How do I stop panicking about being overtaken and finish a PhD?
July 30, 2014 10:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm in the final couple of months before submitting my dissertation, writing up frantically, and have just found out that someone I know has switched topics to my topic and actually submitted their dissertation. How do I cope with this and get on with my work? Snowflakes inside.

I started my PhD five years ago and have struggled with depression throughout the process, taking longer than many others in my field to complete. I'm now managing my depression okay and, until last week, I felt I was on track to submit on time for my latest (extended) deadline. I then found out that a guy I started the PhD programme with -- with whom I have had a few conversations about my work -- switched to the same topic as me a year ago and has submitted already. I have been very unproductive and anxious since. I have 2 questions

- What should I, practically speaking, do to address the impact of this? I've asked if I can see his dissertation so that I can cite him in my own writing and therefore not look like I'm ignoring other people's research in the area / plagiarising him. But I don't know how extensive the overlap is, yet, and am wondering if I would need to do a major reworking of my own approach etc if there is substantive overlap or if I can get away with acknowledging his work and any similarities to mine without removing the overlap. Is that enough? Would I risk failing the degree, because there is no original contribution to the field in my work, unless I do the substantive reworking? The project is in the humanities and has no empirical aspects; we are basically both commenting on the same literature, along similar lines.

- How do I manage this emotionally? I'm angry with him, unable to focus on writing because of anxiety about the potential overlap, angry with myself for falling behind, and generally very upset. I don't want to burn bridges with a future colleague and I want to get this set of feelings out of the way so that I can work properly. Any advice on how to interact with him courteously, calm myself down, and go back to being productive?

I'm also aware that the fact that he finished first may have a bearing on the possibility of publishing my own dissertation but I don't really care a lot about that because I have other research projects that I want to do next in any case. Not being able to publish from the thesis would be a bummer but I can cope with that -- my main aim is just to pass the degree.
posted by Aravis76 to Education (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You should ask for and receive a copy of his thesis, examine it closely and determine whether your anxieties hold true.
In my experience, people will talk a huge game, but upon close inspection, they were just blowing smoke/trying to intimidate/being jerks/not knowing what they were on about, really.
In short, do not panic or change course until you see what exactly your colleague has done.

Oh, and emotionally, you're always going to have to contain or align yourself relative to your colleagues, so just know that from this point forward, you are the only bullet point maker on your CV, not anyone else. This means regardless of how you feel about your peers work, only what you've done matters,
posted by Cold Lurkey at 10:34 PM on July 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Without knowing your particular field, topic, and where you are doing your work, it is difficult to offer specific advice, but I doubt the potential overlap poses a major problem. Think about how many academic books are published on "same topic" but end up making very different contributions. You no doubt will have approached the topic with your own unique take on the literature, questions you think are important, and so on. So I really don't think you need to panic or consider overhauling your project.

While being up on the latest literature is important, I doubt anyone would fault you for not citing such a recent piece of scholarship in your dissertation (though I think it would be prudent and collegial to do so as appropriate). Of course, the best thing to do is get in touch with your advisor, and see what she has to say about your worries.

As to how to handle it emotionally, I would encourage you to try not to see this as some big conspiracy or wrong done. From your post, it doesn't sound like you have reasons to suspect anything untoward happened. You just have shared interests in a topic. While I can empathize with the frustration, no one owns their dissertation topic no matter how long they've been plugging away at it.

I would do my best to see this as an opportunity to learn more about your field and nurture an important relationship with your colleague. While you may decide to forgo turning your dissertation into a book, there is a good chance that other work based on the dissertation will end up being refereed by your colleague, given your similar research backgrounds. Best to keep this relationship friendly and productive.
posted by girl flaneur at 11:29 PM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Dealing with the emotions: keep chanting to yourself, "Comparisons are odious and currently irrelevant." At the moment the only ONLY thing you should be thinking is "Okay, what is the next phrase I write?" Stop letting yourself be diverted from your immediate task by all this external garbage.

The rest: Your chair should have known about this and advised you of it in a timely fashion - you're not expected to be aware of unpublished scholarship, and you shouldn't be held responsible for the fact that you got scooped after doing the bulk of the work. (Especially since this guy wrote his diss having talked to you about yours, I am very surprised that the department okayed his proposal instead of lifting a few eyebrows and asking HIM about appropriation of ideas.)

Are you sure that he's not exaggerating the similarities to yank your chain? (I see Cold Lurkey is thinking the same way I am.) Any way I look at it, if anyone has burned any bridges with colleagues, here, it's the guy who came schmoozing up and liked your topic better than his. But that's IRRELEVANT right now. All that matters is writing. You were on track, now you're derailed - get yourself right back up on those rails and GO.
posted by gingerest at 12:04 AM on July 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer:  Would I risk failing the degree, because there is no original contribution to the field in my work, unless I do the substantive reworking?

If he has already used the same ideas as you then yes, this would be absolutely true everywhere I've worked. And not just rewriting, more research, a dissertation-amount if truly original work would be required. That whole original contribution to your field of study is supposed to be the international definition of what a PhD is. Being scooped is a huge deal and I know more than one person who had to start from scratch because if it.

But you need to find out two things: what this guy has actually written and what your university's rules are. Chances of him replicating your work are low anyway and you only need to care about what your one University wants from you to give you the degree. Once you've seen what he's written the person to discuss yjus with is your main advisor, getting you through this ki d of issue is their job. Maybe also the Dean or someone in your school. Because hells yes they should never have let another student even come close to scooping you.

