Are you whirling in the infinite loop of dissertation revisions?

If you’re writing your dissertation and have submitted your drafts to your chair and committee, you may have experienced a version of the infinite loop of revisions. The revisions may drive you crazy, but it’s actually possible to approach and handle them so they don’t erode your confidence (even more), deepen your depression, and thoroughly destroy your sanity.

A chair or committee’s cry for obsessive revisions can stem from one of two main motivations. Some professors can be perfectionist, vindictive, petty, and competitive, and their insistent revisions reflect less-than-healthy motivations. Other professors push you for revisions because they genuinely want a quality work, for you and for them (by reflection). Their comments are not personal, and they’re not out to get you. In fact, they likely see a publishable spinoff in your postdoc future.

How Bad Are They?

Committee members vary greatly in the type of revisions they harp on. Students have shown me the most general committee comments, repeated ad redundantum. The professors know that something doesn’t feel or read right, but their comments don’t reflect specific guidance. Grant and Tomal (2013) explained the possible reason with admirable openness: “faculty may have difficulty explaining all the nuances required to successfully complete and defend the dissertation” (p. 118).

In contrast, some committee members spray students’ work with the fussiest comments, line by line, comma by comma. When you make the corrections and hand in the document, the committee comes back with more, sometimes contradicting their earlier comments. No wonder you get depressed.

In their study of doctoral candidates’ persistence in completing the dissertation, Spaulding and Rockinson-Szapkiw (2012) reported on one participant’s frustration at a very late stage: “I almost quit again right before the defense. . . . [I]t had to do with lack of direction and uniformity from the professors or their changing their mind when you think you are finished” (p. 208).

From the faculty point of view, dissertation advisor and distinguished sociologist Michael Burawoy (2005) made an unusually frank admission. Talking to his advisees, he confessed,

I used to make detailed comments that would go on for pages and
totally overwhelm and even paralyze you. Sometimes you would never
come back. It was rather disingenuous of me to complain about your
retreat since I suspect that my barraged aimed to establish my authority,
my credibility as a young sociologist—with little thought as to
what might be helpful to you. (p. 47)

Keep in mind Burawoy’s candid self-observations. If you’ve received similar pages of “detailed comments,” recognize your chair may be acting from similar insecurities as Burawoy acknowledged.

Whatever you do, don’t act like an irate graduate student I heard of. After receiving the chair’s marked-up draft, without an appointment the student stomped into the chair’s office, threw down his manuscript, which had his own brigade of sticky-note soldiers ready for battle, and argued with every point the chair had made. Needless to say, this candidate only reaped more endless-revision reprisals.

Instead, when you receive a decimating critique, arrange to sit down with the chair or member, admit your doctoral frailties, and ask for clarification. As Cassuto (2013) said, good advisors and chairs collaborate with their students. When you ask for a meeting, generally the professor will oblige, and respect for you and your maturity will go up a notch.

Assess and Act

If you get caught in the infinite revision loop, assess your work honestly. Are there elements (even) you don’t understand? Can you ask a peer or recent “doctor” for help? Or a doctoral coach (admittedly a commercial for us coaches).

One student, Darryl, came to me after several volleys back and forth with his chair. Darryl couldn’t understand why he wasn’t satisfying the chair’s scribbles. When I looked at them and Darryl’s rewrites, I saw that he had missed several crucial points. We talked, I coached him with several Socratic-like questions, he holed up to rewrite, and he finally produced a draft that was approved.

In another variation, my client Elena seemed trapped in an infinite revision loop with academic political overtones. After she met with her chair and methodologist about her proposal, they agreed that Elena should revise chapters 1 and 2. The methodologist, though, told Elena to revise chapter 3. But the chair had told Elena to work on revising chapters 1 and 2 first, which she (we) did.

Then the chair refused to read chapters 1 and 2, saying Elena was to have worked on 3. Elena tried to clarify what she had heard at the meeting, but the chair was having none of it. By this time, Elena was completely confused and phoned me in tears.

She said she felt like a tennis ball and momentarily thought of changing both chair and committee. But we realized that at Elena’s relatively late stage, it wouldn’t be smart and would delay her further. I cautioned her too not to complain to the methodologist about the chair. The politics were too precarious, and Elena could little afford at that point to alienate either of them.

Instead, in a move that would elevate Elena’s self-respect, I counseled her to refer her chair back to the original meeting (with email documentation), to summarize what both the chair and methodologist had decided and instructed her, and to hold the chair to her word.

Finally, the chair agreed to read the first two chapters and grudgingly acknowledged they were sufficient. Elena then worked on chapter 3 with the methodologist. With Elena’s patience, professionalism, and willingness to swallow her pride and dismiss her rage, we got through it all and she graduated.

Revision Reminders

When you’re whirling in the infinite loop of revisions, from these candidates’ experiences, know you are not alone and remember these points:

  1. Know it’s all part of the process.
  2. Recognize the professors are acting from their own motives and perspectives: perfectionism, reputation, competition, interprofessorial power politics, genuine caring . . . .
  3. Be honest with yourself about your work—and get outside help (colleague, recent doctor, coach).
  4. Swallow your pride and do the damn revisions.
  5. Recognize that more may come spinning down. And do them.
  6. When you finally get the dissertation approved, you’ll likely be the only one who will remember how many revisions you had grind out.

The infinite loop of revisions can be disrupted. What’s required is your willingness, humility, time, detachment, and dedication to the work. Through it all, keep visualizing yourself walking across the stage, getting hooded, and thanking your chair and committee members, who are standing there and smiling broadly.

References

Burawoy, M. (2005). Combat in the dissertation zone. American Sociologist, 36(2), 43-56.
Cassuto, L. (2013, April 22). Remember, professor, not too close. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Not-Too-Close/138629/
Grant, C., & Tomal, D. R. (2013). How to finish and defend your dissertation: Strategies to complete the professional practice doctorate. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Spaulding, L. S., & Rockinson-Szapkiw, A. J. (2012). Hearing their voices: Factors doctoral candidates attribute to their persistence. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 7, 199-219.

© 2019 Noelle Sterne

Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).For reprinting, please contact Noelle Sterne through her site: www.trustyourlifenow.com


Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 600 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her second novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com