The Loneliness of the Long Dissertation Writer

At this time of year I find myself talking to students considering PhD programs who are interested in my own advice on whether or not pursuing a PhD is a good idea. One question that has come up repeatedly has to do with the psychological challenges of completing a PhD in the social sciences. Specifically, that it’s lonely. One very bright student asked me specifically about this issue last week; she had been told by another of my colleagues that writing a dissertation is a very lonely process. Coincidentally, that night I came across a post by Robert Kelly which makes an identical point in the context of 7 general gripes about being an academic.

My response to that student was that I don’t think it’s right to say that completing a PhD is lonely. I think that it’s more accurate to describe completing a PhD as intensely personal. That may produce feelings of loneliness, but it need not.

My own experience was that writing my dissertation (which, at one point, reached 550 manuscript pages…so it was long) was personally challenging because every morning (at 8:30 AM) and evening (at 9PM) I would open up my word processing program and stare at an empty screen with the understanding that after a couple of hours that document needed to have words on it. There was no one else who was going to write them but me.

…And there was no one else who was going to bug me to write them every day but me.

…And there was no one else to blame if they weren’t written but me.

…And at every moment there were plenty of things that seemed more interesting than writing, and no one to tell myself to keep on task but me.

This was an unpleasant feeling. I managed to get over it, but only after about 3 months of serious writer’s block in which developed an incredibly precise system for organizing notes and did a lot of unnecessary teaching preparation. (I remember this urge to convert my section syllabus from Word into LaTeX. Yes, that was a way to waste time.)

But at least in my own case, it would be a mistake to call that feeling loneliness. I had plenty of professional interactions with faculty, worked at the Statlab, attended lots of talks, discussed dissertation issues with friends, taught, etc. In most graduate programs, there are plenty of things that you can do to keep yourself active and busy. The problem, in fact, is that there are too many seemingly useful and inherently social things to do that distract you from the task of writing.

My sense is that in terms of the personal nature of the dissertation, political science tends to be more like the humanities than like economics and psychology, two social science discipline in which co-authoring throughout your graduate career is normal. This is different in some poli sci programs, but these are exceptional cases. My general point is that I wouldn’t worry about loneliness per se, I would worry a lot more about dealing with the more nagging issues of motivation, stamina, self-direction, etc. Conceivably, loneliness is cured by socialization; the others are conditions which have no easy solutions of which I am aware.

Comments 3

  1. Charley Sullivan May 16, 2012

    Well, speaking from Central Java, in the midst of research, I can get the loneliness part . . . but that’s also perhaps the isolation of fieldwork, of reading in archives (a necessarily lonely task), etc. But I appreciate the distinction you make between lonely and intensely personal. After 15 years off and having to work for other people’s goals and agendas, the spending time on myself, and even letting the process wander a little bit (did I really think I’d be reading this much Javanese cosmology for a little chapter on indigenous mapping?? Thank you Thongchai!) it is a rare privilege to just be able to do what I want, to follow my own leads, etc. This is not what most people get to do in life. Great post, Tom!

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