Mentoring for Grief & Growth at the End of a Dissertation
Just yesterday one of my Ph.D. students whose dissertation is due to the committee next week asked me “Please tell me the truth. Am I okay?” I assured the student that they were indeed okay, and not just okay but that they had completed an impressive body of work, that they had amassed so many new skills, and that they were now a leading expert in the subject of their research. All of that is completely true, but honestly, I don’t think they believed me.
They were consumed by self-doubt. But the final chapter is not yet framed as powerfully as the resulting manuscript will be. But there is yet another analysis that probably should be added. But the text of the two chapters that are not yet published could certainly be further refined. They were also clearly reckoning with the realization that the large experiment we designed at the outset of their dissertation would be designed much differently and better today given what we now know.
And that’s the problem with the end of a dissertation. You will produce no other work in your career in which your understanding of what you are doing changes so profoundly while you are in the process of producing it. It is not a flaw; it is an essential outcome of the PhD that by the end of your dissertation you will fully understand how much more impressive your dissertation would be if you could start the work again knowing all that you have learned. No person in the world is better poised to see the flaws and imperfections in a dissertation than the person who became an expert while they were creating it. There is real grief in coming to the end of this enormous undertaking. You grieve for the ideal dissertation you dreamed up years ago while everyone is pushing you to just finish the less than perfect dissertation you actually produced.
I was never more unhappy than in the last few months of my dissertation. I felt like a failure as I forced myself to write up the work I now saw as immature and uninteresting. I had already learned so much from doing that work, and I did not see much value in sharing that knowledge gained with others through my publications. I did not value that knowledge gained. Instead, I regretted the knowledge I did not have earlier.
We do not do enough as mentors to prepare students for this fundamental disappointment at the end of their degree. Yet we should expect it because it is an inevitable outcome of a challenging graduate program. We do not do enough to recognize and value the expansion of the scholar’s understanding, skills, and experience that is the true measure of a successful PhD. It is okay–indeed, it is necessary–that you are dissatisfied with your dissertation. It is this dissatisfaction that is the catalyst for the next exciting question, technique, or experiment.
And it is critical to find opportunities to remind students how far they have come. Senior grad students should try to see themselves through the eyes of their junior labmates. How often are they asked for advice and assistance? They should consider how many times they have had to explain something complicated to their PI. They should give a guest lecture or talk in which they tell the story about something they did that they now realize was naive and how their understanding grew. They should go back and read their early drafts and proposals.
As mentors, we should help our students focus on their intellectual growth, and help them find pleasure in moving from a position of no knowledge towards expertise. I am trying to consistently point out the growth I see in each of my students as a counterweight to the work I also must do in critiquing and refining their research products.