PhDisasters

By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  April 27, 2011

Smith and her colleagues call it "birthing a thesis." It's a "painful delivery process," she says. "Protracted, demoralizing. You get beaten down on every turn."

ADVISORS GONE AWOL

Chad Walls left his job teaching in a high school in Maine to pursue a PhD in education at a university in England (which he asked us not to name). His research focused on students labeled with behavioral problems, his dissertation answering the question, "What do students who have been labeled with a behavior difficulty see as good teaching?"

Walls did a year's worth of classes, spent a year in the field, a year of writing, and a year of revisions, and at first, he says over the phone from Maine, it went really well. "I liked the way the process was handled. My supervisors were helpful." But then, he says, it descended into a "typical PhD nightmare."

He talks of sending in a chapter of the dissertation, waiting months for a response, and then getting feedback "saying, 'How can I read this chapter without the others?' Then I sent the draft in as a whole, and got a note back saying, 'This is a lot to deal with at once.' "

On top of absentee supervisors, logistics got complicated as well. Because of his supervision, it looked like Walls was only a part-time student, which meant his loans kicked in. And in England, "you have to pay what's called a Council Tax," and because his supervisor forgot to fill out the forms that established that Walls was still a full-time student, he got an alarming letter saying there was a warrant out for his arrest.

If he were to go back and do the whole thing over, Walls would take closer notes on what was going on with the supervision, "so that if I did decide to make a move, it'd be less about me being emotional and more about evidence."

ALL-CONSUMING RESEARCH

Kit Maloney, who grew up in the Back Bay, got her master's degree in gender and social policy from the London School of Economics; her thesis looked at rape and domestic violence. For Maloney, the combination of immersing herself in a disturbing subject, as well as a lack of support in the writing stages, kept her awake at night. "I was so traumatized I left my whole field," she says. (She now works as a sales and marketing manager for Fever-Tree, a company that makes natural high-end mixers — tonic water, ginger beer, etc.) The abrupt transition from classroom life to the solitude of writing, particularly writing about sexual violence, was jarring and isolating. "I wasn't sleeping," says Maloney. "I was having terrible nightmares." She says might return to the field, but not right away.

THE LONG HAUL

Dorchester native Joyce Linehan, the woman behind Ashmont Media, an arts-and-culture PR firm, as well as the co-author of Pernice to Me, got her masters degree in American studies at UMass Boston with a decidedly rock-and-roll thesis: "The Day My Mama Socked It to the Harper Valley PTA: Country Music Womanhood in the Second Wave of Feminism." For Linehan, the experience wasn't traumatic, it just took a long time — she started her thesis in 1998 and completed it in 2004, all while working full time. "If I wasn't getting anywhere [with the thesis], I could put it down and go to work." She's found that the critical thinking involved has helped in her day job, providing context to media outlets.

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