What Not to Ask a Dissertating PhD

Living in dissertation land is stressful enough on it’s own, but fielding constant questions from friends, family, and strangers only adds to my stress. I know these questions are not malicious and people ask because they genuinely care. Nevertheless, writing a dissertation is a very specific kind of hell struggle most people have never experienced. Since most will never understand what the process is like, their questions, while well-intentioned, become a bit exasperating. So, I figured rather than get frustrated with people, I should explain why these standard questions are often ill-received.

Don’t ask:

1) When will you be done?
Getting your PhD is not like getting a 4-year undergraduate degree. Every program is different and timelines are more malleable. In most programs, being a PhD is a full-time job and you are considered a professional. You don’t go around asking other professionals when they will be done with their training or position, right? Just remember, that writing a book and conducting original research is not done in a classroom for two semesters a year. Your book/research is done when you finish.

2) What are you going to do with that?
The current job market for PhDs isn’t great, especially those of us in the humanities, so asking this only increases our anxiety about spending a decade on something that has terrible prospects. I promise I will do something with it, but first I need to finish! Please don’t remind me that I probably won’t get my dream job.

3) What is your dissertation about?
Ok, this one seems simple and like it would be a good idea, but honestly, no one really cares that much about my esoteric dissertation topic. I have a generic canned response I give, but it is best to ask this question only if you are truly interested in a lengthy history lesson.

4) Shouldn’t you be writing?
Yes, always. But life, writer’s block, stress, and $hit happens.

5) How’s the dissertation going?
Terrible, it’s a dissertation. Have you ever written a book? It’s not easy. Plus, only five people will probably even read this beast I have devoted the better part of six years on…*sigh*

6) How much, or many pages, have you written?
Just stay away from numbers, they are only a reminder of how much I haven’t written and still need to write.

Oh and try to avoid calling a PhD’s job/research “school work.” It comes off as dismissive, as if they are an overgrown kid in school, not a working professional.

Instead you can ask:

1) Can I buy you drink?

2) Can I cook you dinner? 

And if you actually want to know more about someone’s topic or the process of writing a dissertation, try these safer alternatives:

3) Which do you prefer, researching or writing?

4) What is the most interesting thing you have uncovered through your research?

5) Where do you do your research?

6) What got you interested in your subject?

Maybe these will save you from an awkward encounter with a dissertating PhD.

0 thoughts on “What Not to Ask a Dissertating PhD”

  1. YES to all of this! I finished my PhD a couple of years ago, and still have flashbacks to the incessant questioning I had to suffer through. While the "when are you going to finish" is obviously frustrating, I think the "What is your dissertation about?" was the worst. I would start to answer and then the person's eyes would glaze over and they'd look for a way to get out of the conversation… don't f-ing ask if you don't care! Ugh! there are so many good phd comics… http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1071

  2. Hate it when I describe the job market and people say "you could always teach high school, right?"…and the answer is actually no to that too! I am not a certified teacher!

  3. Hey, *I'm* interested in your dissertation topic!

    My most hated question was, "So, do you have a job?" NO. THE ANSWER IS NO. FUCK OFF. IF I HAD A JOB I'D BE TELLING EVERYONE I KNOW.

    Closely followed by "Aren't you excited to graduate!?" No. The answer is also no. It's basically like losing your job. No money, no health insurance, no prospects. I was not excited to be graduating at all.

    And in conclusion, "Well, there are a lot of colleges in XYZ, have you applied there?" Just because there are a lot of colleges does not mean there are openings. Basically you have to wait for a professor to DIE and hope they decide to renew the line and then compete with 250 other people who are probably more qualified. GFTO.

    Anyway, good luck! If you ever end up visiting me in NY I will provide drinks, donuts, prosecco and cats!

    jess | Bows & Bouquets

  4. I just tell people, I WILL NEVER BE DONE WITH SCHOOL, I am pursuing a future in academia (Biological Psych) so when will I ever be done? When I'm dead. I will never stop learning, because research is all about constantly learning, discovering… I will forever be a student. I will spend my entire life ensuring My work is built on the passion that I've been so blessed have burning within me, to pursue that passion and not waking up for the rest of my life hating my job bc I settled, plus I love research and constantly learning, it is stimulating, I need that, so when will I be done? Never, even when I accomplish the "degree", because of research I will always be studying, learning, and be a forever student . . 🙂 And then they just get uncomfortably silence and say "oh."

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