dissertation time, come on!

dissertation dis ur TAY shun, n. a very long work nobody will ever read but has the power to direct the path of one’s life for years to come: that which has the power to overwhelm and terrorize third year doctoral students to distraction. v. to run around visibly freaking out in one’s third year of doctoral studies: to sit alone behind closed doors in a cramped office, reading abstruse arguments remotely related to a minuscule part of what one hopes will be the content of one’s own work: adj. (in pt.) for a concept to be twisted into obfuscation: for a doctoral candidate to be harried into sleep deprivation or incoherent speech: for a sentence to be uttered in lengthy Latinate phrases, frequently interspersed with phrases like “as it were”, “to wit”, “prima facie”, “of necessity”, and “strictly speaking”, along with copious distinctions between de re, de dicto, knowing how, knowing that, and / or applicable rules of conversational implicature.

It is important to realize that the goal for a dissertation is not that it be brilliant, not even that it be good, but that it avoid incoherency, the entailment of necessary falsehoods, or other such embarrassments.

A field-guide for recognizing dissertaters, with an emphasis on philosophis professio

You must first know that there are distinct phases in the pupal stage of professors (not to be confused with as-yet pupating larvae). There are, firstly, prospectus candidates, secondly, new ABDs, thirdly, chapter writing ABDs, fourthly, job market ABDs, and finally, defenders.

THE PROSPECTUS CANDIDATE. The young prospectus candidate pupa is easily recognizable by the conflation of elation at being done with all required coursework characteristic of the larval stage and the panicky fatigue that comes from trying to find a topic even upon the realization that after over a decade of college, it truly knows jack about anything worth writing.

Pupae in this commonly-seen phase are often found feeding at coffee shops, bars, and convenience stores, usually dressed in tattered clothing, and talking about anything but what the dissertation will be about. On rare occasions, you will find a prospectus candidate who has a great topic and much research already prepared and accepted far ahead of schedule. If such a pupa is nearby, you can easily spot it by its telltale isolation and clear marks of received loathing and jealousy from the other pupae in its colony. Because candidates are highly social creatures, such overachievers usually reform their ways in order to avoid future derision, and they find solace in the company of topic-less and often committee-less young pupae (though, seldom, these anomolous pupae will seek out the company of secretive CW-pupae: see below).

Mature prospectus candidates (4 months or later) are distinguished by their increased insecurity and panic. They are on deadline, and tend to drink much more coffee, read much more literature, and change their academic focus repeatedly. They talk much more about topic-related problems, yet are far more easily distracted by bright, shiny objects. You can always lure a mature prospectus candidate away from its studies with a promise of mixed drinks, movies, good food, or practically anything it might find remotely interesting and significantly unrelated to the dissertation.

There is a third phase of prospectus candidate, but you will never see those in it in the wild. They are in seclusion, for the defense draweth nigh. Only the seasoned candidate watcher can find them, for they tend to lurk in home offices and library carrels. Their eyes are bleary, and their heartbeat is greatly accelerated from caffeine, panic, and extremely hazardous levels of exposure to obscure academia. Dangerous if confronted. It is best if you back away from any such candidate until after the defense molting is over.

THE NEW ABD. Fresh from the prospectus defense, this dissertating pupa is distinguished from all other professorial pupae by its glossy emotional sheen. Or maybe that’s the residual sweat of the defense. Depending on how recently the defense molting took place, this is indeed the more likely cause. Regardless, freshly-molted ABDs glow.

The new ABD (or NABD) generally stands taller than all other dissertaters. These often tend towards taking brief vacations, buying “drinks all ’round” and other social activities. This phase of development, however, does not last usually longer than three or so weeks, and the NABD will abruptly enter the next stage of development.

THE CHAPTER WRITER. This pupal phase is starkly distinguished from the rest of the dissertater’s development, as a generally social nature is abruptly changed to a semi-antisocial one. CW-pupae are usually only found teaching undergraduate classes (that is, if they also have the easily-recognizable characteristic called “teaching assistantship”), in libraries, in offices when no pre-pupating larvae (also known as “graduate students”) are present, or, rarely, migrating from libraries to their secluded burrows. CW-pupae are shy, sometimes irascible creatures, and don’t like to be disturbed—more specifically, they don’t like their habits to be disturbed.

You can recognize them, when in migration, by their furtive yet awkward movements, encumbered with armloads (or bagfuls) of hard-bound books and printed copies of articles foraged from JSTOR.

The usual habitat of a CW-pupa, however, is alone in a secluded office, most often during the early morning or late evening hours. Although it is sometimes the case that you will find a larval professor alone in a quiet office, you can always tell the difference between these and the CW-pupae by simply glancing at the things the individual has chosen to surround itself with. Generally speaking, the pupa will be surrounded by at least two open books and will be hunched in a ravenously possessive pose over them, and it will exhibit irritable behavior should you infringe upon it unawares. If such should occur, the best remedy is to back away quickly and quietly, preferably with an excuse about having been looking for somebody else. The larva, on the other hand, will generally be checking email, reading for a class, or doing some online search, and will be quite pleased to have your company as an excuse to procrastinate. Again, you can distinguish the chapter writer from any other pre-professor stage of development by observing the level of social nicety and patience with unexpected interruption.

