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Posted April 29, 2011
                           

Education

PhDisasters

Worried about writing that thesis? Turns out writing could be the least of your problems.

By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  
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I knew a man pursuing a PhD in literature. His dissertation had to do with humor as a form of dissent in 20th-century literature. And how enthused he was at first! How passionate and excited.

But then he disappeared. I pictured him in some barren Dostoyevsky-esque office/bedroom, banging out his dissertation. A desk. A bed. Saltine crackers. When I saw him, rarely, he'd talk about writing, and all his early eagerness and engagement had gone. I saw him again not long ago, he having finally finished the dissertation, and I told him congratulations and asked him how it went.

"I don't want to talk about it."

His personal dissertation hell was just the tip of the iceberg. The thesis-writing process, by nature, is demanding and intensive. But throw in abusive supervisors, bureaucratic nightmares, and academia run amok, and the experience can quickly become straight-up traumatic. Here are four horror stories from the front lines.

THE CORRUPT COCOON

Sarah Smith grew up in Lexington, attended St. Andrews University in Scotland, and got her master's in public health at Tulane. She then decided to pursue her PhD at the University of Queensland in Australia, where she began her degree in population health. But her relationship with the school was "fraught from the start," she says over the phone from Maryland. "My supervisor was a nut job," and there were issues of denied funding for her research. She switched programs three weeks before heading into the field.

Smith's research focused specifically on dengue fever in Cambodia and more broadly on global health processes and "the way US and foreign governments create policies and how they get reimagined on global, national, and local levels." Her 320-page dissertation was titled "Power and Risk: Dengue and Its Control in Urban Cambodia."

She spent 12 months in Cambodia, "until I got kicked out of the country," Smith says with a laugh. "They pulled my research permit, so I couldn't collect any data," she explains, "and I couldn't afford the $600-a-month bribes they were asking for." On top of that, she was also leveled with a lawsuit from the Cambodian Ministry of Health. She was unearthing evidence that hinted at embezzlement, and "they were concerned that any sort of negative findings were going to impact tourism revenue," Smith says. She published some preliminary findings and was threatened with legal action. This, she says, "probably contributed to the pulling of the research funding."

Besides the bureaucratic challenges ("There's more bureaucracy in academia than there is in government"), Smith, who started a job two weeks ago working for a US-funded health-care improvement project, says the dissertation took an emotional toll as well.

"People should know how painfully isolating it is," she says. "It becomes your entire world." It got to the point, she explains, "that I almost didn't want to finish writing. I thought it was going to be the end of the most intense relationships I ever had. It was almost like a loss of purpose when I finished writing it." Smith talks of the cocoon she existed in, and how "it isolates you from your friends, your family, pop culture." It's not like these things are in the back seat, she says "They're in a different car."

 Smith and her colleagues call it "birthing a thesis." It's a "painful delivery process," she says. "Protracted, demoralizing. You get beaten down on every turn."

ADVISORS GONE AWOL

Chad Walls left his job teaching in a high school in Maine to pursue a PhD in education at a university in England (which he asked us not to name). His research focused on students labeled with behavioral problems, his dissertation answering the question, "What do students who have been labeled with a behavior difficulty see as good teaching?"

Walls did a year's worth of classes, spent a year in the field, a year of writing, and a year of revisions, and at first, he says over the phone from Maine, it went really well. "I liked the way the process was handled. My supervisors were helpful." But then, he says, it descended into a "typical PhD nightmare."

He talks of sending in a chapter of the dissertation, waiting months for a response, and then getting feedback "saying, 'How can I read this chapter without the others?' Then I sent the draft in as a whole, and got a note back saying, 'This is a lot to deal with at once.' "

On top of absentee supervisors, logistics got complicated as well. Because of his supervision, it looked like Walls was only a part-time student, which meant his loans kicked in. And in England, "you have to pay what's called a Council Tax," and because his supervisor forgot to fill out the forms that established that Walls was still a full-time student, he got an alarming letter saying there was a warrant out for his arrest.

If he were to go back and do the whole thing over, Walls would take closer notes on what was going on with the supervision, "so that if I did decide to make a move, it'd be less about me being emotional and more about evidence."

ALL-CONSUMING RESEARCH

Kit Maloney, who grew up in the Back Bay, got her master's degree in gender and social policy from the London School of Economics; her thesis looked at rape and domestic violence. For Maloney, the combination of immersing herself in a disturbing subject, as well as a lack of support in the writing stages, kept her awake at night. "I was so traumatized I left my whole field," she says. (She now works as a sales and marketing manager for Fever-Tree, a company that makes natural high-end mixers tonic water, ginger beer, etc.) The abrupt transition from classroom life to the solitude of writing, particularly writing about sexual violence, was jarring and isolating. "I wasn't sleeping," says Maloney. "I was having terrible nightmares." She says might return to the field, but not right away.

THE LONG HAUL

Dorchester native Joyce Linehan, the woman behind Ashmont Media, an arts-and-culture PR firm, as well as the co-author of Pernice to Me, got her masters degree in American studies at UMass Boston with a decidedly rock-and-roll thesis: "The Day My Mama Socked It to the Harper Valley PTA: Country Music Womanhood in the Second Wave of Feminism." For Linehan, the experience wasn't traumatic, it just took a long time she started her thesis in 1998 and completed it in 2004, all while working full time. "If I wasn't getting anywhere [with the thesis], I could put it down and go to work." She's found that the critical thinking involved has helped in her day job, providing context to media outlets.

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