At the opening of Passion, Sarah Ruhl's new, excellent play, I found myself seated next to a handsome, 30-something man and couldn't help asking him about his interest in the theater. To my delight, we shared a love of 17th century English drama. He was far advanced in his studies but had stopped after his doctoral graduate courses just before writing his dissertation. It had been five years since he had put it aside. So, in an aside of my own, I offered some free advice: Don't shelve it. Finish it. I assured him, that while he might resist, he'd be happier when it was done.
When I asked what he was doing in the meantime, he answered that he was conducting research on his own, studying and chatting in the library with others interested in such literature. Was it for credit? No. For publication? No. To further his dissertation? No. He just liked it, he said.
He's not alone. Maybe misery does love company, but not completing a PhD stings. Besides the intense feeling of shame, a lack of completion squanders the time, money, and hope already invested. Without finishing a dissertation you can't write PhD on your resume, and ABD (All But Dissertation) won't cut it. Flagging the fact that you haven't finished finishes you.
Why is it so critical to any student anyway? Higher Education, besides having so much value, requires original research only once, at the very end. If it were up to me, the system would require it much sooner. But up to this point, as it stands, students become skilled at fulfilling professors' requirements but don't have any guidance on how to really think on our own. Having to do that after nearly a decade of university courses requires a steep learning curve. When we do tackle it, choosing a topic (hopefully one that we are interested in using to launch our career), assembling a dedicated committee, then doing the research and defending our work, we demonstrate that we have achieved that which our professors have. Only then are we enough like them to be thought worthy of belonging. In a sense, standing up for ourselves is our academic rite of passage. Not doing so locks us out, not matter how smart and talented we are.
Here are some strategies, not only for my seatmate but for all of you who are struggling with starting -- or finishing -- the dissertation:
1. Set a time frame for completing it this year.
2. Find a buddy or support team and commit to a healthy number of hours per week. If you're stuck, pay a coach to guide you and hold you accountable.
3. Make a solid relationship with your committee chair and/or members, soliciting advice without complaining or showing that you feel regressed to adolescence.
4. Think about how it will feel to have a PhD behind your name. If you're afraid, review your past accomplishments as proof to yourself that you can do it.
5. If you don't make progress by this week or next, return to the top of this list.
Understand that often in our struggles, we must confront ourselves and thereby end up feeling unworthy, like imposters. But feelings are quite separate from reality. And the experience of doing the work anyway, even when we doubt we can, is a career competence in itself.
Make your luck happen.
Enrollment - In Residence (On Campus)
In Residence students enroll like all other students - they must meet all registration and payment deadlines (as listed on the Academic Calendar). In Residence students are verified as full-time students, provided they are registered and enrolled for loan deferments (and other third-party verifications).
In Residence students may cross-register for courses through the Cross-Registration (PCHE) program. Those who wish to cross-register must make sure that their total units are 36 or greater (not including the number of units for the cross-registered course) in order to not be assessed an additional tuition charge. Students who are only registered for 5 units are not eligible to cross-register.
Final Semester - In Residence
In Residence students remain on campus to finish their dissertation. They must register and pay for a minimum of 5 units each semester. The student's department determines the number of units actually taken (5 if non-support, or 36 if supported), following college and university policies. The student's department is also responsible for ensuring that In Residence students are registered for the appropriate number of units each semester.
Enrollment - In Absentia (Off Campus)
ABD students In Absentia finish their dissertations off campus. They do not register and are not charged tuition (except for their final semester). Students In Absentia will be assessed the technology fee each semester they are In Absentia.
Students In Absentia are not verified as students (either full-time or part-time) to loan agencies or outside organizations, and may not cross-register for courses. Because they are not in student status, some international students cannot become In Absentia. Please contact the Office of International Education for more information.
In Absentia students have only limited access to university facilities, such as libraries and computer clusters. Since students In Absentia are not registered for courses and are not charged tuition and relevant ID Card-related fees (i.e., transportation, activity), their Carnegie Mellon ID Card access privileges are deactivated. ID Cards for In Absentia students are not renewable unless a student's status changes to In Residence.
Final Semester - In Absentia
In Absentia students must register and pay for a minimum of 5 units during their final semester of degree completion. There will be no adjustment to tuition regardless of certification date when registered for 5 units. Once the student is certified, in order to have tuition assessed, the department must submit an ABD Status Change (pdf) form and a Doctoral Student Tuition Adjustment (pdf) form.
The student's enrollment status will then be changed from In Absensia to Conditionally Enrolled, their program code will be changed from In Absentia to In Residence, the course will be added to their academic record, and tuition will be assessed for 5 units. The student is responsible for paying tuition. When the student's account is paid in full, enrollment status will then be changed from Conditionally Enrolled to Enrolled.
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