When I told the professors on my dissertation committee in New Jersey that I would be moving back to Oregon and finishing the writing from there, I thought I saw a look pass between them. I could have been projecting, but I’m pretty sure they were signaling skepticism that they would ever see me again.
Surely I only added to their doubts when, after moving to the other side of the country, I proceeded to produce an entirely extracurricular baby. Never one to pass up a dare — no matter how imagined — I showed up to defend my dissertation a few years later, triumphantly pushing a stroller.
I had correctly guessed that my own happiness (translation: location, location, location) would be the crucial determinant in my Ph.D. completion.
Yet while it can be done, writing a dissertation long distance presents unique challenges. With more and more graduate programs moving online, my dissertation-writing experience is far from unusual anymore. Students enrolled in low-residence or no-residence programs are completing their theses and dissertations across countries and even continents.
A certain amount of intrinsic isolation is built into the dissertation stage. Even in face-to-face programs, students who are A.B.D. (All But Dissertation) often find themselves cut off from regular contact with their program except for advising meetings. For those who are working remotely, contact with faculty members can feel even more attenuated. It can be especially challenging to get access to the kind of feedback and mentoring — especially the informal kind — that can be crucial to their success.
High attrition rates (40 to 60 percent at the doctoral level in the United States, depending on the discipline) also contribute to isolation. When I ask students I work with on their writing, “Can you get support from your cohort?” I often hear something like: “What cohort? There were seven of us in my entering class and four dropped out. One has finished, and the other one has kind of disappeared.”
Then, too, it is difficult for an independent project to compete with the all-too-real exigencies of everyday life — especially when you aren’t regularly running into your dissertation adviser in the hallways. One way to avoid the temptation to avoid your project is to schedule a specific time for your dissertation writing. Try creating tangible reminders of your life as a graduate student, such as posting your adviser’s photo near your desk.
The out-of-sight, out-of-mind tendency applies to faculty as well as students. Professors are perennially busy with their own research and classes, and it can be hard for them to feel any urgency about reading the work of a student they haven’t seen in months or years, let alone never met in person.
Here are a few pieces of advice for students who are writing a long-distance thesis or dissertation:
Stay “visible” to your adviser. Of course you must be considerate and strategic in your communications. Keep a running list of questions, and when you have collected three to five, send them to your adviser in a well-written email. Number your questions so that they are easy to respond to. Consider giving your committee members a monthly update. That will give you some structure and keep your advisers apprised of your progress.
Remember: The onus for communicating with your thesis or dissertation director rests with you. If you stop making contact, it is unlikely that your professors will go out of their way to seek you out.
Be rigorous in your file-labeling protocols. You can save yourself and your professors untold grief just by using clear labeling. Every time you work on a document, change the date in the file’s title. When you send drafts to your adviser, make sure that your full name, the date, and a logical description are part of the file’s title. Sending someone a file named “Newest draft No. 3” will win you no love. Double check to make sure that you are sending the correct document, and spare your advisers the annoyance of having to search through an email thread to find the latest version they’re supposed to read.
Likewise, when faculty members send you their comments on your draft, add their name and the date to the file title so you can always locate their feedback.
Find out their preferences. Are your advisers open to reading drafts or do they just want to see completed chapters? How do they want to be contacted? And when?
I often say that writing is a challenging medium in which to communicate about writing. Receiving written feedback on a dissertation draft can be overwhelming, underwhelming, or confusing — because giving actionable feedback is not easy do to well and faculty are generally not trained to do it. If you find yourself facing feedback that you don’t understand or don’t know how to use, it’s OK to seek clarification. I strongly recommend that every time you get feedback you set up a call or video session to talk it over with your supervisor/adviser so that you can get your questions answered and get a richer sense of how to incorporate the feedback.
Find compatriots in the dissertation stage. You need to be able to ask other students about their experiences with writing or with different faculty members. Likewise, you need to be able to learn from other students’ experiences with the dissertation defense. Make a pact with your cohort that you will each consult two other students, if and when you feel tempted to quit. Sometimes you just need to know that you’re not alone.
If you are in an online program, get the names and emails of other students in your program, particularly those who are a few years ahead of you. In other words, create a back channel to communicate with other students outside the program’s official learning-management platform.
If you don’t have a cohort locally, create one. Even if you are the only person in your program for hundreds of miles in any direction, there are doubtless other writers nearby. Writing buddies don’t need to be in your field. Heck, they don’t even have to be academics. An aspiring novelist will do just fine. Post event notices for writing dates on Craigslist, university bulletin boards, or start a meetup. Get together, check-in, set goals, and write for an agreed-upon time.
Like sticking with an exercise routine, writing is easier when we have external accountability. Making your goals visible to yourself and others will help keep you moving toward them.