“How is your dissertation going?”
Never before has a simple question packed such a punch. Five little words strike fear into my heart as I remember I have a countless number of things to do before I get that title after my name: Ph.D.
There are so many reasons I feel like I’m failing at my dissertation and school, which I used to love. The first reason is I never have any time to write. Yes, I find time to write on sites such as Feminism and Religion and others when I should be writing my dissertation but they each serve a different purpose; mainly, this site acts as salvation to my long wrought out mingling with my source materials while my dissertation acts as a catalyst for the growing number of gray hairs I seem to have.
Two, although I can picture the text in my head and see where I need to go in the sequence of my yet-to-be-written prose, the daunting and oftentimes perilous act of sitting down and writing has been keeping me from putting figurative pen to actual paper (or fingers to keyboard).
Three, I’m way too involved. I’ve always prided myself with being able to “do it all,” but maybe the thing I’ve needed to realize these last few months is that one person cannot do it all. Being imperfect is a strength I’ve yet to fully embrace because as a gay person growing up in a small town, I taught myself that I needed to be perfect after everything so I could deflect any type of bigotry or hatred that would come my way. This is a crutch I still carry with me as I no longer run, but limp, towards the ultimate finish line.
Four, what’s the point? With the dwindling job market and tightening of the university purse strings, why I am running towards graduation if there is nothing to graduate into? Do I really want to leave my current job, where I get to do so much, for the current state of the university system? Sure, it’s great to finish, but if there is nothing there at the finish line, why am I figuratively running so hard to get there?
Five, I’m being stupid. Sure, I know I could just sit down and write my dissertation. I could scratch the surface of my topic without fully investing any more than “what is needed,” but that is not how I operate. Even though I’ve known many people who have done such things (can you blame them? I mean, the system beats you down), I care about my topic and more importantly, the people who shared things with me they’ve never told anyone.
So, here I sit, writing this post and yet reliving all of these failing over again. I need to make a change, and I need to stop focusing on failing and start focusing on (Trump trigger warning) winning again. I need to rediscover my passion for my research, sit down and outline where I need to go, and finally start writing knowing that I will get there. Yes, it may have take me 6-months extra but in the end, all that matters is that I get there, and I get there on my own terms.
Here is my promise not only to myself, but also to all of you: I will finish my Ph.D., and finish it soon. I’m going to start prioritizing my schoolwork and start making more tangible steps towards the finish line so I no longer feel like I’m failing but instead, accomplishing my dream of achieving my Ph.D. in American Religious History. It was fun being ABD and making excuses as to why I wasn’t writing that much and working on my dissertation every day but no more.
For once, I’m starting to feel like me again, and it feels great!
This blog is dedicated to all who have participated in this struggle, both in the past, present, and future!
John Erickson is a Ph.D. Candidate in American Religious History at Claremont Graduate University. He holds an MA in Women’s Studies in Religion; an MA in Applied Women’s Studies; and a BA in Women’s Literature and Women’s Studies. He is a Permanent Contributor to the blog Feminism and Religion, a Non-Fiction Reviewer for Lambda Literary, the leader in LGBT reviews, author interviews, opinions and news since 1989 and the Co-Chair of the Queer Studies in Religion section of the American Academy of Religion’s Western Region, the only regional section of the American Academy of Religion that is dedicated to the exploration of queer studies in religion and other relevant fields in the nation. He is currently the President of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s LGBTQA+ Alumni Association, the Vice- Chair of Public Relation and Social Media for the Stonewall Democratic Club, and the Non-Profit and Governmental Liaison for the Hollywood Chapter of NOW (National Organization for Women). When he is not working on his dissertation, he can be found at West Hollywood City Hall where he is the Community Events Technician and works on policies and special events relating to women, gender, sexuality, and human rights issues that are sponsored or co-sponsored by the City of West Hollywood. Additionally, he serves as the President of the City’s employee union, Local 3339 WEHOME, which is part of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees). He is the author of the blog From Wisconsin, with Love and can be followed on Twitter@JErickson85. Photo of John: ©2015 Rebecca Dru Photography All Rights Reserved
20 thoughts on “I’m Failing by John Erickson”
I too suffered from writing block/procrastination on my dissertation.
My advice to all Ph.D. sufferers is simple. Your dissertation is unlikely to be your “best work of all time.” If it is, this means you will never have any new thoughts post-Ph.D. The Ph.D. is simply a hurdle to jump. So get on with it and get it done so you can get on with your life.
When I was finishing my Ph.D. my therapist described me as a racehorse who always knew she could win the race but held back because others criticized her for running too fast/outrunning them–and then she sprinted over the finish line to everyone’s surprise. Don’t know if this story will help anyone out there. It helped one of my Greek friends finish her Ph.D. in ornithology.
So sorry there are so few good jobs out there these days. The adjunct system is inhumane. And the student loan system is too.
Good luck John with getting on with it.
It is a hurdle to jump and I need to do exactly that: get on with it because it’s time!
