Purgatorio: Being a Doctoral Candidate

Ph.D. students look forward to being a doctoral candidate. You feel a sense of accomplishment after completing the qualifying exam. You no longer have to take classes and pay mandatory university fees. That means (a) you have more time to work on the things you care about, and (b) you do not have to work as a graduate assistant. This, of course, is a dream come true after years of feeling like Sonic: running as fast as one can to accomplish many tasks in a very little time.

When you are a doctoral candidate you feel different. The truth sinks in when the sense of accomplishment fades away as people start asking questions about your dissertation: How is your dissertation coming along? When are you going to collect data? How are you going to collect data? How long do you think writing will take? When do you think you will defend? Are you going to start looking for jobs? Are you going to look for jobs before or after you collect data? And, of course, they will add the following comment: “You know, the best time to have a baby is when you are writing a dissertation. You should consider doing that.” You nod as you take a deep breath and say: “We’ll see.” You, now, have to face the blunt truth that things have changed since you became a doctoral candidate. You are alone in the rest of your journey and a “Nobody” until you tackle with that monster (or bastard I should say) called DISSERTATION..

What really happens when you are a doctoral candidate?

Some of us struggle self-regulating when what keeps us going, demands of the outside world, disappears and we have to create and respond to our own tasks. When you are a doctoral candidate, you are the only person who cares about spending time on conceptualizing, analyzing, and writing about your dissertation topic. This is great except that the stakes are pretty high. This is the time you really need support from others. You want them to listen and discuss and give you feedback, which requires them to be either knowledgeable or as invested as you are on the topic.

Your advisor becomes the only person you can rely on but again you are alone because in the end of the day you have to show him or her that you can do it all by yourself. Your advisor needs to be convinced that you can tackle the world by yourself when s/he no longer looks over your shoulder.

You don’t see other students as much since in your side of the world the work can start and end at a reasonable time, which often means no all-nighter to finish writing a paper or reading an article. Your participation in conversations is limited to your previous experiences that are no longer relevant to what students do or experience in the program. Students perceive you as an old-timer in the community since you have more experience compared to them, and a “higher” status in the community. BUT the truth is you feel like a peripheral participant in the program and still trying to figure how you fit in.

If you are working in a research group, you hope to get more advance tasks as a doctoral candidate not because you are cocky and you think you deserve high level tasks compared to other students but because you want to develop other skills (e.g. leadership, grant writing) that you haven’t gotten a chance to develop in previous years. It just feels natural to expect advancement in the kind of work you do around research projects, you know.  You soon realize that nothing has changed. The professors live in a different world than students. Since a doctoral candidate is still technically a student, you work on anything the faculty says. You work on low-level tasks since the professor doesn’t want to spend his or her time on small things. You work on high-level tasks but you get very little in return that actually helps you to advance your career. You keep dissertating on the side.

You can’t really blame the faculty for what they are doing, either. In the end of the day, they, too, are trying to get tenured or get more grants and advance their careers. And when you accept that you cannot change the situation, you tell yourself: “It is time to move on”.

But moving on is not as simple as it sounds. There is comfort in the acquainted. You get used to dealing with same people and feeling like you are keeping your life on hold. You wonder why you spent so much thinking rather than doing or whether the dissertating is taking longer because you are trying to avoid growing up. You ask many “what if” questions and you find many reasons why you are making slow progress:

“The dissertation could have gone faster if I wasn’t married.”

“Only if my mother stop asking about how my dissertation is going I could have finished it by now.”

“If I wasn’t teaching this semester, I could have finished the design.”

You also start getting panic attacks in the middle of the night. You feel you’ve been smothered and stop breathing. You can’t remember whether your heart started pounding first and you felt like you’ve been smothered, or you felt like you’ve been smothered first and then your heart started pounding. It doesn’t really matter because within milliseconds you start thinking without breathing: “I am running behind, I got to finish!”

It feels like you are in purgatory until you finish your dissertation.

I want to finish this post with my favorite poem by Emily Dickinson. I dedicate this poem to those who are in dissertation phase and share similar experiences, and also to those who feel lonely or an outsider for whatever reason. I chose this poem not because I am trying to mock people who are at different stages of their academic career but because this poem communicates feeling like nobody in a simple yet powerful way.


I’m nobody! Who are you?

By Emily Dickinson

I am nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!



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