to be or not to be...disclosing
September 23, 2016 6:49 PM   Subscribe

I'm a dissertation-writing Ph.D. student. I was supposed to work on chapter X over the summer, and have a draft by the end of the summer. I've also asked two extensions, and am about to ask for another one. I'm wondering if I should disclose my extenuating circumstance.

...and that extenuating circumstance is: in early June I went through a very bad breakup. The relationship was very serious, and way things ended was traumatizing. It was very hard on me, and I was in therapy all summer.

I wrote through all of that, and I remember thinking that all I have now is my work, and that work was keeping me sane. And then at the end of the summer, I realized that most of my writing in June and July were fragments and half-sentences that read like someone wrote them when drunk.
I was and am still totally freaked out by that. And also I can't use any of that and am no where as close to a good chapter as I had felt.

Should I explain to my supervisor? Or should I just leave it at "I couldn't finish." I have a very good relationship with my supervisor for the most part-- he's been a trusted mentor and someone I look up to. But this time I have not told him anything, largely because I feel so ashamed and don't know why.
posted by atetrachordofthree to Human Relations (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I would leave it at "personal issues".
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:00 PM on September 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

Yes, you should explain it (no need to go into details, can be vague), and he'll probably understand.

At the same time, start building a separation between your personal life and professional responsibilities. I really don't mean to discount your grief. But issues will crop up in the future -- hopefully nothing traumatizing, knock on wood, but you know, life happens, and the real world (even academia -- especially academia) is likely to not be forgiving.
posted by redlines at 7:02 PM on September 23, 2016 [11 favorites]

** I should add that a big part of my hesitation is the implication that my mental capacity is/was/has been compromised. And frankly I'm not sure it wasn't, and that's why I was so freaked out.

I had no issue telling him when I had a family situation, or other times when life dealt me a shitty card. But this time I'm not so sure.
posted by atetrachordofthree at 7:04 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

"I was dealing with a personal situation that had a bigger effect on my work than I'd previously realized. Upon review, it's clear I was not doing my best work at that time."
posted by erst at 7:11 PM on September 23, 2016 [36 favorites]

"My partner and I broke up this summer and it didn't end well or easily. I will be using the additional time to revise the work I did this summer, which I put a lot of time into but which wasn't my best because of the circumstances. I understand this is not my first extension, but this is the last extension I will ask for on this chapter."
posted by sallybrown at 7:18 PM on September 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

It is normal to look back at your thesis writing and wonder what you were thinking, without an issue.

I'd be open but I'd also at least try to make an installment. Even five or ten decent pages so they can see progress.

Work with your therapist to make a realistic writing and review process. This is your job that you love. Make it a priority as well as taking care of yourself.
posted by Kalmya at 7:35 PM on September 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

What is your source of funding (if any)?

If your supervisor is paying your salary until you defend... definitely let them know but you need to get your butt into gear.

If you're externally funded (or just not funded), as long as you're not using up your supervisors resources, whatevs. But this may have consequences on their future support (ie., recommendation letters, &c.).

Regardless, I'd recommend disclosure - if you can get the writing done (regardless of any other aspects of your life) then they can say something like "demonstrably overcoming adversity."

This if your PhD dissertation. How much your PhD is worth to you is how much you accomplished getting it. Get the damned thing written.

That said, do you have any impartial "advanced readers" for what you have written so far, to give you some reality-check feedback?

Sorry to be so harsh; a fellow grad student was allowed to "write from home" and spent 3 months doing jack (mental illness/depression), another was allowed to "write from home" and was caught doing a regular vanity volunteering thing instead of writing, and so my supervisor asked to write at the lab - and babysit a very ESL postdoc who ended up being pretty clueless. Both of them were on her dime, I had a sweet grant that saved her a ton of money.
posted by porpoise at 7:40 PM on September 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh and I have full disclosure with my primary PhD advisor. I have literally told him ten nearly unbelievable life circumstances that could've stopped folks from working. The last was: I have a head injury and I am illiterate at this time. Can we get an extention? Granted I am typically just giving a heads up I may need an extention and usually don't need it. Advisor was fine with this. In fact, he forgot two weeks later.
posted by Kalmya at 7:41 PM on September 23, 2016

If you are female, I recommend not disclosing the reason for the delay and instead sticking to "personal matters." Much as we'd like it to be otherwise, the notion that women will take academic and professional matters less seriously than romance is nearly all-pervasive. Whether or not your supervisor would hold it against you, in mentioning it to colleagues, it will reinforce the notion that women aren't serious about academics to any of them looking for an excuse to believe that - and if they talk about it, they may convince him that this was not a valid reason for an extension.

