Guest post: “Unexpectedly Dissertated!”


Stephanie Bell is a PhD candidate in the English department. She contributes this blog post about her experience nearing the end of her program. Her dissertation is titled “Under review: Source use and speech representation in the critical review essay” and is supervised by Dr. Catherine Schryer.

I didn’t anticipate feeling like I had made no progress whatsoever until my dissertation was in its final stages. Maybe it’s just who I am as a student (that is, anxious and self-doubting), but I didn’t realize that I was actually making headway until last March when I realized that I had a draft that needed polishing and some re-working but not substantial re-thinking.

The process felt perpetually stagnated because it was so recursive. With the insights I gained when writing new chapters, I had to go back to earlier chapters to rethink and revise my initial discussions there. In a way, the more I wrote the less progress I felt I had made. It was a terrible experience with any sense of accomplishment from making daily writing quotas and draft deadlines being constantly undermined.

Just last winter, feeling like I had made no progress on the dissertation and suspecting that I might be happier with “real” job that might pay well and provide a clearer sense of purpose, I was seriously considering leaving the program. I had big plans for quitting the PhD and finding work upon my return from a month-long vacation to Australia.

I think a combination of the mid-winter sunshine on Australia’s Gold Coast and the relief I felt at having decided to quit the program allowed me to gain the kind of critical distance I needed. When I returned from Australia and reviewed my dissertation work in an effort to tell my supervisor about my plans to quit, I saw a substantial body of work that I wasn’t able to recognize before. Moreover, I had new and exciting ideas for how to make sense of it all.

Instead of bringing my supervisor a defence of why my dissertation was worth abandoning, I ended up presenting her with a plan for finishing. It was the first time I’d felt confident since the proposal and it was the moment I took ownership over the project. I guess you can say that I didn’t really decide to do this PhD until my dissertation was nearly finished.

I’m interested in hearing what everyone else’s writing experiences are/were like. Are there any faculty who had a negative dissertation-writing process but then went on to really enjoy an academic position?

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4 responses to “Guest post: “Unexpectedly Dissertated!”

  1. Stephanie, thank you so much for sharing this story.

    Here’s what I think: what you experienced is pretty much what I like to call “the writing process.” I think the really scary thing is not knowing that pretty much all serious writing has exactly the same kind of recursive / self-doubt / fantasies of abandonment / imposter syndrome / head-too-full / all-trees-no-forests aspects that plagued your dissertation writing.

    What I mean to say is this: *all* my writing follows this process you describe, only I usually bugger off to North Bay rather than Australia to clear my head. All writing is, furthermore, I think, *supposed* to follow this process. That’s how new knowledge, serious knowledge, gets created. The writing of the dissertation (or any other serious piece of scholarship in the humanities) is actually the fieldwork, data collection, results, and literature review all rolled up into one. What a mess! It’s hard, but that’s the work.

    I certainly don’t wish to diminish the awfulness of your experience. Dude, I’ve been there. Hell, I’m there RIGHT NOW (working on book proposal). But maybe the difference between us is that I recognize, on the metalevel, that the degree of the awfulness of my experience of writing is pretty much directly correlated to the quality of what I produce. This recognition actually takes much of the awfulness and dissipates it, like nightmares in sunshine. So the writing is still HARD every day, but I don’t hate myself or question my life choices daily any more.

    I save that for when the teaching evaluations come in … 😉

  2. Thanks for your guest post, Stephanie. The dissertation is a large project, and it is natural for it to go through a number of stages or phases, about which the writer will feel various degrees of panic, loathing, and pride, and possibly every other emotion under the sun. I’m delighted to hear that you were able to stick it out until things came together and you could rest on that last emotion, pride in a job well done.

  3. Stephanie Bell’s Ph.D. Oral Defense will be on Thursday January 26, 2012 at 9:00 in Hagey Hall 373, the University of Waterloo.

  4. Pingback: Great news about a recent PhD graduate |

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