I am here to tell you that you can make it. You can be successful. You can complete your doctorate and your marriage can survive and become even stronger through this process. I am Dr. Randy Parker’s wife. I have been there, done that. If we could survive this process so can you. There is no magic answer but there are some techniques we put in place after many years of struggling.
One night, after years of working on his doctorate, I caught Randy carrying his dissertation and all the research out to the burn barrel. He had seriously had it and was going to destroy all of it and be done with it. Hours and hours of work that could not be duplicated. Even though I was at the point of hating the dissertation, I told him to put the paperwork down and to wait one day. If he still felt the same, then he could burn everything and be done with it. Obviously the time paid off and gave him the space he needed to work through things. I have to be honest. I was so sick of the dissertation that it was tempting for me to let him burn it but then all the time and money would have been a waste. Needless to say he would have felt like a failure the rest of his life.
Ok, so how did we do it? Randy has put a number of techniques in his book but one that really stands out in my mind is what he calls the “hot potato” technique. For years, working on his dissertation was very aversive. You really don’t anticipate receiving tons of feedback and correction. Later, after you leave the meeting with your advisor you look at all the red correction and feel totally lost and defeated. Like you put in all those hours only to have to basically re-write everything again. It became the norm to come away from the meeting feeling very frustrated and confused. He had no idea what direction to go in and the confusion just brought on more fear (of failure) and anxiety.
What you have to remember is that this is a new learning experience for you. Up until this time, you have been a student following instructions. All of a sudden the ball is in your corner. On one hand you are supposed to be the expert on your dissertation but really you are still a student learning to put all the dissertation pieces together in a manner that makes sense and has a purpose.
We finally decided that if we did not make some changes and set some rules down that he would never finish. So whenever he met with his advisor, he would have one week to make the corrections and resubmit the work. The goal of the “hot potato” technique was to get the paper back to the advisor as fast as possible. If you wait months between submissions, they won’t even remember what you presented the last time. This can cause more confusion, change in direction and in the end taking much more time. Your advisors are very busy professors and it takes a lot of additional time to work with doctoral students on their dissertations.
Once the dissertation was in for corrections, Randy would do nothing more on it until he received it back. Now it was the advisors turn to work on it. This was Randy’s time to relax, watch a movie, play with the kids and enjoy his life. Basically, after many years of the dissertation controlling his life, he finally took control and was able to not only enjoy his life again but become more productive. To go the distance, you must have down time where you are not thinking or working on the dissertation.
Do not work beyond the corrections you submitted. If you do, most likely it will be a waste of time as your advisor could have you go in a totally different direction. When it is in the advisor’s hands, it is your time to rest and recharge. When you get the corrections back, work hard, make the changes and move on. If your spouse understands the procedure, then they can be supportive during this time knowing that as soon as you are able to send the paper back in, you can enjoy family time again.
Remember the goal is to end up with your marriage and the doctorate. Include your spouse in the process. Have them review your work and make suggestions. Listen closely and accept their feedback. Don’t think that they are not smart enough to help you. This is a time to be humble. If they cannot understand what you are writing then it is not going to make sense to anyone else. Be positive and thankful for the time your spouse is willing to give you. Believe it or not, it can bring you closer together. On one occasion, Randy had to switch advisors after working on his dissertation for many months. His paper was so confusing after the feedback, I told him he would be better throwing out what he had written and start over. It was the hardest thing to tell him to do yet it gave him the fresh start he needed and put him on the road to completing his dissertation.
So when you are struggling, do not give up. You are not stupid. Look how far you have come in your education. Most people never reach this point. Get help wherever you can and learn from those who have done it before you. Everyone has survival tips. Keep trying things until you find what works for you. Never lose sight of the fact that your family is the most important thing in your life. Getting your doctorate is not worth losing your family over. The good thing is that you can have both if you don’t let the dissertation become the center of your life.
National Doctoral Students Association