Silencing the Dissertation Demons

Jennifer Marciniak – Assistant Director of the Virtual Writing Center

JenniferMAs a PhD candidate I have a lot of demons. For the majority of my doctoral career they have been there. They come to me in the form of voices –professors, colleagues, family members, even people who have no idea what it takes to undergo such a momentous task as a doctorate. Usually these voices are picking away at the back of my brain reminding me: “Only a week left before the rough draft is due, what the hell are you doing watching another episode of The Walking Dead when you have nothing for your lit review!?”  These voices started popping up during the initial two years of coursework. These annoying, lizard-tongued declarations always found me during that final push before the final papers were due. And they were loud. Overbearing. And, sometimes, overwhelming.

Even so, those seminar class demons do not hold a candle to those presently lording over my dissertation. As I begin this foray into the prospectus, which is the proposal or introduction to the dissertation, these demons are much nastier, and seemingly much less controllable. I say this because a dissertation is nothing like a seminar paper. You are not bound by (significant) deadlines like in a seminar class. Therefore, it can be much more difficult for people like me who need structure to hold themselves accountable. These demons are not harping on about deadlines. That’s small potatoes. These voices are a lot more destructive and vicious, creeping around in your psyche as you battle writer’s block saying, “You have no idea what you are doing. What are you even doing in this program? You are a complete failure.” And I can tell you from experience – and the blank pages that should be my prospectus – that it is hard to listen to this rhetoric and not start believing it.

So, I started looking for help. What I found is that I am not alone with dealing with these demons. I knew that to a certain extent, though.  I am part of a cohort of seven doctoral candidates dealing with the same issues, but it’s nice to see it in writing that you are not a complete botch on the academic landscape (like my demons tell me every day). The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill has resources for dissertation writers like me who need some consolation during this mammoth undertaking. One of the most beneficial resources they offer is a handout called “Silencing Your Inner Critic.” The information provided was a bit shocking – it was like they had a microphone inside my head and were recording the demon voices as they ridiculed me mercilessly. I think many writers going through a similar situation would benefit from an understanding voice, so I thought I would share this self-help resource here. It starts out with questions and bulleted “critic” voices. While UNC-Chapel Hill uses “critic,” I changed it to “demon,” as I thought it more appropriate for the way I hear them in my head:

What is your demon’s greatest fear?

  • That you’ll sound dumb
  • That you’ll disappoint a mentor
  • That you are an academic impostor
  • That you are not enough of a genius
  • That you won’t get a job
  • That you’re missing something within yourself (you aren’t talented enough)
  • That you’re missing something in the research (you didn’t find the famous article)
  • That you’re not worthy to make your claim
  • That your idea isn’t significant enough

When does your demon speak most often?

  • While you are writing
  • Before you sit down to write
  • After you’ve drafted something
  • While you are doing things unrelated to your project
  • Anytime, anywhere

Whose voice does your demon resemble?

  • A parent
  • A teacher
  • A smarty pants

I originally put an asterisk (*) by the bullet points that I hear most often from my demons, but realized afterward that I put an asterisk after every single one of them. So I deleted them. My demons pop up to tell me how much I suck as a doctoral student pretty much all the time. When I am washing dishes, cleaning out the closets, folding laundry. I am constantly thinking about writing, but also constantly battling reasons why I can’t sit down and do it. Because of whom my demon voices resemble, I am shell-shocked into silence because of the fear of sounding dumb, disappointing people, and basically being inadequate. But what now? UNC- Chapel Hill does not leave you hanging. They provide do-it-yourself questions to help you battle these demons:

  • Where might constructive criticism help you in the writing process?  Who might you consult for constructive criticism and when might you schedule that consultation?
  • In what other situations does your demon speak up?  How do you respond to your demon in those instances and move forward?
  • What might you say back to your demon when he/she pipes up?

While I will not divulge what I say to my demons (it’s inappropriate for a public forum), I think there is definitely something to be said for consulting someone outside of your committee for assistance. Many university writing centers offer dissertation workshops, or “boot camps,” that aim to get participants on a schedule. The overall goal is to jump start the dissertation and get the participant writing while providing simultaneous feedback. Some workshops are designed for those who are just starting the dissertation, while others are for those who are finishing up and need support with chapter revisions. Other workshops are designed to assist participants throughout an entire semester, sometimes two semesters, providing a more rigid schedule, as well as communal feedback.

The University of Louisville Writing Center held its first dissertation writing “retreat” in May 2012. I was one of the writing center consultants working with participants finishing their dissertations. For five days I worked with two doctoral candidates on chapter revisions. It was exhausting work, but at the end of the week there was significant progress. And, reportedly, a silencing of the participants’ own demon voices.  Since the retreat was so successful, The University of Louisville Writing Center will offer its second dissertation writing retreat in May 2013. The retreat, which caters to students from all disciplines, allows students to write, revise, and rework their dissertation chapters during the course of each day. Participants also have the benefit of one-on-one help with a writing center tutor as well as group activities with other participants. Those interested in participating in the workshop must have an approved dissertation proposal or prospectus, completed (or nearly completed) the data material gathering process, the approval of their dissertation advisor, and the commitment to writing each of the five days of the retreat. Applications for the retreat must include a copy of the proposal or prospectus, a one-page cover letter indicating why the retreat will be beneficial, and a letter of support from a faculty advisor. Deadline for applications is April 1, 2013.

For more helpful (and encouraging) tips from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Writing Center like “Silencing Your Inner Critic,” visit their website.

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