It’s All In My Head

Tuesdays are my days to write.  I usually drop off the Gadlet with Darby, find a cozy place that will serve me coffee and food and not mind if I park my butt there for the rest of the day.  Alright, if I’m really honest that is what I do on a GOOD day.  Bad days usually involve a lot more farting around in the form of shopping for Gadlet stuff, reading, web-surfing, television, and anything else I can find to keep me from having to face TWSNBN…sigh. 

Anyway, my point is to tell you that on the way into the cafe today I realized something huge.   Here it is:

All of my problems with this dissertation are self-generated and psychological.  Yep. Psychological. As in psycho, bonkers, nuts, bananas.  As in “it’s all in your head.”   

Yeah, I’m sure you’re all out there going DUH, Stewgad.  Big fucking Duh.   I know, I know … always the last to know

I probably have known that my problems are in my head for a while kind of unconsciously, I mean, you don’t go 12-13 years on any project and not finish it and NOT know that something is kinda fucked up in that noggin.  And I’ve certainly put in my fair share of couch time with the therapist as a result. (So much so that the last time I went, I think she was not only bored but really sick of hearing AGAIN that I’m scared and tired and overwhelmed and did I mention scared?  I think I even caught her clenching her teeth to contain the emerging yawn.)

But despite all of this I think I was still willing to some degree to attribute some of my difficulty to outside sources: the first bad advisor, the trauma he caused, the distractions of a job, a baby, a husband, a house, a life, (none of which I’m willing to give up), the still undeveloped real relationship with the current advisor, pressure from people, etc.  

But you know what?  It’s been 10 years since the first traumatic advisor related event, 6 years since the second.  That’s a LONG fucking time ago.  The fact that I’m still grappling with this is ridiculous. It’s WAY past time to let that shit go. 

And the rest?  I’ve been asking myself if these things are really keeping me from finishing or if they are just helping me choose to distract myself so that I don’t have to face the work that lies ahead. 

A couple of conversations I’ve had in the last few days have also made me think about this in a new way.  The Gadlet’s Auntie Unit came to visit for her birthday.  One morning, while Spousal Unit read to the The Gadlet on the potty (which I’m starting to think is a big mistake, by the way.  She never wants to be done on the potty these days.  That kid will sit there for hours after she’s shat if only we’ll sit there with her reading Miss Spider’s Fraking Tea Party, anyway, I digress..) Auntie Unit and I had a really lovely conversation about our lives and our paths. She asked how my work was going.  I offered my usual reply — I grabbed my head and groaned.  She then told me this nice story about her own life and about how sometimes we get stuck in an emotional pattern that used to apply to a situation but that those emotions are old, and habitual, but that perhaps they don’t really apply to our current moment.  It was a very nice and sweet way of saying, “Hey, Stewgad, that old shit is OLD.  And getting kinda tired.  Can’t you come up with some new emotions that might actually be relevant to the moment you’re in right now?”  To which a little light went on and made me go, “huh.”  

Maybe, just maybe, I’m afraid not because of who I am now and what the project is now but because of what it used to be and who I used to be.  I  mean, I used to be a 23 year-old clueless graduate student who naively thought that if she just worked hard enough that she’d get told everything was perfect, congratulations, and here’s your PhD, well done Stewgad.  Boy did that poor kid get the everlivingshit crushed out of her.   But you know what?  I’m a 37 year old professor and mother who picked herself up from that pile of crushed everlivingshit and moved on.  So why am I still approaching this dissertation as if I am that scared, inexperienced, and innocent little kid?   Hm.  

Then yesterday I was talking with one of my colleagues about my student’s honors project and she told me that you have to watch these over-achieving types because someday they’re going to hit a wall where they realize that working hard and throwing all of their effort into something just isn’t enough, and you want to manage them so that they don’t have to learn how to get past that in the middle of their honors project.  (Presumably, you want them to put off learning that until they’re in a Ph.D. program.)  

As I nodded wisely and agreed, it occurred to me that she, too, probably without knowing it, was telling me nicely to get over my own shit.  Everybody hits that wall at some point, right?  I think it is what we call adulthood.  The moment when we realize that all of our effort might not be enough to do what we want and so that we have to think about new ways of learning, of knowing, and of doing to either achieve our goals or find different goals.  So maybe it is time for me to find a new way of thinking about this.  Hm. 

I think that that moment happened for me a long time ago — I realized that my whole effort wasn’t going to be enough.  So, as a very clever but not so very useful solution, I decided just to not give it my whole effort.  In fact, I decided to give it very little effort and give my energies to many other things with more immediate and tangible rewards.  Like teaching and loving and living.  Combine this effort-reduction with the emotional baggage the dissertation held, and a sense that I couldn’t handle either the pressure or the fear, but yet absolutely had to finish, I made a perfectly good trap for myself.  Or a nice recipe for depression, guilt, anger, and defeat.  Hm.

So where does that leave me?  

Of course, I have the option to stop.  To quit.  And to walk away from both the degree and my career and choose to do something else.  And, let me tell you, this is such an attractive option. 

