The Dissertation Death Spiral

Deciding to get a PhD puts you in a fairly small pool of people. Most estimates indicate that less than 5% of Americans have a PhD or other professional degree. This doesn’t, of course, mean that those of us who are on that path are smarter than 95% of the population. If it means anything, it probably just means that we like school more than a lot of people and/or are willing to take on some huge financial risks for the hope of some fairly specific (and not guaranteed) rewards at the end of it.

I don’t have any evidence to back this up (said the budding researcher, shrugging) but I suspect that most people in PhD programs consider themselves, if not intelligent, certainly good at school. I know that part of my self-concept is “Wendy, good at school, fast reader, strong writer”, which is what makes the dissertation death spiral all the more frustrating.

The dissertation death spiral is when, at some point in the midst of writing your dissertation, it suddenly occurs to you that each and every sentence you are writing is nothing more than a steaming pile of shit.

If you are very lucky, you’ll have this moment when you are pressed for time and staring down a deadline of needing to submit something to your committee.

The dissertation death spiral starts with starting at a blank page and typing a sentence or two and then quickly backspacing them away. You eventually repeat “shitty first draft, shitty first draft” enough to get yourself tentatively typing. Soon, you have several pages. Maybe even, hypothetically, 20 pages on open access to community colleges. Hypothetically. And the more you type, the crappier it all seems. Your screen is a sea of red squiggle lines. You realize you’ve used the word “significant” 27 times in three paragraphs. You notice that you have a sentence that is 8 lines long without even a comma to break it up.

All of the sudden your dissertation seems at once to be the most important thing you’ve ever written and the single biggest piece of crap that you, a person who expects As on papers, has ever written. And then you remind yourself that A) you are doing this voluntarily and B) you have to turn in SOMETHING soon. You begin to have fantasies of taking your remaining student loan monies and flying to an island somewhere where you can lay on a beach until you are drunk and drowsy and brown as a coconut.

Somewhere in your mind the jungle drums of “you suck, you can’t do this, you suck, you can’t do this” begin to sound, louder and louder.

So you hit “select all” and then backspace and watch 20 pages of crap disappear.

(I do not recommend this)

And then you text a few of your grad school friends and they all say “oh, yeah, that is totally normal. Just turn in the crap, you’ll be fine.”

And then you pull open Word again and stare at the blank page.

And then you go online and have a quick anxiety fueled shopping binge that you’ll have to explain to your partner later.

And then maybe you type up a blog post that you hope people will read and leave comments on.

And then….


You retrieve the 20 pages of crap and start again.

Because you aren’t smarter than most people but damn it if you won’t be more persistent.


2 thoughts on “The Dissertation Death Spiral

  1. ravelingoutko says:

    Just wanted to say I’ve been really enjoying your grad school posts lately.

    I agree with you about the deadlines — I never had firm ones when I was working on my dissertation, so I procrastinated HORRIBLY. When I moved across the country and started my current job 7 yrs ago (I was ABD at that point), I gave myself one semester to finish it. That actually worked — 2.5 chapters and the conclusion were all written in that one semester, while teaching 4 classes. It can be done.

    You’re going to do great — just keep on pushing!

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