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  • Writer's pictureSteven Lee

The Waiting Game

One of the main drivers of the roller coaster ride that is graduate school (specifically doctoral programs) is waiting: the loss of adrenaline; momentum; and even hope. Imagine reaching a new milestone in the dissertation process. You're excited because you have overcome yet another obstacle, traversed another hill, towards your new prefix. For weeks, you have written, erased, and re-written the draft. You worked some days yet made no progress towards your goal. Often, you stay awake at night wondering if this life is really worth it or if it's meant for you. After overcoming temptations, fears, and other oppositions, you hit the send button on your latest manuscript delivered to your committee chair's inbox. Nice work!

Then the waiting begins. Twenty-four hours pass. No reply. Another day passes. Nothing. Two days become two weeks. Maybe you should have followed-up just to make sure it was received? No, doing that may cross the line between being diligent and annoyance. You finally cave and send a follow-up email now three weeks after the initial email. Almost immediately, your chair responds! Your mind starts to race. It's too convenient of a coincidence that your professor wrote you back the moment after you emailed again. Why couldn't you have waited just a little bit longer? No, it's probably a quick thank you note for the reminder and to expect a reply in the next day or two. No, it's an automatic response: "Thank you for your email. I am out of the office until next week. I will reply then." #(!&#(!*&#)_!!! As the adrenaline flows out of you (again), you curse the gods and make it a point not to be productive the rest of the day.

Wait times vary by person. It's common for institutions to overburden faculty, and reading doctoral student papers requires a lot of time with intense concentration. After all, these are your students whose work will be seen by the entire world, and that finished product will have your name on it. You want the completed work to be of the best quality, but instead of reviewing one paper, you could accomplish 20 other tasks in the same amount of time: answer an important email from the department chair; draft a conference proposal; select a textbook for your course next term; type-up a committee report from last week's meeting; or clean a data file in preparation for your next journal article. There are probably few assignments that demand a greater chunk of time than copiously critiquing a dissertation chapter.

Whatever the reason for delay, there are important things you can be doing in the interim. First, work on other aspects of your project. Not everything should hinge on a single correspondence from your chair. Consult your discipline's style manual and ensure the entire dissertation is correctly formatted. You will make yours and many other lives easier. You can also tighten-up your list of references or even reorganize your annotated bibliography. Having a quick-reference spreadsheet of all your references that is searchable will increase the efficiency of committee conference calls and the time you spend interacting with others at networking events like professional conferences. Also, consider completing your application to the Institutional Review Board, flesh-out your experiment design, or research data collection costs such as consulting retainers or lab fees.

Second, there are other parts of your dissertation that require your attention and do not hinge on the latest feedback. Your school should provide a list of benchmarks that must be met in order for you to receive your doctorate. Take a look and start working on other milestones. That way, you can make the necessary improvements once you do receive the long-awaited reply and then place the ball in your advisor's court as soon as possible. If there are long delays between submissions, you can minimize the total time to degree by doing this. Not only that, but there will be some advisors who, because your latest draft is still fresh in his/her mind, will go ahead and take a look at your latest submission. This will speed-up the process even more.

Even when this is not possible, you should have other projects in the pipeline, whether it be conference presentations, articles for publication, job applications, etc. Sometimes, it helps to step away from your primary focus for a while. Doing so can give you fresh perspective on the obstacles in front of you as well as renewed energy because you haven't been chipping at it constantly.

The objective, when forced to play the waiting game, is to stay busy. There is only so much you can control of the process. In the meantime, find something productive to do, and don't become discouraged or distracted during the process.


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