But.  There’s always a little nagging but that appears when I think about this.  A sense that if I do this, if I let this chance to get over my own shit, to overcome the fear, to find a new approach to the project, to complete it, and to learn how to take criticism of it without being destroyed, I think I will lose something profoundly important to myself.  I will miss this really important chance to grow.  And that would really suck. 

Plus, there were a couple of moments in the past decade where I was on the verge of quitting and then the universe thrust me back into the way of the project.  The first was when I was in Cold Midwestern College Town while Spousal Unit did his post-doc.  I was ready to quit and then he got a job back here, at my Ph.D. institution.  Fate throwing me back into it.  Then a few years later, I was really really ready to quit and then out of the blue I get a phone call with a job offer for a tenure-track job that I had applied for and not hired for a year before.  How often does that happen?  I think the universe keeps giving me chances to do this.  I think I need to listen.

So I’m thinking about a couple of things. 

The first is a dissertation coach.  Someone to help me get through this next step and help me finish this project.  I’ve done only a little investigation — as in I imitated my students’ research methods and contacted the company with the first google entry that came up.  They want $400-450 a month for coaching, with a free initial consultation.  Which, egad, seems like a lot of money. But, on the other hand, it may be the best freaking money I ever spent.  I don’t know. 

Anybody out there have experience with a dissertation coach?  Anybody out there a dissertation coach?  Any thoughts on this are most welcome.

The second thing is that I’m thinking I need to just find the time every day to work on this.  It clearly isn’t getting done on the piecemeal times I’m giving it.  So, I’ve decided to get up at 5:30 each day and give the dissertation an hour.  I’m going to start tomorrow, after I’ve had today to work so that I won’t be starting on an uphill.  But I think that giving it some time every day will keep it in my mind and therefore I’ll make a lot more progress on it.

The last thing I think I’m going to do is just do an emotional flush.  I’m going to be done with all of the emotions I’ve got about this from the past.  When they happen I’m going to recognize them, say hello, and tell them that they’re a decade old and way past their prime.  I don’t think I can quite manage a clean slate, but I think I can manage a new slate next to the old one.  

So, here I go.  Diving back in.  Wish me luck.

14 responses to “It’s All In My Head

  1. “a 23 year-old clueless graduate student who naively thought that if she just worked hard enough that she’d get told everything was perfect, congratulations, and here’s your PhD”

    I wonder just how many of us fall into this trap. And I hope the day of recovering from fear caused by that fall is coming. Any day now.

  2. Hi Stewgad,

    I’ve been a long-time (as in, about two years!) lurker/reader of your blog (but this is my first time commenting). I came across your blog when I, too, was struggling with finishing my dissertation, and at about the same time I also signed up dissertation coaching (hence, my reason for commenting today).

    First of all, it doesn’t HAVE to cost that much for coaching. I signed up for group coaching with Jayne from Academic Ladder (, which entailed a one hour weekly phone call with about 4-5 other ABDs. It cost $35 a week (only $140 a month). Obviously, you don’t get as much personal attention/help in group coaching, but sometimes it’s nice hear that you’re not alone, and that a lot of the things you struggle with, someone else has, too. The other participants give good advice/feedback. And sometimes when you give them advice, you realize that you should really take your own advice! (That happened to me on more than one occasion!)

    The Academic Ladder also has an online writing club (, which is even cheaper. In the writing club, you log in every day to report your progress and your thoughts/feelings about it and get feedback from the coaches and other participants. This option is only $60 a month, or $50 if you sign up early. The next club starts Sept 22nd, and early discount is good until Fri, Sept 19th at 9pm (eastern).

    In any case, I’m very happy to report that with coaching I managed to complete my PhD in March of this year. And I have to tell you that the one thing I rembered feeling after I defended was a bit letdown. There wasn’t the big fanfare or emotional release of having accomplished something huge that I thought there should be given the amount of energy and emotional baggage I had surrounding it. In the end, it was merely done. That’s it. I guess that’s another good reason for dropping the emotional baggage early.

    Anyway, if you’d like more info/feedback about my experience with the dissertation coach, feel free to email me.

    And I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog these last few years, so much so that I continue to read it even now! Good luck with the big finish!

  3. all the best! we’re rooting for ya!

  4. Stewgad, it’s been so long since you wrote some of what’s in your dissertation–and you’ve already realized, and said here, that the person who wrote that stuff is not the person who’s still working on it. Would it help to think of it this way: What you’re doing now is like taking someone else’s notes and editing them into a publishable form. *Pretend someone else wrote it!!* If you can detach yourself (and your self-worth) from it, and just treat it as a job, maybe it will loom a lot less large in your subconscious mind.

    I have unsubmitted manuscripts and a quantity of probably-publishable research from work I did at my last university (the one where I had tenure)–work I did partly in collaboration with my ex-spouse and partly during the long painful process of our divorce. I will probably never open those Word files again, and the world will not be a noticeably poorer place if that work never gets published; but if I had to do it to get tenure at my current job, I think at this point (five years later) I could detach enough to treat it as an impersonal editing job rather than a reflection of my worth–and a window to the darkest times in my life. (But fortunately, my current job, while reasonably secure, is non-research and non-tenure-track, so I’ll never have to find out!)

