The One Question You Should Never Ask A Grad Student


Stop asking. Grandma, I know you love me, and you’re really excited for me to be a doctor — and believe me, I appreciate that you’re breaking with Jewish tradition and urging me to become a doctor rather than simply marrying one — but please, stop asking. Friends and colleagues, anyone who’s remarked of late that this dissertation seems to be taking rather a long time, please don’t imagine that this has escaped my notice. It’s not done yet. A dissertation is the length of a book, and unless you’re writing Goosebumps or “writing” a hasty pre-campaign political autobiography, those things take a while to produce. Trust me, you will know when it’s done, because I’m a pretty exuberant and talkative drunk. Please, stop asking.

At a certain point in the thesis process, your dissertation becomes Voldemort. It’s all you can think of, this dark spectral monster that haunts your dreams, jeopardizes your relationships with your loved ones, and gives you headaches. But you don’t say its name. You don’t want anyone to say its name. Mostly you just call it “it,” and the people around you know what “it” is (sometimes I opt for “my demon baby” or “Luci,” short for “Lucifer”).

I want to be very clear: I am incredibly lucky to be a doctoral student. When that grandma of mine was born, the number of women in America (or Australia, where I’m doing my doctoral work) was negligible. Globally, that’s still more or less true. In the grand scheme of things, not that many women — not that many people — get to become doctors of philosophy. It’s an enormous privilege, and one for which I’m very grateful (so I should probably stop comparing it to a genocidal wizard or to Satan himself). And if you’re lucky enough to be working on a doctoral program, or if you know someone who is, don’t forget that for a second. Doctoral work means spending years of your life learning and thinking and re-learning and re-thinking, and that is a goddamn gift. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard as shit.

As far as I can tell, having written almost one whole doctoral thesis, the point of the exercise is to demonstrate that you know more about one specific thing than anyone else on the whole entire planet. It doesn’t have to be a big thing — in fact, by necessity, it will be a teeny thing that only a handful of people will give a shit about– but it does have to be your thing. Which is pretty great, actually. When else in life will you get to say that you know more about anything than anyone else in the world? You can be the Stephen Hawking of your teeny, tiny, microscopic sub-sub-sub-field about which a teeny, tiny, microscopic number of people give a rat’s ass. Pretty cool. And, while the academic job market is grueling at the best of times and terrifying at the moment, you might be able to make a life for yourself teaching other people about the stuff you’ve learned.

The purpose of the thesis is to demonstrate that you can do the kind of work that’s required of academics (though most professors tell me that no subsequent work they’ve done has been nearly as difficult as the dissertation). The central question of the thesis, though, the one that will gnaw at your stomach and make you lie awake at night with sweaty palms and chewed fingernails, is this: am I good enough? And I’m just going to tell you right now, the answer, 99% of the time, is going to be no. You’re not good enough. You’re not smart enough. You’re not thoughtful enough. You’re not well-read enough. You’re not eloquent enough. You’re not rigorous enough. You’re not meticulous enough. You’re not anything enough, and as you might imagine, that’s hardly a recipe for healthy self-esteem, or for healthy, well, anything. And sometimes, it makes it very hard to continue slogging through the process of writing 80, 000 words (that’s 250 pages), which is one reason why the attrition rate among American doctoral candidates is about 50%. The 1% of the time that you’re deemed good enough, you get to become a doctor, so that’s pretty neat. I’m told this makes up for the years of feeling utterly inadequate, but I’m still waiting to find out.

All of which is to say, a doctorate takes time. A long time. The average American doctorate doesn’t get theirs before their 33rd birthday. And they require work. An enormous amount of work. And they’re an emotional, psychological, and often a financial strain (meet my friend Dan, who is currently over $100, 000 in debt). If you want to get some sense of how unpleasant the writing process is, sample the reading process. Seriously, try reading a doctoral thesis. Even the ones about interesting topics are incredibly dense, dry, and dull. Now imagine being the person who wrote that thing, and imagine being asked, while you were trying to concentrate on finding the most convoluted and least comprehensible way to express a certain idea, “are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

So if you’re in the midst of writing one right now, hear this: We’re not there yet. You’re not there yet, but you will be. It will be done when it’s done. And then you’ll be a doctor. Not the life-saving kind of doctor — unless you can restart someone’s hard with a trenchant analysis of depictions of gender in contemporary Hollywood romantic comedies, I won’t be putting my hand up when someone asks if there’s a doctor in the vicinity — but a doctor nonetheless. I won’t say “it’ll be worth it,” because hey, I don’t know your life and I can’t predict the future. What I suspect, and what I hope for you, is that those friends and loved ones who are asking (with the best of intentions, though it feels like pestering) if you’re done yet, will take you out for a hell of a celebration when it’s all over. And if you’re a friend, or loved one, or colleague of someone in the midst of writing one right now, and that person hasn’t asked you to check in with them or provided you with an update: please, don’t ask. It will be done when it’s done, and asking when it will be done won’t get it done any faster. Remember how well that worked on roadtrips?

image – Chris