Adventures in Ethics and Science

The other day, it occurred to me that I have a goodly number of friends who have been in Ph.D. programs (and may still be “in” the program in some more or less official way), and who have more or less finished their graduate research, but who haven’t managed to get their dissertations written. (I’m not going to name names; you know who you are.)

In this post, I want to offer these friends (and others in this situation) encouragement to get that dissertation written!

Yes, I know, you have your reasons for not finishing. Yes, I know writing a dissertation can feel like the hardest thing ever — I wrote two of them, so I have a bit of experience here. Believe me, I know that the writing of a dissertation often takes place against the backdrop of intense psychological obstacles and insane demands on your time; I wrote my first one while experiencing a major crisis about what I wanted to be when I grew up, while the second only had to compete with the care of an infant, a full teaching load, and an exhausting daily commute.

You don’t need me to give you reasons not to write that dissertation, else it would be written. So, from the other side of that dark tunnel, let me give you some reasons to do it:

  1. It’s not really knowledge until you’ve communicated it to others in your field. While a dissertation isn’t usually viewed as “published” in the same way as peer reviewed journal articles, other researchers can (and do) make use of dissertations from the library stacks or from microfilm. Finishing and filing your dissertation means that you’re contributing your findings to the common body of knowledge for your discipline, sharing what you know and making it available as a building block with which others in your field can create more knowledge.
  2. Other grad students may directly benefit from the existence of your dissertation. A completed dissertation can be a valuable resource for other students, describing experimental set-ups in more detail than journal articles ever do, offering an important review of relevant literature, flagging dead-ends and approaches that didn’t work as well as had been hoped, and serving as a model of what a successful dissertation looks like. It could even serve as an inspiration for future dissertation writers to finish up.
  3. You ought to appreciate the tree you contribute to the forest. Writing up your research gives you an opportunity to appreciate how the work you’ve done hangs together as a cohesive project, and how it fits into and advances the existing body of knowledge in your field. When you’re still thrashing through the particular details, it’s easy to miss this — and to underestimate just what you’ve accomplished.
  4. You shouldn’t lose sight of the forest for the tree over which you’ve been laboring. Even though it’s your biggest project to date, a dissertation is not your life’s work. Graduate school gives you the opportunity to learn how to do good research and to develop your research interests. Neither grad school nor your dissertation topic is a cage that need contain you for your whole professional life. Whether you love this project so much that you don’t want to let it go, or you can’t move beyond it fast enough, there will be other projects. Finishing your dissertation can clear the decks for these other projects.
  5. Finishing this step may help you find your way forward. A completed dissertation can suggest the next logical project — maybe an extension of this one, maybe a very different direction informed by what you liked and what you didn’t like about this one. (Of course, the dissertation may also lend itself to being carved up into distinct papers to submit for publication, or to being edited and published in book form.) A finished dissertation isn’t just the culmination of one stage of your research — it can provide forward momentum for the next stage.
  6. Finishing the dissertation lets you hone your written communication skills. It can be especially instructive as far as working out how to write for an intelligent audience that knows a good bit about your discipline but that may not have the same detailed grasp of particular approaches, techniques, and pieces of the literature as you do. Written communication skills are pretty darn portable, and they are valuable in many circumstances. Since you can only get them by actually writing, why not work on them while you’re working on that dissertation?
  7. Finishing the dissertation lets you defend the dissertation. This is an opportunity to seriously engage with “grown-ups” in your field, at length, about a project you know better than anyone else. Despite how nervous the circumstances of this engagement may make you, it is a really cool experience to have a group of smart people who share your disciplinary interests ask you good questions about what you’ve been working on.
  8. You may avoid some awkwardness at job interviews. Explaining why you haven’t finished, how close to completion your project really is, can be complicated. Done is pretty unambiguous. (If you finish the dissertation, you also make it easier for the people writing your letters of recommendation for further positions — they can focus on the awesome qualities you bring to the table rather than having to explain why you never completed a significant requirement for your degree program.)
  9. You’ll help clear the decks for your advisor. In some graduate programs, faculty advising Ph.D. students may be explicitly evaluated in terms of their ability to move Ph.D. students through to completion. Even where this is not a locus of evaluation, lots of advisors will spend time and energy worrying about their students who could write up but haven’t. Have a little empathy.
  10. Finishing brings you closer to the day you won’t have to deal with the university registrar ever again. Some programs keep you registering as a student (and paying the attendant student fees) until you finish your degree. Others make you register (and pay fees) for the term in which you defend and file your dissertation, and frequently there’s paperwork you need to fill out if a significant interval passes between your last registered term and the one that preceded it. Aren’t you tired of administrative paperwork and student fees?
  11. It won’t be hanging over you anymore. People won’t keep pestering you about when you’re going to be done. You won’t keep pestering yourself, or wondering if you’re ever going to do it. If you get this big task out of the way, there will be less to dread when you get out of bed in the morning.
  12. It feels good to be done. Once you’ve written up and defended your dissertation, you can really say you’re done — all but nothing! It’s a good excuse for a party.

