Field Notes

"FOR YEARS," I SAID, "I WOULD start each morning thinking, ‘I am never going to finish my dissertation.’" "I imagine the process was difficult."

"It was. I’d energize myself with dread, move the cursor around, and call it a day."

Dr. Charles Ducey has a bright, antique-appointed corner office at Harvard’s Bureau of Study Counsel on Linden Street in Harvard Square. He’s a clinical psychologist and the bureau’s director; and, for a negotiable fee, he’ll conduct one-on-one sessions with Ph.D. candidates, mixing regular therapy with the kind needed by students writing dissertations–an urgent test of identity, which he compares to Jacob’s wrestling with the angel. "People select dissertation topics that are close to their hearts," he says. "These topics tend to hurt a lot."

More than three thousand students come through the bureau yearly, seeking everything from study tips to serious psychotherapy. Of those, only about twenty come for dissertation therapy, although Dr. Ducey maintains that many more ABDs are stumped and unhappy but for various reasons refuse to get therapy. "Anxiety about a dissertation topic often manifests itself in avoidance," he notes.

In the delicate process of ministering to anxious graduate students, Dr. Ducey tries to avoid choosing sides between the dissertation and its writer. But he does have a stake in academic life. "We set out to treat a student insofar as she has chosen an academic path. But all unhappy dissertation writers are unhappy in their own way. If someone is trying to shore up a failing marriage, it might make sense to put her dissertation on the back burner." In the long run, he recommends finishing–for psychological as well as for professional reasons. "When you’re done, you’ve mastered something, you’ve gotten free of it, and it becomes part of you," he says.

I had learned about Dr. Ducey from the graduate school newsletter; dissertation therapy appeared alongside announcements of muffin parties and screenings of Ghostbusters. The bulletin came at an auspicious time: After seven years as a graduate student, I had just been trying to find a new place for my stacks of maroon library books on the Gilded Age, many of them checked out to me more than five hundred days ago. When I was honest with myself, I was finding it harder and harder to evince an interest in any of them, much less in my thesis. But most unsettling of all, my inertia wasn’t bothering me anymore. Instead, I dreamily imagined the pleasure of yielding to it.


"Let’s back up," said Dr. Ducey. "How did you feel when you started graduate school?" "Incredibly enthusiastic. I really thought I could pursue the dark and dramatic life of the mind, like Wittgenstein did. I subscribed to Common Knowledge and even liked talking about Stanley Fish at Au Bon Pain. In my first year, I heard a cautionary tale about a manic-depressive in my department who’d been there thirty-seven years–a G-37. I was determined to get the degree quickly. But in year two, things went downhill." "You say ‘downhill’...." "Everything seemed...fractured. The faculty seemed like warlocks, with mysterious code words and allegiances. There was a lot of tension among the students. Our most central beliefs seemed to be vulnerable in every conversation, even conversations about Anita Hill or Basic Instinct."

From my soft, high-backed chair, I could see the plain, hard back of Widener Library. It was almost a pleasure to tell the Dreiser-like tale of my academic unmaking. I told Dr. Ducey about my year off, working in New York, how relieved and happy I’d been. "But you came back," he said sharply. "Yes."

Dr. Ducey made a note on his yellow pad. "You had decided against an academic career," he said. "Why did you come back?"

"I irrationally felt I had to. I was very irrational about it." "How was it?"

"OK. I actually liked teaching. After a year and a half, I took my orals, settled on a topic. I decided to write on prosperity and turn-of-the-century American novels." "Do you use Frank Norris and Edith Wharton?" "Yes." "Upton Sinclair?" "No." "Hm."

Before long, my fifty minutes were up.

Several days passed, and I kept feeling better. For the past few years, I had been living in New York with an "open file" at Harvard–library privileges, a mailbox, and little else. I had forfeited colleagues, conferences, health care, students, and the graduate student lounge. It seemed that by leaving the university, with its grants, squabbles, and colloquia, I had doomed my dissertation to the status of a weird hobby. Perhaps it was time to let the old dream go!

As I walked to Dr. Ducey’s office for my second session, passing packs of undergraduates in sweaters and leather jackets, my mind was made up.

"Your second year was traumatizing," Dr. Ducey began.

"Yes. Absolutely not healthy for me. I think I had just maybe made a mistake in the first place. I’m not very well suited to scholarly, solitary library life."

"No?" He made a note.

"Well, I feel much better since last session. I think I just wanted to talk to someone about my transition out of the academy. My dissertation has been the center of my life, and now I want to call it quits. I think this ridiculous ‘mystique’ of academia just had me prisoner. I wanted to know..." "Mystique?" "Yes, as if academic work were somehow more serious or noble than other kinds of work. When of course it’s not."

Dr. Ducey glanced outside. "I wrote a dissertation," he said slowly. "I wrote a dissertation here, in fact. I wrote it fast and out of terror. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to support my family if I didn’t finish." "Did you think there was a mystique?"

"That’s a very hard question," he said, seemingly wanting to take it on. "Last session, you mentioned magazines. You mentioned Wittgenstein. Let me try to say it this way. Tina Brown is a brilliant businesswoman. People talk about what she did for The New Yorker. She turned it around, energizing an old magazine that had lost its intensity by adding color and the work of Richard Avedon. She has invigorated an American institution and people talk about her. But students for years and decades and maybe even centuries to come will cite Wittgenstein. Will they cite Brown? All people want to make a contribution to human knowledge, as Wittgenstein did. Add something. Potentially change everything."

For a full minute, we fidgeted and did not speak, in a kind of reverence that was both a joke and real.

We agreed that I would call in a month and keep him posted. Dr. Ducey offered some ideas for making a realistic schedule, working better with my adviser, completing just five pages a month. He told me to read some Upton Sinclair and to keep him involved in the process.

I walked out into the cold morning, picked up a coffee at Au Bon Pain. If I returned my library books, I might continue to feel happy, springy, more content. But, just as when I was twenty-one, feeling good seemed a small and mortal goal. In the window of the health center, a photograph of an emeritus professor in my department was being used to advertise geriatric aerobics. The years as an aging graduate student stretched ahead–G-10, G-20, G-30–my dissertation pages stacking up or failing to stack, the whole project refusing to close, like parallel lines. I am never going to finish my dissertation, I thought. Like the bells on the campus chapel, the words had a comforting, familiar ring.


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