This past summer, I hiked the Kjeragbolten trail, a trek that starts above the tree line in the Norwegian mountains and takes you to a boulder wedged in a crevasse 3,200 feet above the fjord. The boulder is quite wide, and no one has ever fallen off, so I’d planned on jumping out onto it and posing for a picture, victorious, as so many others do. In the end, I settled for sitting on it. Lack of falls or not, 3,200 feet is a long way down.
I heard someone say once that after the prospectus defense, one has crafted something that’s theirs and about which they know more than anyone else. In other words, it’s choosing which mountain you’re going to climb and feeling prepared to do so. I think that’s wrong. Dissertating is like falling off of a cliff. While you fall, your committee begins a somewhat leisurely stroll down to the bottom, where they hope to find you somewhat intact, in a somewhat recognizable form.
I use “you” intentionally in order to de-personalize. I need this experience to be normal. I wish we talked about dissertating more—about what it actually looks like laid out on a calendar, about how the nights stretch until it’s spring. That’s what I’d like to do here.
I’ve been dissertating for a full year, as of today. “How much progress have you made?” underlies every question posed in response to what should maybe feel like a milestone. I ask it of myself because we insist upon progress as products: a chapter, a paper, a dataset, a plan. I have a folder on my desktop called “Research Freewrite Dump”, full of single Word documents where I’ve tried to write through the noise in my brain, pull out bits that sing. Is this progress? It is work. Is that the same?
Younger grad students often ask, “What do you do when you’re dissertating?” Hell if I know, kids. Some days you read new articles in your subfield. Some days you pick a concept in your project and try to write your way through it. Some days you figure you should probably download those propaganda magazines you said you’d analyze. Some days you sleep.
I used to wonder, watching friends who were ABD, how years could pass and they could still feel so behind. I understand it now. I’ve been dissertating for a full year as of today, and I don’t have a chapter, much less multiple. I don’t have a sense of how the project hangs together. I do have some data, finally, and it’s nothing at all like what I thought it would be. Collecting it destroyed me, which is a little pathetic because all I did was go to Berlin and talk to people. (I want to come back to this sentiment—that “talking to people” is easy, or insignificant.) I have two conference papers. I have more presentations scheduled. I mention all of this as a reminder to myself of things I’ve done that get lost in the slog of “not enough, not enough, not enough”.
After you reach Kjeragbolten, the route down is exactly the route you came up. All of the inclines are now drop-offs; all of the chains I pulled myself up on the way there were now effectively rappelling ropes secured to the rockface by metal stakes. Going down felt infinitely less safe, and so I became very committed to the 45-degree crabwalk. The crabwalk, in turn, became a lot of scooting down a mountainside on my ass. It was profoundly undignified and also rather monotonous.* I remember getting halfway down an incline at one point and my body just deciding of its own accord to sit. I guess I was more tired than I had realized.
After I defended, I took a month off from the dissertation. For me, the process of proposing the project had forced me to reckon with the fact that the way I thought about the world did not mesh with mainstream political science. In my first few years, I was allowed to try things and there were really no consequences, but all of a sudden, I had to own the sort of work I actually believed in (and come to the realization that I had those beliefs in the first place), how I thought about knowledge and knowability, and what I wanted, professionally speaking, from the entire experience. The answers to all of those questions, it turned out, were not what I had been taught to want or value at the “cutting edge” of U.S. IR research. That’s a discussion for another time, but suffice it to say I was exhausted and burned out beyond belief.
One month was the plan, anyway. It was four months, in the end. Four months of no work. I am incredibly type A and need to be scrambling around doing 10 things at once for my own happiness, social constructions of productivity aside. But my brain demanded: stop. My body demanded: rest. I lurched about semi-comatose for the entirety of that semester, fulfilling my teaching obligations and doing menial tasks that made it seem, perhaps, that I was functioning just fine. I wasn’t.
So this is the first lesson: check in on your ABD friends not by asking “how’s your dissertation?” but by asking “how are you?”.
I went on a solo trip to southern California in January and came back refreshed and ready to work. In the next two months, I essentially rewrote the entire framework for the project. I’ll rephrase: I took the kernel of the project, which remained unchanged, and let it grow unhindered by rules I felt the discipline imposed on me—or, for a while, by committee members’ demands. This felt different from the prospectus process. It felt new. It felt authentic. Some people take a more careerist view, but for me personally, I can’t put writing out into the world that I don’t believe in. There were parts of my prospectus that I wrote because I knew they looked good and not because I had any intention of doing them. (RIP my massive document classifier project.) I didn’t want to write like that anymore.
(And I should say: the only reason I did any of this was because I have a dear, dear friend a year ahead of me in the program who knows what I’m going through and how to tell me exactly what I need to hear, especially when I don’t want to hear it, and lets me cry at him in public as I work through my ideas. This is the second lesson: find yourself such a friend.)
I decided I would go to Berlin over the summer and talk to bureaucrats and policymakers. This had always been part of the plan, but a nebulous one—I had no idea how to make it happen. Fortunately, there are some discrete tasks involved in this process. I started an IRB application in January; it was approved by April. I applied for grants; I finally got a sufficient amount of money in May. I applied to a conference in Oslo so that I could get conference travel money and hop over to Berlin from Norway; I got in.
And that’s how I found myself on top of Kjerag in late June, triumphant and sweaty and hoping that the professional clothes I’d shoved into my carry-on around my hiking boots would be sufficient for the interviews I’d be starting the following week. The Norwegian fjords have been on my bucket list since I was a child, and I’d always figured I’d end up there one day. That’s the third lesson: stop saying “one day” and do it now.
So I’ve been dissertating for a year. I’ve just now done anything resembling data collection and still have a lot more to do. To be honest, it feels daunting. Talking to people is far from easy: good interviewing is an art, and when you couple that with the case-specific knowledge you need to contextualize what elites are telling you, the street smarts to not have the wool pulled over your eyes, and the general difficulty of keeping up with a highly technical conversation in your non-native language…well, let’s just say I’m still figuring it out. And I know, on top of all of that, that there will be segments of the discipline who still don’t see the value in this sort of work because there is so much subjectivity involved. But the social world is subjective, and learning how others understand it is my favorite part of this job.
I don’t know what this year will look like. My plan is still to go on the market next fall, which means I have a frightening amount of writing to do. On the recommendation of the wonderful Mirya Holman, I made a rough schedule of tasks and prioritized them, trying to leave time for the rests I know my brain and body will demand. I fully expect to jettison said schedule, because it’s been a year and there’s no sign that I’ll actually know what I’m doing at any point. I don’t think any of us do. But at least now I can lurch about with my eyes open to that fact and give myself a little grace.
On the way down from Kjerag, I met a group of hikers from Ohio who had figured out how to sidle down the smoother rockfaces parallel to the chains. I’d never hiked with chains before, so they showed me how to do it going downhill: hand over hand, with my weight centered over my back foot. “You can stick with us,” they offered, and I did, for a little bit. With some practice, though, I felt more confident, even as I slipped and skidded. I moved ahead.
Dissertating is like falling off a cliff. Your committee will meet you at the bottom. Even so, you don’t fall alone.
*The Kjeragbolten hike is awe-inspiring and one of the best things I’ve ever done. However, the descent sucks. It doesn’t detract from the experience, but it’s there. This is the final lesson.