Recent disserters are invited to chime in with other motivating reasons to finish.

Comments

  1. #1 Janne
    July 21, 2009

    Also, especially in science the hard part is already done. Getting publishable results, getting them written and published – that’s the difficult part. The dissertation is drawn out and hugely painful, like a six-month root canal, but not actually difficult. I know I spent at least six months more on mine than I really needed to, simply because I was getting so good at thesis-avoidance. All along, though, I sort of knew what I needed to do, how, and in what order. That’s part of the problem of course; all the fun bits are over and only the slog is left.

  2. #2 winnebago
    July 21, 2009

    11 & 12 are so true. I finished writing and defended last summer after several and several extensions. My whole outlook on life changed the minute I filed the last piece of paperwork w/ the grad school.

  3. #3 DNLee
    July 21, 2009

    Thanks…I’m working feverishly at this very moment – to finish. Now re-pouring over data. I may re-post part (if it is ok) and at least link to this post on my page – since I do provide updates to my dissertation progress to my readers – I even have a dissertation meter on my site. My readers keep me accountable….

    Now, I’m back to work.

  4. #4 Coturnix
    July 21, 2009

    Ah!

  5. #5 evil monkey
    July 21, 2009

    Make sure to forward this to Bora.

  6. #6 ctenotrish
    July 21, 2009

    Good points, all. But 12 is especially true. It doesn’t just feel *good* to have the dissertation finished (and defended, corrected, and submitted to the University for binding), it feels *amazing*! Champagne-bubbles amazing, weight-of-the-world-off-your-shoulders amazing. I didn’t feel that right away because of the flurry of little final details, manuscripts, and also moving and starting a new job. But, oh, the first Saturday I woke up in my new place and realized I had absolutley nothing I had to do? That I could explore the city or read a book (for fun!) or do whatever the heck I wanted? It was wonderful.

  7. #7 Comrade PhysioProf
    July 21, 2009

    I’m suprised that you didn’t include the motivation of actually earning your fucking PhD, without which you are barred from participating as a genuine member of the scholarly community you presumably sought to join when you began graduate school.

  8. #8 Janet D. Stemwedel
    July 21, 2009

    Lots of people (especially among the not-written-up folks I know) have discovered during the course of their graduate studies that the scholarly community is not necessarily the community with which they want to make a career (or, in some cases, that they want to run as far and as fast as they can from it).

    Even if that’s the case, I think there are at least a dozen good reasons to get that dissertation written. Choosing not to be an academic is no damn excuse.

  9. #9 DrA
    July 21, 2009

    As I always tell my reluctant doctoral students, “It’s a degree, not a career, so it’s not supposed to take 30 years.”

  10. #10 Lethe
    July 21, 2009

    “The dissertation is drawn out and hugely painful, like a six-month root canal…” Hah! That sounds exactly right.

