Are you caught in relentless tides of dissertation revisions?
If you’re in the throes of writing your dissertation and have submitted your drafts to your chair and committee, you may have experienced a version of their seemingly endless rounds of revisions. Granted, they may drive you crazy, but—please believe me—you can to handle the revisions so they don’t erode your confidence (even more), deepen your depression, and thoroughly destroy your sanity.
A chair or committee’s insistence on ceaseless revisions generally stem from one of two main motivations. The revisions reflect less-than-healthy motivations for some professors who are perfectionist, vindictive, petty, and competitive. They may be frustrated with their current position, shouldering too many doctoral students’ dissertations, or still bitterly recalling their own chair who put them through the grinder. And they want to show you who’s boss.
Other professors push you for revisions because they genuinely want a quality work, for you and for them (by reflection). They’re not out to get you. They believe in the importance of your work and, in fact, probably see a publishable spinoff in your postdoc future.
How Bad Are They?
Committee members vary greatly in the types 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 or pin anything down. Grant and Tomal (2013), professors themselves, 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 a study of doctoral candidates’ persistence in completing the dissertation, Spaulding and Rockinson-Szapkiw (2012) quoted 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).
In contrast, some committee members spray students’ work with the fussiest comments, line by line, word by word, comma by comma. When you make the corrections and hand in the document, the professors come back with more, sometimes contradicting their earlier notes.
No wonder you get depressed.
Dissertation advisor and distinguished sociologist Michael Burawoy (2005) offered 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)
If you’ve received similar pages of “detailed comments,” recognize your chair or committee members may be acting from similar insecurities as Burawoy acknowledged.
Whatever you do, don’t act like an irate graduate student I knew of. After receiving the chair’s marked-up draft, the student stomped into the chair’s office without an appointment, threw his manuscript on the professor’s desk, and, referring to a brigade of sticky notes on most pages, argued with every point the chair had made. Needless to say, this candidate only reaped more unremitting revisions.
Instead, when you receive a decimating critique, remind yourself that it’s not personal to you (admittedly difficult). Respect the professor (even if you’re fed up), make an appointment to sit down with ample time, acknowledge 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
Before the meeting, assess your work honestly. Are there elements (even) you don’t understand? Can you ask a favorite professor, recent “doctor,” or peer for help? Or go to a doctoral coach (pardon the commercial for us coaches).
One student, Darryl, came to me after many volleys back and forth with his chair. Darryl couldn’t understand why he wasn’t satisfying the chair’s scribbles. When I studied them and Darryl’s rewrites, I saw that he had missed several crucial issues. We talked, and I coached him with a few Socratic-like questions. He holed up to rewrite and sent me the new draft, which I edited. Finally, the work 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. But then the methodologist told Elena to revise chapter 3. The chair reiterated that Elena should first work on revising chapters 1 and 2, which she (we) did.
But now the chair refused to read chapters 1 and 2, saying Elena was to have worked on 3. Elena tried to clarify what she’d heard at the meeting, but the chair wasn’t buying. By this time, Elena was completely confused and phoned me in tears.
She said she felt like a tennis ball at a nightmare match and momentarily thought of changing both chair and committee. But we realized that at her relatively late stage, such a move would delay her further. I cautioned her too not to complain to either the chair or methodologist about the other. Whatever their private battles, the politics were too precarious, and at that point Elena could little afford 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). Then, I said, she should summarize what both the chair and methodologist had decided and instructed her and 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 eventually got through it all and she graduated.
When you’re caught in the ocean of relentless revisions, recognize you are not alone, as these clients’ experiences show, and remember several points:
- Know it’s all part of the process.
- Understand the professors are acting from their own motives and perspectives: perfectionism, reputation, competition, interprofessorial power politics, genuine caring . . .
- They are not attacking you personally.
- Be honest with yourself about your work—and get outside help (former professor, recent doctor, colleague, coach).
- Swallow your pride and do the damn revisions.
- Expect that more may come rolling in. And just do them.
- When you finally get the dissertation approved, you’ll likely be the only one to remember how many revisions you had to grind out.
You don’t have to drown in the interminable waves of revisions. What’s required are your willingness, ego-swallowing, concentrated time, detachment, and dedication to the work. Through it all, keep visualizing yourself walking across the stage and getting hooded. And thanking your chair and committee members, who are standing nearby and smiling broadly.
Burawoy, M. (2005). Combat in the dissertation zone. American Sociologist, 36(2),
Cassuto, L. (2013, April 22). Remember, professor, not too close. Chronicle of Higher
Grant, C., & Tomal, D. R. (2013). How to finish and defend your dissertation: Strategies
to complete the professional practice doctorate. 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.
Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).
© 2021 Noelle Sterne
Noelle is a contributor to TAA’s book, Guide to Making Time to Write: 100+ Time & Productivity Management Tips for Textbook and Academic Authors. Available as a print and eBook.
Dissertation 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 700 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 third novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com