The adjunct system is inhumane and the student loan system has been rigged for quite some time.
I never attempted a Ph.D. dissertation or even a master’s thesis. But I have felt all the things you describe at one point of another in the process of writing each one of my novels. (Which, as Emily Dickinson so poignantly expressed it, are “my letters to a world that never wrote to me.”) The blank page and the existential “abyss” are one and the same as far as I am concerned. Some days it’s more terrifying than others. One of my tricks is to leave a sentence unfinished at the end of a day’s work, so it’s easier to leap back in. Writers have to have a bag of such tricks, because ultimately the only way out of terrifying morass is to keep writing. So as I like to say to all my fellow writers, “Right on, write on.” I know you will!
I’ve had a lot of research and specifically interviews, transcribing them, and then going through each interview with my notes. Now that I’m done with those sections, it’s time to put pen to paper and I really like what you suggested with the open ended sentence. Thank you for your vote of strength!
Earning a Ph.D. is an initiatory experience. You’re “led” by your tribal elders, the tribe in this case being the academic department, which can be as exclusivist and esoteric as any grand lodge. (I had to fire my first dissertation adviser because when I bought him my first chapter in January, he said he wouldn’t “get around to reading it” until May. I went to the dean. The dean became my first reader.) You go through numerous tests and trials. (I don’t have to say what these are.) You are injured. (Ditto.) And then you metaphorically die. You lock yourself in your carrel in the library (at least that’s what I did) or chain yourself to your computer. You become antisocial and you don’t know how to talk to regular people. All you can speak is that absurd post-modern academic jargon that makes zero sense. No one sees you. And then you are reborn! You get to put those magical letters after your name.
My guess is that you’re somewhere in the dying stage. Hang in there (so to speak). Transmit! Keep typing!
And keeping typing I will! :)
Barbara yours is the most spot-on accurate description I have seen of the thesis writing process!
Thanks John, your post here resonates with my life and I love that badge with “candidate” crossed out, very humorous, delightful. And generous of you to share your path here at FAR.
This will sound absurd, but I couldn’t even finish a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, when I was young. And so I quit school and took a job as a bank teller. But I did go back after a year in the bank and finish the degree. Most BFA degrees require you to do a lot of studio art, paintings, sculpture, etchings, etc, and not just learning the art history. So there’s much manual labor needed to get the degree, even learning how to stretch a canvas with pliers takes fortitude and all the strong smells and stains all over your clothing. But really that experience, helped me in a lot of things, later on, to know you can go back and complete some challenging project you gave up on.
If you don’t finish your dissertation you won’t get to throw a big “I did it” party, or gloat, or faint from exhaustion. So get busy there John…and let us know where and when the party is!
I do like to party! Time to get busy! :)
the best advice i ever received on my finishing my long suffering dissertation was from the esteemed Jennifer Rycenga, “Dare to be adequate.”
Yes! I love this. It’s about getting it done! Such a great piece of advice!
Ugh. I love this. I will print this out and put it over my desk!!
John, I remember being where you are during my DMin work. Everything in the world was happening in my life that cause me to get side tracked. Relocated to my home town, Mother died, Unemployed, Father got sick, Served on staff at the church I grew up in so everyone expected me to always say yes like a good little girl, and finally I got sick. One of my instructors said something very profound to me, “This is your ministry.” “Completing your dissertation is your ministry.” “This is the ministry God has called you to at this time. So go and do ministry.” And that is just what I did. I did ministry. “My Ministry”
John, all those other things you are doing will be there when you get back. Take care of what God has called you to do at this time.”
Go do Ministry……………………..
Rev. Dr. Charmayne G. Davis
Hi John, I think many who have written a dissertation have had your experience. I thoroughly enjoyed the classes I taught instead of writing my dissertation, the folksong duo and choir I sang in, the articles I wrote, etc. But really what I was doing was procrastinating, because I was a perfectionist. Until the dissertation if I procrastinated long enough, I would have to sprint to the finish line (as Carol described herself above). But that doesn’t work very well with a piece of writing that is several hundred pages long. So eventually I knuckled down and wrote every day, usually only 2 pages, but in the end that became 400 and I was done. Overcoming the perfectionism even a little bit in this way was probably more significant to my life than the Ph.D.
That’s the funny thing: nothing horrible is happening to me where I have these excuses. I use my knowledge each day at my job, I still teach, write, etc. and then all the other items I’m involved with. It is about overcoming the perfectionism that is in my blood because it’s time to turn the corner and see the finish line!
Thank you for your honesty. As many have written already, what you are going through is all too familiar. I have a hard time writing for FAR! I still have the bar exam looming over my head and I’ll be working on it at some point too… I suppose since you promised to all of us, I should also promise to you I’ll get it done, and then the real party will begin! Nothing tastes as good or feels as great when these important action items loom over us :-/ good luck! You will do it and it will be soon.
We will get through this, together! In community we’re stronger! You can do it and I look forward to celebrating with you.
Oh My !
You gave words to my peril.
Let us see if am even a bit changed after reading this. :(