(Men, OTOH, often get a pass on this, because they are "not good at emotions" and of course a major relationship change would throw them for a loop.)

You may mention that, although you used the previous extensions to write, the results are not up to the quality you want - the quality he deserves to receive - and you want one more extension to complete the work and refine it to a level that's worthy to submit.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 8:43 PM on September 23, 2016 [23 favorites]

Sorry to be so harsh;

yeah, your judgments about other people's productivity seem not helpful.

I would just say this: graduate students doing shit late happens all the time. But also, you are worried about your thinking & cognitive capacity? You have a health problem. Say that. Then go see a physician and figure out what's up.
posted by listen, lady at 9:22 PM on September 23, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm a supervisor of PhD students. Very often I find that students get stuck in a very bad cycle that sounds similar to your situation. Their standards are so high that they paralyse themselves, and then they're late, and then they think that it has to be even better to "make up" for being so late, which causes even more paralysis, etc etc. Often the first part of the cycle is caused by something like what happened to you: there was some personal crisis, or they got depressed, or whatever, which is what first causes them to be late or write badly -- and then it all escalates.

In my experience, the way out of this cycle is not to back off and give students more time. Actually that just feeds into it because they feel like the way to pay me back for being so generous and understanding is to turn in something 100% awesome. But of course that just leads to more paralysis and writing delay.

Rather, the way out is to bite the bullet and force them to show me what they have. Usually I (and they) find that: (a) what they have is not nearly as bad as they think; or (b) even if it's not great (which happens) we are able to, by going over it together, pluck out the threads of where they were having trouble and formulate a plan for just getting words on paper and getting unstuck.

So I strongly, strongly encourage you to go to your supervisor and say something like this: "I have been writing all summer, but I've also been struggling with some personal stuff. As a result, the writing is really not up to a standard I'm happy with, but I feel like the most helpful thing for me at this point would be to show it to you and maybe make a plan together for how to organise it or what kinds of things I should do next to improve." They should be willing to do this -- in fact, I'd be ecstatic if a student I had that I've given several extensions to did this rather than just asking for another extension. Ecstatic. Seriously.

As an additional benefit, doing this also proves to them that you've been at least trying this summer, rather than whiling away the time on vacation or something like that.
posted by forza at 9:41 PM on September 23, 2016 [70 favorites]

Thanks to all for very helpful ideas and comments, and especially to forza, who is spot on in terms of the bad cycle I'm in.

An update from a grateful mefi-er: I had just sent him a document of what I have. It's nearly all in it's incredibly rough and super messy, but my whole argument is laid out to show the theoretical work I've been doing since the last deadline. I'm halfway through the process of restructuring/rewriting/refining the argument.

And then I told him I've had some unexpected difficulties, here's what I have, and could we set a new time for a coherent, polished version of this i.e. next step. I do feel significantly better about this whole thing.
posted by atetrachordofthree at 10:16 PM on September 23, 2016 [22 favorites]

I have spent three months fretting over a specific chapter that was difficult for me (plus one immediate family member was diagnosed with cancer, grandparent dying with dementia, child being bullied at school, and marital issues). I FINALLY told my supervisor, he commiserated, gave me a timeline and a set of concrete goals to work towards.

I faffed about for two more weeks, had a totally impromptu meeting with my other supervisor who specialises in the stuff my Problem Chapter deals with and...

I finished that chapter after two weeks of writing and data wrangling.

So, I am a big fan of 'own it' but ONLY if your supervisor is good and helpful. If they suck find someone else to help.

(Bewildered by the 'allowed to write from home' - my uni culture is that everyone does what is best for them and deadlines/supervisor support is the mechanism by which shit gets done. We aren't expected to be micromanaged.)
posted by geek anachronism at 2:02 AM on September 24, 2016

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