Seasoned dissertater-watchers report that CW-pupae are often found at key gatherings of professors (and academicians of all kinds) according to species. At such gatherings, they often demonstrate their development, receive encouragement or criticism, and prepare themselves for the final pupal stage (see below). However, since such gatherings are boring to all but participants, such reports are obfuscatory and difficult to verify.

THE JOB CANDIDATE. Late in the CW phase, most dissertaters begin a dance that is fascinating to those who study the phenomenon—this dance is called “going on the job market.” Every pupa who goes on the job market undergoes a subtle transformation marked by three distinct steps.

(1) The first step in this final pupal phase of professordom is when the dissertater begins to develop rudimentary wings, invisible to the eye, but it is this development that causes a chemical change in the brain of the pupa, causing it to seek out new habitation, hence, to “go on the job market.”

(2) The dance itself is the second step, whereupon the pupa will join any relevant academic society (this is often already accomplished by precocious larvae). Then the pupa will frantically spend copious amounts of time studying potential habitats, submitting papers for publication and presentation, communicating with potential colonies from preferred habitats, and flitting from professor to professor from their own colony for what are called “letters of recommendation.” Pupae in this penultimate phase are generally recognized, if they have the “teaching assistant” characteristic, by their tendency to modify course reading requirements to align noticeably with their own dissertation topic.

(3) The third step of the job-market phase, if the dissertater is from the philosophis professio species, is the spectacular Christmastime migration to New York. Much like the migration of the Monarchs, the job-market philosophus pupae will fly alongside adult thinkers to the Eastern APA for job interviews and “smokers.” It is believed by many that this connection determines the location of each pupa’s future habitation. Finally, the dance individualizes, as each job-market pupa travels for “visits” and frantically returns attentions to chapter writing habits somewhat neglected during the job-market dance.

If the pupa is not found beneficial by any colony occupying a desired habitat, then it will continue to write, attempt publication, and focus attentions on receiving research grants or fellowships. The dance will repeat annually until a colony finds the pupa beneficial for its own environs.

If a colony finds the pupa suitable, then its wing development is accelerated (some think this must be caused by a chemical release in the brain caused by the pupa’s belief that it is no longer a dissertater but an adult professor; however, studies are inconclusive), and the pupa enters the final, very brief phase of ABD development: the defense.

THE DEFENDER. None but colony members have witnessed this mysterious, yet transformative phase. As yet, researchers have nothing more than speculation regarding the intricacies of this crucial part of pupal development.

After defending the dissertation, the pupal stage of professordom is concluded. No longer is the individual dissertating. It emerges the office cocoon a fully formed, yet still quite inexperienced adult thinker.

THE PRE-EMIGRANT ADULT THINKER. Upon its full development, the young professor will often insist on being called ‘doctor’ by all addressers and will immediately become very social with all the pupae (and even some larvae) in its colony. It will often be found at all the gathering places of prospectus candidates, though on rare occasions will fly to its new habitat quickly and quietly. Generally, however, this is the last connection between the young professor and its formative colony.

Two final notes for clarification:

(1) It is increasingly the case that pupae must pass through the defense and seek out new habitation without the acceptance of any colony. That is to say that many CW-pupae dance alone in the job market. Studies are scant about what becomes of them, though many researchers claim these young adult thinkers rarely become true professors, mutating rather into adjunct instructors at community colleges. More study on this phenomenon is urgently needed.

(2) This guide covers but the pupal stage of professordom. It is true that the fully-formed professor also goes through stages of mature development (i.e., from lecturer to assistant to associate to full professor to emeritus), but as these are post-pupal, they will be discussed in a future entry.


6 thoughts on “dissertation time, come on!

  1. Imagine the situation of the young research student in Cambridge, where all the stages are collapsed into three: finding a topic (which can take years); writing the thing (which can take years); waiting for the defense (where the entire process may be abruptly terminated with “failed”). You may have inadvertently (??) discovered a whole new field of scientific study. It needs a name, something in Greek or Latin, or derived therefrom: dissertology? Dissertatology? And there are associated types of psychopathology also to be described (e.g. the writer who cannot stop writing…one guy at ND when I first arrived there had already written 500,000 words…the University passed a rule specifically to stop him), treatment programs to be found, studies of their effectiveness to be made. My God, Bonnie Jean, you may have a whole career before you.

  2. Hey! That’s funny!


    NOW–GET BACK TO WORK!! 😉 just kidding (I say this while sitting with a word doc opened to a half finished paper…while I read drudge new reports…hum…)

  3. So what phase are you in, pupa? 😉

    Enjoy your spring. Let me know when you are ready to migrate! We have a lovely spot here, although it is not in the flight path to New York from where you are. You are welcome to stop.

  4. beautiful! funny as hell. but what about the ones who copy from here and there and breeze through calling it research? they’d be the drones, i guess.
    saw you on the xkcd blag.

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