My cohort rejoiced last Spring when all three of us passed our PhD comprehensive exams. We were ABD! We were finally free to read only what we wanted to read! But that joy quickly turned to melancholy as the Fall semester plodded on and we saw each other less and less, each of us immersed in trying to get our individual projects off the ground. And on my end at least, seeing folks from my department less often and having fewer hard deadlines meant that my productivity slowed to a crawl.
Dissertating is a lonely task. Gone are the days of having a seminar room full of classmates all reading a shared set of texts, working through similar problems, studying together and giving each other a leg up when one classmate stumbles. Unless you’re in a large program or very lucky, no one will really understand what you’re working on as well as you do. And when no one else is reading what you’re reading, whom do you ask for help?
The whole experience can be quite solitary and isolating. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, for the sake of both productivity and mental health, it is vitally important that the process not be this way.
This semester, I am happy to report that my cohort has found a way to beat the isolation and get out of our lonely hermit-holes while also encouraging ourselves to actually write something on a regular basis. One of my cohort-mates pointed out that if we needed regular progress check-ins and deadlines, it would be much easier to be accountable to each other than to an adviser. So at the end of last semester we agreed that this Spring, we would send each other new dissertation pages every two weeks. They don’t have to be polished pages—they can be total crap—they just have to be in everyone’s inbox every other Friday. And on the alternate Fridays, we get together for happy hour to catch up and decompress.
I certainly haven’t produced all good writing this semester. Nor have I produced that much: my first submission to the group in January was just an outline of a chapter (and my chapter organization has since changed drastically, so…). But at least I’m writing, which I hadn’t really done since October. And the more I just sit down and actually write something, anything, I hope the more good ideas and usable pages I’ll generate.
We talk about the necessity of support networks for graduate students all the time; it’s really vital to maintain family contact and friendships outside your work as much as you can. But the support of people who are in the trenches with you, who really understand what you’re going through even if they don’t know the ins and outs of your specific topic, can make all the difference. Many universities, including mine, have dissertation accountability/support groups that work across departments and colleges, which can be incredibly helpful if you’re struggling to find motivation to get moving on your writing projects. But I hope that you’ll also find support, commiseration, and accountability when you need it within your own cohort as well.
Four years of coursework and intense exams really bonded my cohort and brought us close. There’s no way I would have gotten this far in my PhD work without them, and there’s no way I’m finishing without them either.