    The thirteenth reason, and perhaps what Comrade PhysioProf was sort of getting at, was that, in some circumstances, the whole miserable process of graduate school (well, I didn’t have fun, anyway) counts for nothing if you don’t finish your dissertation. A finished Ph.D. is a tremendously important job qualification; an unfinished one is a bachelor’s degree obscured by an incomplete project. You may get your first job as an ABD, but getting promoted/tenure/a second job is a lot harder. A lot of places (including, in all likelihood, where I work) would just cut an ABD loose after a couple of years if they still hadn’t fulfilled such a crucial job requirement.

    My grad school advisor had two rouge ABDs in the field for years while I was in grad school, and they set an example for me; I nearly killed myself to finish before starting work to keep from ending up in their shoes.

  11. #11 antipodean
    July 21, 2009

    Reason 13. Don’t be an arsehole. If you don’t finish what you started some other poor fool is going to have to finish it for you. You are also screwing the next generation who may try to get money to do something along the same line of thinking but will be stymied by the lack of completions preceeding them.

    Reason 13. Beer tastes better after you’ve finished

  12. #12 Pat Cahalan
    July 21, 2009

    > I wrote two of them…

    Yeah, yeah, rub it in whydonya? :-P

  13. #13 Russell Blackford
    July 23, 2009

    “I wrote two of them.”

    Doesn’t everyone these days? ;)

  14. #14 Catharine
    July 23, 2009

    For the love of god, just carve up my eyeballs with a straight razor. It would be less painful.

    Related tips:
    1) Do not believe that just because your spouse is smarter than you, you should abandon your own plans for a PhD and support his efforts (not to mention his offspring). Your “turn” may never come and you are sure to end up a miserable, old, fat nurse, stuck forever in a job you hate because *somebody* has to put food on the table and pay off the >100k student loans.
    2) If you know in your heart that you are not going to finish your PhD, cut your losses and DO SOMETHING. Do not spend YEARS and YEARS of your short and precious life and youth BULLSHITTING yourself and the people who love you.
    3) If you have ADD or some other condition that is preventing you from reaching the finish line, get help.
    4) The effort that it takes to finish your PhD (heroic as it may be) is a walk in the park compared to living the rest of your life ABD. Not finishing is a traumatic major life failure and a criminal injustice to those you have taken down with you.

  15. #15 Ela
    July 24, 2009

    My reason to finish was: I can be finally free. The mistake i made in my life walking into that lab with so much naivity and fictional dreams about scientific society can be ended. I persevered and may defend in a month or two.

  16. #16 BB
    July 31, 2009

    The biggest motivators for me were your reasons 5 and 10. I had already started a postdoc when I defended my thesis, so when the defense question “This brings up the issue of x” came up I was able to answer “I’m working on it right now”.

    And I don’t have to deal with that useless registration system anymore. I hate inefficiency.

    My other reason for finishing? I hated the city that I was living in. Now that I am done I have much more control of my living situation.

  17. #17 Lamia
    July 31, 2010

    Hmm, my experience has been a little different.
    One of the fundamental motivators for me was the lack of funding. Our department made it clear–by sending out a mass email–that they would not fund students beyond the fifth year, not even in terms of paying enrollment fees (grad tuition). Now, the post mentions the fact that at some institutions you have to enroll and pay fees to defend. My institution is one of those. Above and beyond that, being an international student on an F-1 visa, I’d have to enroll every semester regardless of whether I was defending or not (in other words, I could not take a leave of absence as that would cancel my visa and render me illegal) –all of which meant about 10 k of grad tuition owed to the school and no income.
    As a result I did not have a single word written –but had done most of the preliminary research and analysis save for field work and finalizing the quantitative portion–in May of 2009 and had a 400+page dissertation submitted in May of 2010 and defended in June.
    Two other facts played a role.
    In February I got a postdoc offer. And my advisor and committee cut out three chapters that I had planned–one of those chapters ended up as my postdoctoral proposal and actually got me the postdoc.
    The defense was bittersweet as the postdoc is overseas and means leaving behind loved ones and my cat-the UK being a pet-hating country.