Don’t ask about the dissertation

2021-10-16

in PhD thesis, Psychology, Writing

There’s a cliché that you should never ask a PhD student about their dissertation in conversation and, based on my experiences since my project officially began in June 2018, there are several reasons why this is sound advice. In short, the PhD and dissertation process is frustrating to hear described and, when a student is asked to do so, the predictable responses from the person inquiring are a small-scale rebellion about why the more vexing parts of the process are the way they are, followed by frustration from the listener toward the student because they dislike how they didn’t get the uplifting story they wanted about a useful project soon to be completed. Saying that you’re just expressing sympathy and sincere support for the completion of the project doesn’t help, because it still carries the implication that somehow if a student just behaves in the right way their problems will disappear, making them in a roundabout way the student’s own fault for not being able to apply the wisdom of a quick amateur analysis.

People without recent personal experience in a PhD program have little experiential basis for understanding what’s involved, often manifested as a view that special accommodation should be made for you or that the system ought to be promptly changed because of your suffering. That misses the bureaucracy of higher education, as well as suffering as a background condition of most graduate work. The only way out is to suffer through, and adding the second-hand frustrations of observers to your mental landscape will just exacerbate your own feelings of frustration and powerlessness.

Best to talk about something else.

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