Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Massive Dissertation Changes, And Advisor Confrontation

The excitement of having a job interview, the stress of deciding, and the thrill of accepting the job offer were just about my entire life for a month, but they didn't change one pesky fact: I still have to finish my dissertation. Oh, the job offer isn't contingent on the PhD, but it does bring a better salary, and I will need my terminal degree if I ever want tenure.

Unfortunately, my dissertation changed dramatically in the six months since I proposed it. Oh, the first three experiments were the same, but what I thought they said was very different, and what to do for a fourth experiment was completely unknown. I spent months trying to figure out what a fourth experiment could be, and could only come up with one idea - which another member of my committee eventually said wouldn't work, or certainly wouldn't be able to argue what I needed it to argue.

The stress of all of this planning, combined with my advisor's absolute perfectionism, seeming inability to let go of what I had proposed, and seeming unwillingness to accept my opinion on the feasibility of success, resulted in an hour-and-a-half video conference, which was emotionally exhausting. In all of that, we really covered three main points:

1) I felt completely out of control of my dissertation, that I was doing nothing but catering to my advisor's opinion of what it should be, and that she dismissed many of my interpretations. It was never the case that I persuaded her to any side or interpretation, it was that I eventually bombarded her with so much data that she convinced herself. I think she still felt, at the end, that this wasn't the case, but she also wound up with plenty of evidence that she left that impression on me, and (true) hints that it also applied to other graduate students as well.

My advisor's ongoing insistence on matching what had originally been proposed left me feeling that my entire dissertation hinged on a single experiment. I wouldn't have proposed that way if I had known that to be the case. She eventually got me to see that there were some bigger changes that only made it look like the original final experiment was critical, but I think I got her to see that she had essentially been making my new dissertation seem like it hinged on the final experiment, and that this position was untenable.

3) No single experiment could possibly do everything we were asking of a new fourth experiment. It was supposed to be something that added depth, but could be prefaced in the introduction without knowing the results of the other experiments, and it had to fit in with the earlier experiments without going off in a new direction. In months of trying, I had come up with exactly one idea, which turned out not to work. If there was another experiment that could do this, I wasn't going to come up with it, because I had nothing left.

All of that, and I left ready for a good long nap. But as emotionally exhausting as it was, at least it was productive. My dissertation will proceed along a new plan that I devised, and my advisor modified but agreed to. There will be three experiments, and an entire chapter addressing alternative interpretations of what those experiments show, and why I favor my interpretation. One of these will be backed up from data from a mini-experiment I am currently conducting. And suddenly, the entire dissertation seems manageable. Four chapters with minor revisions, two chapters to write, and she will even cover my tuition if I have to enroll during the summer to have my PhD in hand before my new job starts. It all seems so manageable, I have to wonder what I'm missing.

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