it seems, a unique story to tell.

    Ms. Mentor wonders if it's the bureaucratic hoops that are getting you down, or a deeper malaise ("my research sucks"). Departmental barriers can be transcended, especially if you find a powerful mentor to vouch for the value of your work. But "this is useless" is a common refrain among dissertation writers, and some never do sing any other tune.

    Ms. Mentor suggests giving yourself a few months of rumination time. Then consider: Do you miss the research? Do you yearn to write it for your academic peers, or get it before the world as a book? Do you find yourself hearing about other programs' mistakes and twitching ("I know what they should be doing")?

    The best work can live after you. Ms. Mentor thinks of Josiah Royce, a gruff Californian who earned one of the first four American Ph.D.'s (from the Johns Hopkins University in 1878). Royce went on to coin the term "beloved community," the dream that moved a young doctoral student named Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s, decades after Royce's death. The dream of a beloved community today inspires the Occupy protests for social justice.

    If your work can change the world, or even just your little corner of it, Ms. Mentor thinks you should continue. If not, you have her permission to stop and do something else that you find meaningful. Writing a dissertation when you no longer care can consume your life and destroy your dreams.


Question: A young colleague was struggling with a bureaucratic task I can easily do, but when I tried to explain it, he snarled at me and said he knows all that's current, and I am hopelessly behind the times. Should I persist in trying to mentor him, because it's the right thing to do, or rant to my peers about the ingratitude of the younger generation? Or would Ms. Mentor rather hide from the whole question?

Answer: Hide.

Sage readers: Despite fervent pleas from her flock, Ms. Mentor will make no predictions for the new year. She is not a pundit. She will urge everyone to do the right, smart thing, whatever that might be, and to save the best barbed comments for her and for intimates (and not for Twitter, Facebook, or university e-mails). Otherwise, the opportunities for satire and mortification are much too delicious.

As always, Ms. Mentor invites queries, rants, and theories. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily. All communications are confidential, and identifying details are always puréed. They can suspect it's you, but they won't know.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her latest book is "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is (c) Emily Toth. All rights reserved