The End of a Love Story

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Two years ago, I was in love. The type of love that made me stroll through the hallways of the department with a absurd smile on my face, my heart overflowing with hope, my head swarming with dreams. I had a dissertation that would change the world. My project would single-handedly change the faith of anxious youth. It was beautiful. I loved what it represented and its simplicity. Anything was possible; the world was within my reach! My dissertation and I were gallivanting into an academic sunset.

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Our love story came to an end when my dissertation committee told me that the data I spent two years collecting was “not valid”. My entire being melted into the floor, taking my hopes and dreams with it. The past two years flashed before me: the hours I spent coding audiotapes, the Sunday mornings and Friday afternoons I spent at the hospital waiting for participants. All these efforts were as useful as sunscreen on a rainy day.

I am experiencing the loss of my dissertation much like a break-up. I cry, feel sorry for myself, eat chocolate ice cream, and listen to Adele songs on a loop. I talk about it to anyone who will listen. I watch Bachelor Pad re-runs while my colleagues have participants on weekends. I watch my friends do statistical analyses the same way single gals at a wedding watch the bouquet toss. Here I am, starting over while everyone else seems to be breezing through data collection, analysis, and write up.

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A little investigation has led me to believe that my story is not unique.  Others have experienced this dissertation love story and the devastating, inevitable heart break that often follows. Minor and major bumps in the dissertation process are the process. What is shocking is that no one talks about it. Many of us are struggling to get through, to get support from our supervisors, to develop ideas, and simply move forward – yet we are quiet about the process and assume that we are alone. We assume we are the problem: that there is something wrong with us because the process is supposedly easy for everyone else. That is wrong, and this false belief will continue to isolate us from each other if we do not open up about the difficulties we are having through our graduate process. How are we supposed to learn from each other, with each other, if we are quiet and stick our heads into the ground?

Like any heart ache, moving on is the hardest part. From one perspective, I get to start over with a new project: fresh and clean. It’s an opportunity to try something new and hopefully better. On the other hand, I have six months to do two years worth of work.  I am also limited by the topics my committee will accept and my resources.

Despite having written a new proposal (i.e., three new studies) in a month, I am not convinced that I am ready to move on. I’ll be honest: I don’t like my new project. It won’t change the world and it won’t even have a fancy title. There is nothing worse than working on something that is not interesting.

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This is where you – the reader – come in.

I have three options:

1. Go on with this uninteresting but practical project. The proposal is nearly finished, and part of it being revised as we speak. If all goes well, I should be able to collect data in the fall and be done by the winter. It is a boring topic, something that I will never want to look at again. Even my committee members are likely to deny any involvement with it. But it is a project; it is a scientific contribution, and a possible (uninteresting) dissertation.

2. Follow my heart and continue with a new project I love. I have this yoga study on the go – and I love it. The response to the project has been great, both in terms of participation, emotional support, and financial support. I feel like I’m contributing to society by doing this project. Unfortunately, if I were to take this route, I would have to find a new committee and supervisor. I might even have to take an extra year. Being more than half way through my PhD, that is not an easy task….

3. Drop out, move to California and become a wedding planner/baker. California is beautiful and I have friends there. I am a great host and event planner. I love baking. I just bought a car so I could drive there. Seems reasonable.

So what do you think?

What challenges have you faced?
Averagely yours,

the candidate.

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9 thoughts on “The End of a Love Story

  1. If you pick a boring topic, you may never actually finish. It’s hard enough to finish when you like your topic.

    If you go find a job now (even part time), you won’t have the albatross of a Ph.D. hanging around your neck. It’s wildly difficult for a Ph.D. to find nonacademic work, but you might have better luck if you start in a new field now and do the interesting dissertation in your spare time. I know people who took ten years after going ABD and they were fine with it. (Scrap this idea if the Ph.D. is actually useful in your field.)

    If you want to be a professor, choose the interesting topic. One extra year in graduate school is nothing compared to revising the boring dissertation for a book or articles when/if you hit the tenure track.

    • Bumblepuppies –

      Thanks for your advice. A PhD is not a necessity in my field (because I could practice as “Psychological Associate” with A Masters’) – but it does improve career opportunities. I am not interested in an academic field either.

      I’m realizing that that for non-academic clinical psychologists, the actual PhD topic does not matter….its really just an albatross as you put it. What matters is my clinical experience, and I know that is a strength of mine.

      I simply don’t want to look back and be embarrassed of what I have done in the past. I want to be excited about my projects!…..and I want to finish them…

      I wonder, how much does a PhD…or PhD topic define me?

      Rana, the candidate.

      • Having a Ph.D. defines you… big time. Many potential employers will assume that you’d rather be in academe and they’ll assume that they can’t match those exorbitantly high professor salaries. (Remember, they don’t know about all those adjuncts on food stamps.) Or they’ll think you’re an intellectual snob who can’t work with the rest of their team.

        It’s not uncommon to find people who remove the Ph.D. from their resume. One of my career counselors advised me to list my education at the end of my resume.

        On the other hand, your dissertation topic only defines you to the extent you allow it to. If you’re applying for a job that’s related to your topic (but not clearly related to clinical psychology), you can mention your topic to help sell yourself. Odds are that no one will ask you what you wrote your dissertation on.

        And if you’re on LinkedIn, check out a group called “Alternative Ph.D. Careers.” The discussions are quite helpful.

  2. Rana,
    So sorry to hear about your plight. I am known to be overly practical, sometimes to a fault, but I will continue to be so in this case. If your end goal is to be mainly a clinician, then I say do whichever project will get you there with the least amount of stress and hassle, even if it means not following your heart. But if academia is your passion, then certainly you should be starting your research career in an area that is of utmost interest to you.
    Even if you end up doing the project that isn’t that interesting, I still don’t think you should rush it and put so much pressure on yourself to finish it in 6 months. That is a huge amount of work to put on yourself in a short amount of time, and my experience during internship tells me that it would be better to wait another year and be much farther along then to feel overwhelmed by it during a time when you are trying to focus on continuing to develop your clinical skills.
    Just my two cents!

    • Oh my! Corrie – your logic makes sense once again. As I responded to bumblepuppies, I wonder to what extent the topic of my PhD will matter as a clinician. I am starting to think that it doesn’t matter, I simply need to show that I can develop a research project and see it through.

      Thanks for your input!

      Rana, the candidate.

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