PhDisasters

Worried about writing that thesis? Turns out writing could be the least of your problems.
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  April 27, 2011

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I knew a man pursuing a PhD in literature. His dissertation had to do with humor as a form of dissent in 20th-century literature. And how enthused he was at first! How passionate and excited.

But then he disappeared. I pictured him in some barren Dostoyevsky-esque office/bedroom, banging out his dissertation. A desk. A bed. Saltine crackers. When I saw him, rarely, he'd talk about writing, and all his early eagerness and engagement had gone. I saw him again not long ago, he having finally finished the dissertation, and I told him congratulations and asked him how it went.

"I don't want to talk about it."

His personal dissertation hell was just the tip of the iceberg. The thesis-writing process, by nature, is demanding and intensive. But throw in abusive supervisors, bureaucratic nightmares, and academia run amok, and the experience can quickly become straight-up traumatic. Here are four horror stories from the front lines.

THE CORRUPT COCOON

Sarah Smith grew up in Lexington, attended St. Andrews University in Scotland, and got her master's in public health at Tulane. She then decided to pursue her PhD at the University of Queensland in Australia, where she began her degree in population health. But her relationship with the school was "fraught from the start," she says over the phone from Maryland. "My supervisor was a nut job," and there were issues of denied funding for her research. She switched programs three weeks before heading into the field.

Smith's research focused specifically on dengue fever in Cambodia and more broadly on global health processes and "the way US and foreign governments create policies and how they get reimagined on global, national, and local levels." Her 320-page dissertation was titled "Power and Risk: Dengue and Its Control in Urban Cambodia."

She spent 12 months in Cambodia, "until I got kicked out of the country," Smith says with a laugh. "They pulled my research permit, so I couldn't collect any data," she explains, "and I couldn't afford the $600-a-month bribes they were asking for." On top of that, she was also leveled with a lawsuit from the Cambodian Ministry of Health. She was unearthing evidence that hinted at embezzlement, and "they were concerned that any sort of negative findings were going to impact tourism revenue," Smith says. She published some preliminary findings and was threatened with legal action. This, she says, "probably contributed to the pulling of the research funding."

Besides the bureaucratic challenges ("There's more bureaucracy in academia than there is in government"), Smith, who started a job two weeks ago working for a US-funded health-care improvement project, says the dissertation took an emotional toll as well.

"People should know how painfully isolating it is," she says. "It becomes your entire world." It got to the point, she explains, "that I almost didn't want to finish writing. I thought it was going to be the end of the most intense relationships I ever had. It was almost like a loss of purpose when I finished writing it." Smith talks of the cocoon she existed in, and how "it isolates you from your friends, your family, pop culture." It's not like these things are in the back seat, she says — "They're in a different car."

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