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Jennifer Travis is a part-time doctoral student in Curriculum and Instruction (Mathematics Education) at Texas A&M University. She also teaches math full-time at a community college. Her blog is

Okay, here goes…I’m here to confess: I’m an 8th year doctoral student. I admit this in hopes other drifting graduate students will realize they are not alone, and perhaps summon the courage to accurately assess the situation and make needed changes.

My first couple years were full of excitement—I welcomed any chance to talk about the Ph.D. program and my classes. As the years went by, I became reticent, hoping no one would ask how grad school was going. If asked, I would have to acknowledge my lack of progress. I avoided research conferences, knowing they meant encountering former classmates, now graduated and holding tenure-track professor positions.

How did my journey, begun with promise and energy, slow nearly to a standstill? How did so many years slip by? The easy answer is to blame my full-time job, perhaps even pointing out that I switched jobs a year into my doctoral program, to a new teaching position I still love, with new courses to prepare. This is a specious excuse—plausible, even deceptively pleasing…but false.

The true answer is the out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude I allowed myself to develop once my coursework ended, freeing me from the tyranny of deadlines. I did not deliberately avoid working toward my dissertation; I simply let it fade into the background—I had plenty of responsibilities and activities to keep me busy.

Less than two-thirds of Ph.D. students complete their dissertation voyages within ten years. Of those who do not, I suspect very few capsize suddenly, by failing their classes or having spectacular rows with their advisors. No, they just quietly lay down their oars and drift along. Perhaps at first they paddle intermittently, making some progress toward their destination. But maintaining a high level of energy and focus for a long period of time is hard, especially when no one is grading you or keeping tabs on your progress. It is so easy to let yourself take a break, just a short one…of course, you still intend to finish, and you’ll soon pick up the pace again. The problem is that during your little break, life will intervene, with all its demands and claims on your time; before you know it, you’ll have floated away, out of sight of land.

Part-time students living far away may be more likely to drift, but it can happen to anyone, even full-time graduate students working on campus. If you’re a teaching assistant, have you become so dedicated to teaching excellence you have allowed your dissertation to slide? Should some of the hours you devote to grading and preparing class materials instead be earmarked for your research? If you’re a research assistant, have you spent so much time on other people’s research you’ve neglected your own? It’s wonderful that you’ve been fourth or fifth author on several papers—in a way, I envy you. But if you never get around to writing your own dissertation, what is the good of a lengthy vita?

So how does one distinguish a well-rounded academic profile from a collection of distracting activities not moving you toward your goal? I suggest an honest and thorough self-examination. If you look in the mirror and see an on-track doctoral student, set to graduate in a reasonable amount of time, with sufficient publications and the beginnings of a coherent research agenda, then kudos to you…well done.

On the other hand, if you see a drifting scholar with a stalled dissertation, then a revival is in order. And you are the only person who can bring it about. No one is going to force you. Your institution may have deadlines, but it isn’t going to harass you about them. Your committee is there to verify you can conduct independent research, not to hound you into doing it. Your advisor has already agreed to mentor you, and is probably now wondering why you asked in the first place.

I fear there are many graduate students who, like me, have finished their coursework, and intend to finish their dissertations, but have been slow to progress. Without swift and decisive change, the clock will run out and they will never graduate. Unfortunately, these future ABDs are unlikely to read this—I certainly wasn’t reading grad school blogs during my years lost at sea. So if you know some former classmates you haven’t heard from in a while, get in touch with them and ask how their research is going. Offer to trade papers for feedback, meet for lunch, or carpool to a conference. Whether they are caught up in the busyness of working on campus, or are part-time students working far away, they could probably use some encouragement.

Of late, this former sea-wanderer has experienced a resurgence of sorts. How did I get back on course? For starters, I realized that to advance, I needed both direction and propulsion. If either was missing, I would continue to flounder. Key factors in my revival have been deliberate self-reflection, a new sense of intentionality, and a daily writing habit—more about these another day.

Are there any other dawdlers out there? I’d love to hear from those who have drifted off course and then recovered. What strategies have helped you? Or, if you are a focused and efficient graduate student, who has never wandered and can’t relate to any of this, do you have any advice for the rest of us?

[Image courtesy of Flickr user under Creative Commons License]

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