Also consider that if the overlap is really large and he has all your ideas maybe there's something dodgy going on. You had them first right? And talked to him about them? So maybe he's the one not being original enough. Discuss it with your adviser anyway, see what they think.
posted by shelleycat at 12:43 AM on July 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Many thanks, everyone. It seems that the consensus is that I should take steps to get hold of the other dissertation and write to my advisor. I'm still freaking out about what this may mean for my deadlines but I'll take those concrete steps anyhow.
posted by Aravis76 at 2:19 AM on July 31, 2014

Best answer: The concrete steps are also the best way to deal with the emotional stuff I find. Figure out the real situation because I guarantee it's nowhere near as bad as anything you're imagining. Then figure out a strategy to deal with it (which you don't need to do alone) and work through that. Much better than just getting wound up in your brain with what ifs.

Personally I use a good dose of denial and "I'll think about/deal with that later" to get me working on the solid things that need doing and that's basically how I finished my PhD. Give it a try, see if it helps at all.
posted by shelleycat at 2:40 AM on July 31, 2014

Talk to your advisor and the chair of your department. I'm surprised that your fellow student was permitted to use your topic.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:22 AM on July 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

I presume your colleague has still to complete his viva? He may still have (major?) corrections and, as gingerest says above, you're not expected to be aware of unpublished scholarship.
Personally, I would hold off on requesting access to the other dissertation until after you have had a very serious discussion about your concerns with your supervisor and the chair of your department. This would hopefully avoid any later accusations of plagiarism if there is significant overlap and you would be more readily be able to defend that all ideas in your dissertation are your own.
posted by tnai at 4:13 AM on July 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't know the path well in the humanities, but it doesn't sound like you shared significant research with the other person. Why would you expect they are duplicating your work (even if it's in the same topic area)?

Also why ask for someone else's thesis - in this case it would seem to me that they would have a better case of you actually copying work from them. If you do not have the thesis there is no real issue.

This is certainly a discussion topic with your adviser...but I don't think you should feel the sky is falling...
posted by NoDef at 4:21 AM on July 31, 2014

The above links are engineering, not humanities, but they may provide some perspective.

I sort of think, if you have a good relationship with your advisor, that you should get your advisor to read this person's work and you shouldn't touch it. It'll keep your ideas fresh, original, unique, and you won't be constantly comparing. If you read this person's stuff, your ideas might collapse into theirs.

I mean, if you were writing a peer-reviewed paper, sure you'd want to scrutinize EVERYTHING. But, you're just trying to get DONE. So don't derail or compare. Let your advisor guide you in terms of originality without necessarily exposing you to this other perspective.

I don't know, just a thought.
posted by zeek321 at 8:45 AM on July 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am not in academia, but I would certainly speak to your adviser before taking any other step. There will be three options, likely: (a) you must consider and comment on the other thesis as part of yours; (b) you must shift your thesis; (c) it does not matter about the other thesis.

If the answer is (a), consider whether you wish to complete your dissertation before reading the other person's and (I am paranoid but perhaps provide a draft copy to someone else at that time, so that there is some record of how it read prior to your exposure to the other thesis. Once you've read it you may, depending on what your adviser advises, revise the draft to respond to or acknowledge the other's work.)
posted by girlpublisher at 8:48 AM on July 31, 2014

Empathy dearheart. I'm shocked this happened without the dissertation chairs discussing this with one another - or your colleague checking in with you. In some disciplines, particularly my own, this kind of thing would be considered dastardly -- which is not to say it does not happen now and then. Here's one consolation. "There's nothing new under the sun but there are certainly new ways of making something understood." This helped me when, while writing my own dissertation, not one but no less than FIVE books were published that year on the same subject. As far as anxiety ... all I can say is oh girlpublisher, take care of yourself. I was flat on my face crying to the universe at the home-stretch. But you know what I know (and you likely know too)? All that matters is you finish. Then you find a way to repackage that soul-stealing dissertation for scholarly or public consumption and you begin to tell the stories you want to tell. Onward ... with great care of self.
posted by nitajay at 4:20 PM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

It seems that the consensus is that I should ... write to my advisor.

No, the consensus seems to be that you should speak to him/her. I hope you have a "walk in and have a chat" relationship with your advisor. If not, that's a big red flag, and might relate to how someone else in your department is working on your ideas (which seems very odd, but I'm not familiar with the humanities enough to know for sure).
posted by RedOrGreen at 6:46 PM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds like maybe Aravis76 is doing the long-distance diss thing?
posted by gingerest at 10:05 PM on August 1, 2014

Response by poster: Yes, I no longer live in the city where my home university is -- for financial reasons, I'm living with my parents while I write up. Just as an update, I realised that the crisis is not as bad as I thought because the guy has not yet submitted his dissertation. He has sent a paper out for publication, which he's given me permission to cite, so I think the only problem is that I'll have to revise my text so that I'm not replicating his arguments at length (they are depressingly close to my existing work) and to offer some critique of his position, which I think I can do. Thanks everyone for talking me down off my ledge.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:15 AM on August 2, 2014

Mod note: Final update from the OP:
An update - I eventually submitted the thesis without needing to make many changes and have now been awarded the degree. I'm very grateful to everyone who talked me through my panic attack here and helped me to just get on with the writing.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 2:28 PM on October 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

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