Beat the Clock! Managing the Final Lap of Your PhD Program
Andrew McIlwaine Bell, December 2007
At one point in Chuck Palahniuk's best-selling novel Fight Club, the chief protagonist has an epiphany that I believe ought to be the mantra of every history doctoral student who has not yet defended his or her dissertation: "On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone will drop to zero." Those of us who've watched colleagues or students permanently disappear into ABD purgatory can attest to the veracity of this statement. Time is the enemy of the PhD student. Among those who began their programs 10 years ago at institutions that confer a large number of doctoral degrees, 26 percent have quit, 9 percent are still struggling to finish, and the status of another 7 percent is unknown.1 The numbers for medium-sized departments are even more sobering. So although it may seem like you have all the time in the world to graduate, the truth is, the longer you stretch out your program, the more likely it is that you'll end up as a statistic in an AHA report on attrition rates. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to more effectively manage your time in grad school and thereby increase your chances of getting your degree.
Pick a Dissertation Topic as Soon as Possible
Indecision is the graveyard of good intentions and failing to lock in on a dissertation topic early in your program can cost you a lot of valuable time. If you're having trouble finding a topic, set up an appointment with your adviser to find out what's missing from the historiography. Jot down two or three possibilities and then ask yourself some honest questions before rendering a decision: Will this subject maintain my interest for the rest of my program? Will it help me find a job after I graduate? The latter question is especially important given today's challenging job market and demanding requirements for tenure. Search committees tend to prefer candidates who are exploring strange new topics and boldly going where no scholar has gone before. But also keep in mind that the subject you choose does not necessarily have to be the one you spend the rest of your academic career researching. Most scholars investigate several different events, periods, and persons over a lifetime. The sooner you can decide on a topic, the better off you'll be since the papers you're producing for classes can later be parlayed into dissertation chapters. For example, there's no reason why that historiographical essay you agonized over for three weeks can't be included in your introduction. In fact, your adviser will almost certainly ask for a review of the existing literature somewhere in your thesis. Once you've chosen a topic, it's a good idea to draft a detailed proposal, even if your department doesn't require one. Proposals help you maintain your center of gravity as you investigate the various side issues that inevitably crop up during the research process. A good proposal includes a chapter breakdown and a schedule of completion dates that will serve as a constant reminder of your deadlines and the scope of your project. On average, it takes four years to complete a dissertation, although some exceptionally motivated students will undoubtedly be able to finish in less time.2
Minimize Your Time on the Road
Once you've decided on a dissertation topic and figured out where your sources are located, it's time to start planning research trips. Try to schedule your visits during the summer months when you won't be distracted by class work or other responsibilities. And be sure to call ahead and explain your project to the head librarian or archivist on site before you book a flight or gas up the car. You'll be surprised at how often these kindhearted professionals will pull documents off the shelf for you prior to your arrival and suggest sources you may not have even considered. Producing a dissertation requires the support of the wider scholarly community, and librarians are some of the best friends you can have during the research stage of your program. Also, it makes sense to run through a short cost-benefit analysis of your trips while they're still in the planning stage. Do you really need to go to all of those places? Sometimes there are cheaper and less time-consuming ways to acquire the materials you want. For example, when I needed to look at a single record book housed at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston, Texas, I discovered that it was less expensive to hire an independent researcher than shell out for a flight and hotel room. Of course you'll need to visit any number of libraries while researching, but don't waste time in those that contain only a small number of sources that relate to your project.
Avoid Working during the Dissertation Stage
In an ideal world, no one would need to work while enrolled in school. But in the real world, jobs are a financial necessity for most graduate students. Still, it's best to avoid working during the final months of your program if at all possible. Jobs gobble up precious research/writing time and prolong the pain of completing the dissertation. And that includes teaching assistantships. Grading papers and sitting through first-year survey classes may earn you the eternal gratitude of the professoriat, but neither activity counts toward your degree. TAing is a great way to gain teaching experience (in fact, it's essential if you want to teach with your degree), but try to retire from such teaching once you move into the dissertation stage of your program. Keep your eyes peeled for fellowships and grants that will allow you to focus on your research rather than a job. The AHA regularly posts current information on such funding opportunities on its web site. Relatives and spouses can also be helpful sources of cash. Most are willing to pony up a few dollars if they believe doing so will put your mind at ease and expedite the arrival of your graduation day.
Obsess over Your Dissertation until It's Deposited
There's an old adage in business that says, "The sale isn't final until the check is in the bank." The equivalent maxim in academia is that you're still a student (one, moreover, who is required to pay for "continuing research" hours) until you've deposited your dissertation. So unless you're ready to drop it off tomorrow at your school's graduate office, you should be spending every waking moment either writing or researching (or badgering your committee members to read your chapters). Force yourself to write every day, even if it's only a paragraph or two, and find incentives that will help you stay motivated. At the 2004 AHA annual meeting in Washington, Robert Remini told his audience that he used to reward himself with a martini on the days he wrote six or more pages. Martinis may not be your cup of…er…gin, but you should be able to find something pleasurable to indulge in at the end of a productive workday. Also, start writing early—before you've finished researching. A wise old professor once told me that I'd be "dead in the water" if I attempted to compile every source I needed before typing a single word. Writing not only raises new and exciting questions, but also forces you to think harder about the message you want to convey. Keep in mind, too, that you'll probably discover new and pertinent sources even after your defense.
Be Social and Stay Connected
Finally, it's a good idea to stay connected with your fellow graduate students. Working on a dissertation can be a lonely and tedious enterprise at times and extended periods of isolation inevitably breed feelings of self-doubt and unhappiness, both of which are precursors of failure. Start up a dissertation support group with your fellow ABD students that meets once or twice a month. You'll feel more connected to the department and gain a lot of useful feedback on how to strengthen your argument and tighten your prose. Dissertation coach Liena Vayzman nicely sums up the importance of scholarly fellowship in a single sentence: "Thinking is a social act."3
Watch the Clock and Seize the Day!
Now is the time to complete your program. In 2005–06, the number of history jobs superceded the number of new history PhDs for the second year running and there's reason to believe that the numbers for 2007–08 will be even better.4 The sooner you can get your degree, the sooner you can take advantage of these opportunities. Imagine how wonderful it will be to pay off those pesky student loans, build equity, and eat something other than mac n' cheese for dinner! Also, keep in mind that your school sets limits on how long you can take to complete your doctoral program (at the George Washington University, my alma mater, the cutoff is eight years). Like the fictional characters in Fight Club, history PhD students must battle to survive and find the will to win each day, for the statistics show that they are in a fight against time.
—Andrew Bell, who recently completed a history doctoral program at the George Washington University, was a research associate with the AHA's Research Division.
1. Robert B. Townsend, "What Do We Know About History PhDs?" Perspectives (December 2006), 13–14.
2. Robert B. Townsend, "How Long to the PhD?" Perspectives (February 2006), 26. Note that Townsend points out that the median time taken for completing the entire program (that is, for course work, exams, and the dissertation) is eight years.
3. Liena Vayzman, "Practical Advice for Writing Your Dissertation, Book, or Article," Perspectives (December 2006), 24–25.
4. Robert B. Townsend, "History PhD Numbers Lowest in Almost a Decade as Job Listings Continue to Rise," Perspectives (January 2007), 11–14.