    Of course I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, I left tenure for love, so my advice is all suspect. 🙂

  5. Thanks so much for the post. I understood and related to a lot of it, and I also KNOW that all my dissertation problems are psychological as well. Even with that knowledge, though, I can’t always get to the work. Anyway, I don’t have anything too amazing to say, just that thanks for the post as it helps me feel less alone.

    Also, I feel like I have read somewhere about people with dissertation coaches…maybe on the Chronicle forums? I wish I could remember better and pass it on.

  6. Have you seen this? I don’t know if the coaching is any good or not, but I’ve been reading the articles on the site for a while and they seem worthwhile.

  7. What a wonderful post! Congratulations on your breakthrough! I am so glad I found your blog as I can definitely relate to being distracted by work and life as well as to the frustrations over a bad advisor. Not so long ago I too started getting up at 5:30 to squeeze in an hour of disseration/study before work. It works well (most of the time :)), especially since I’m so tired after work not much is getting done even if I have free time.

    As for coaching, I only tried small group online coaching at academicladder and did not find it particularly useful. So shop around. Just because they ask for a lot of money does not mean they will do a lot of good.

    I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head by saying that just working hard does not ensure a PhD. As they say, 80% of the result is from 20% of the effort. The key, though, is to figure out which 20% ! (let me know if you figure this one out)

    I am looking forward to your updates on the coaching experience and progress on your dissertation! Good luck!

  8. Great Wisdom. Great post. I cannot comment on the dissertation…which I have never faced. But you write about life, not about dissertations alone.

    You may benefit some a coach or not…but you don’t need a coach. You already have a Coach in your own Wisdom.

    Thank you for all the ways your Wisdom speaks to all of us in facing our own very different challenges, also of our own making, of course.

    I love your posts about your baby and those that make me laugh… but I need your posts that hit home with such a punch.


  9. I’m going to second Styleygeek’s suggestion of Gina Hiatt, at (or at Styleygeek’s link). I did a writing club that she runs, and I think she’s pretty good. I totally don’t know how much she charges, though.

    And forgive me for asking – feel free to ignore this if you don’t want to answer – but I thought you had to be done by Sept 1?

  10. Oh, yeah, that whole deadline thing.

    Well, I thought I had to be done by the start of the semester, but I guess there was a little wiggle room on that. The review begins in the fall, but the materials aren’t submitted until early February, so as long as I have defended by then I’ll be OK.

  11. Hi, I commented yesterday (the LONG post about Academic Ladder). I just want to mention that I tried both the group coaching over the phone AND the online writing club, and I agree with FlyBabyAtWork that the online writing club was not particularly useful. It supposed to hold you accountable, by reporting everyday on how much work you did, but then again, posting your progress to this blog is supposed to hold you accountable, too, right. You might feel more compelled to report there every day, since you’re paying for it, but I found it too easy to flake out of it.

    The weekly group phone call on the other WAS pretty useful. It was great to hear how other people were dealing with their struggle, and it was much easier for me to report on my progress once a week rather than every day (it seemed like I had MORE progress to report on a weekly time-scale), which might be the case for you too since you have a lot of other things going on.

    Hope this helps.

  12. Wow! Glad to hear about your breakthrough. I’ve been lurking for several months now but I don’t think I’ve commented. I just started reading a book called Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. After all, fifteen minutes of progress isn’t much but it’s better than none at all! And they key really is every day. Not just the days when it seems like it’s convenient, but every day. That’s what I’m trying to do with my current writing project that I’ve been agonizing over for months now. You can do it! You’re almost there! Go get a dissertation coach or whatever you think you need.

  13. I did what I think was the very first online writing club at Academic Ladder, and it was pretty decent, but I think she got a TON more people very quickly, it got VERY big, and became less effective. And to be honest, some of the advice was stuff that, if, like me, you’ve read every How to Write More Effectively/Often/Whatever book out there, you know already.

    But I know she was trying to figure out how to manage those groups more effectively. Fellow blogger What Now? really liked the online groups and did a number of them (they run for definite terms, she did three or four in row – not at the same time!).

    Anyway, based on my experience I might not recommend the writing clubs now, but the one on one or group phone coaching would probably be better (the problem with the bigness of the online writing groups was that it was hard to get enough feedback to feel like you were being accountable to someone, which would be different on the phone. Though I do think that being accountable to a bunch of strangers in something you’ve paid to do felt different than trying to keep myself accountable on my blog. FWIW.)

    And really glad to hear about the deadline thing – I just asked because I was really worried about what was going to happen!

  14. OMG, so I might not actually succeed by doing all this damn hard work? AHHHHHHH!

    Anyway…man, do I ever hear Auntie Unit on that whole stuck in patterns that don’t really apply anymore thing. That is the story of my life.

    Now, if I could just learn to break those patterns….any ideas?

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