Good advice for those who are ABD

Good advice for those who are ABD August 26, 2015

From The Anxious Bench Archive.  Originally posted October 8, 2014.

It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take.” -Alanis Morissette, “Ironic,” Jagged Little Pill (1995).

As my graduate school days appear further and further in my rear view mirror, there are certain events, discussions, and conversations that remain crisp and clear in my memory–just as if they took place yesterday.

Below, I present the top-four pieces of good advice I received around the time I was defending my dissertation proposal, and entering doctoral candidacy.  Hopefully, seasoned graduate students who are nearing ABD status can learn from these four pieces of good advice that I didn’t take. 

Jean & Alexander Heard Library Vanderbilt University
Jean & Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt University

1) Stay in residence. One of my most challenging professors told a group of us nearing ABD status not to scatter after defending our dissertation proposals.  For her, two things mattered.  First, the library.  By the time you are ABD, you know your library and its personnel well.  If you treated them kindly, they will be anxious to help you to finish your program. (They are important people to have on your side.)  By contrast, learning a whole new library at this stage in the game is a challenge.  And, there are some locales where merely finding an accessible research library can be daunting.

Second, she warned that a greater danger threatened.  It could come to pass that if we were “out of sight” we might also be out of our committee members’ minds.  This would not out of ill-will or lack of good intentions, but it likely would happen nonetheless.  In my case, I found that my advisor worked diligently to stay in touch with me despite his busy schedule.  Even so, simple five-minute conversations that might have happened spontaneously had I remained in residence became scheduled phone calls.  Bigger conversations were even more challenging. Related to this issue of residency, I think that it is critical for those writing a dissertation to have colleagues with whom they can regularly discuss their materials and ideas.  When your only conversations are with yourself, you can end up running in circles.  When you have a group of colleagues, these ideas get hashed out much more easily.  Similarly, working with colleagues can uncover inconsistencies and flaws in argumentation of ideas that make perfect sense inside our own heads.  These are reasons why dissertation writing groups are a good idea.  The best colleagues?  Those who were in coursework with you.

2) Narrow your topic.  Every graduate student envisions his/her dissertation as a grand, sweeping, magnum opus.  Resist that temptation.  As I began to hash out my topic, a faculty member who ended up on my committee suggested that I narrow my focus, writing on one aspect of my monstrous project.  I’m pretty sure he said, “You don’t want to write X.  You want to write Y.”  I stuck to my project.  Nearly four years later, I wish I had not.  As it turned out, over the course of my research I ended up wanting to write the book he suggested.  Having advised students for years and having a pretty good sense of my personality and interests, he might even have intuited that.  There is another kernel of wisdom in this story–place people you trust to guide you on your committee.  Then, let them guide you–especially your advisor.  In the end, you should end up knowing your topic better than him/her, but s/he should be the kind of person who can trust to guide you in these sorts of decisions.  If not, get another advisor.  Seriously.  A big name under whom you will never finish your dissertation does you no good.

3) Tie off research loose ends.  At my dissertation proposal defense, one of my committee members pointed out that although I had a great project and research plan, there were too many open-ended questions that further research would answer.  He didn’t oppose letting the project develop as research dictated.  Even though he wasn’t an historian, he understood that historical research sometimes leads to a radical readjustment of a proposed argument as deeper research in the sources points to a different conclusion than anticipated.  (This did happen in my case.)  However, he rightly perceived that I had too many questions remaining.  Had I closed off some of those questions by spending more research time on the front side of the proposal, I would have saved myself a larger amount of time on the back side, most likely by leading me to narrow my topic (see #2).

4) Stick to the dissertation.  Do not take on too many (I might argue, any) projects unrelated to the dissertation.  Unfortunately, I did not heed this advice myself and took on several other projects, including extended book reviews, encyclopedia articles, and speaking engagements.  This undoubtedly delayed completion of my dissertation as well.  I should have brutally eliminated anything that did not feed the dissertation. These four pieces of advice that I did not follow seem much wiser than they did when I found myself ABD.  I hope they are helpful to some young graduate students nearing that status.

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