How to deal with unwanted questions about your dissertation? (video)

Viewing time: 4 mins. 29 secs.

The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of issue #90, which addresses how to deal with unwanted questions about your dissertation. The post first ran on May 10/19.


Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant and my topic today is how to deal with unwanted questions about your dissertation.

I have an email from Phillip Miller, a grad student based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here’s what he’s asked:

“I’m a PhD student in neuroscience and friends and family keep asking me how my dissertation is going. I can’t tell you how much I DREAD this question. The first problem is that most outsiders don’t have a clue about what I do, so it’s really hard to explain my work to them. The second problem is that when things are going badly, I honestly don’t know what to say. Do you have any advice for me?”

Thanks for your question, Phillip.

I’ve never had to write a dissertation, but I can relate to the situation of being asked questions you don’t want to answer. I’m the mother of triplets. And here’s a technique that worked for me and that might also work for you.

When my kids were young, we got a great deal of attention. The triplet stroller was the source of much of it! Milo: show image As a result, I had a truly unbelievable number of people — people I didn’t know — ask me if I’d taken fertility drugs. Once, when I was in the drugstore to buy diapers, a total stranger screamed the question at me from halfway across the store. I was incredulous.

Over the months this happened, I tried lots of different techniques but the best one was to answer a different question. So, they’d ask me if I’d taken fertility drugs and I’d answer, “I have a set of cousins who are twins.” Or, “I have to feed them every two hours.” Or, “I’m going to return to work part-time when they’re a year old.”

This worked really well and when it didn’t and the person said, “That’s not what I was asking,” I’d simply smile, say “I know,” and turn away.

Basically, some people are just trying to make conversation and you’re under no obligation to give them a detailed or even a truthful answer. Don’t try to share the logistics of neuroscience with them! Just say, “it’s going really well, thanks,” and then quickly ask them a question of your own. Think of it like a game of tennis. They hit a shot to you and you need to return it. The return is your question to them.

When your dissertation is going badly, talk to your advisor, but no one else. Other people are only likely to give you well-meaning but totally useless and sometimes harmful advice. Instead, use the strategy of the white lie. Tell them it’s going well and you’re happy with your progress. That’s all that most of them want to hear, anyway. For those who continue to persist, however, tell them you have a superstition that talking about your work before it’s published is terrible luck. Many writers DO feel this way, so you are in good company.

Now, Phillip, you didn’t ask me how to solve your writing problems with your dissertation, but let me give you some advice on that subject as well. One issue I find with many grad students is that they’re determined to break new ground, write the best dissertation ever produced, or have their dissertation published as a book. These ambitious thoughts are crushing to many students and are far more likely to hold you back rather than inspire you.

Instead of imposing those kinds of demands on yourself, I suggest concentrate on finishing your dissertation on time. Your only job is to make it good enough to pass. Once you have your PhD, then you can accomplish many other ambitious tasks.

Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from young adult writer Shannon Hale, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

Philip, writing a dissertation, doesn’t have to be an overwhelming, soul-sucking job. When it comes right down to it, it’s just another paper. Sure, it’s longer than most, but it’s just a paper. Don’t turn it into a monster that needs to consume you.

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