best laid plans · enter the confessional · research · writing

I need a dissertation supervisor

I am stuck on my writing. Stuck, stuck, stuck, full of despair and overwhelmed. It’s not getting my bum in the seat that’s the problem, it’s not finding the time. It’s not that I’m not writing, even. I’ve done a lot of research (and have the Zotero to prove it! And oodles of reading notes from teaching a grad class on the topic!) I have documents and documents of free writing, idea testing, blog posts, conference papers, and more on the topic, already filed in their own folder. There’s probably somewhere between 80-100 pages of writing and notes already committed to bits for what I imagine as a 40 page chapter. But I’m stuck. Every document I open, I stare at helplessly: I have both too much and too little and every thread I grab at just seems to snarl into a giant knot, or unravel the entire scholarly garment I’m trying so hard to knit together.

I have cut documents into pieces and taped them together. I have reverse outlined. I have done yet more freewriting. I have organized my references. I have tried to read what I already have. Stuck.

You know what I need? I need a dissertation supervisor. But I already have a PhD and I’m not sure what professors do in this situation.

I’ve spent much of the summer being the supervisor that I need, with two MA projects completed, two full dissertation drafts assessed and commented on, two dissertating students producing first drafts of chapters that I find myself perfectly well able to help them improve.

I actually really enjoy that. I enjoy reading big first drafts, I love finding the path hidden under the bushes, the one sentence that captures the whole thing, buried in the middle of a paragraph on page 12. I love giving people the feedback that helps them see the forest when they’re overwhelmed with trees. Just the other day, I suggested to one student that she might be writing a completely different dissertation than she planned and then we got so much done thinking about what she was actually doing that I had to go home after and have a nap.

But here I am, circling the drain in my writing. All trees, no forest. A bunch of great ideas and great examples and close reading and theoretical frames …. but no forward momentum, no aha moment, nothing.

I need a dissertation supervisor.

Long suffering excellent listener and person I’m married to suggested I trick myself into being my own supervisor. “Look,” he said, “If your student came to you with this ‘draft’, what would you tell them?” And I knew what to tell them, and so I told him what I would say, but it’s not the same.

My writing lately feels very lonely and overwhelming. I’m always telling my students that one of the reasons having a supervisor read early and many versions of their writing is so that another intelligent human being can tell them it’s going to be okay, that they have good ideas, that it will all sort itself out, and here’s a first step to take. I mean, I can’t really do that part of it for myself.

So my question is this: those of you who are professors, who have the PhD, who no longer have a dissertation supervisor, what do you do? Do you just not get stuck like this? Do you have friends you lean on to help you? Can I pay someone to help me with this? What do I do? It’s not good that I’m finding myself jealous of my own students, because they have someone to help them! I want to move forward with all this writing, but the book-length project is something I’m really finding I have trouble managing at scale. All trees, no forest.

5 thoughts on “I need a dissertation supervisor

  1. Do you have access to the NCFDD ( Their resources are stellar. You could use their “strategic plan” framework to craft a plan for yourself (as a diss director would help a student do each semester, etc.) I am an assistant prof who has been working to produce as many publications as possible and their resources have radically improved my relationship to my writing/research. What's also worked for me is 1. swapping 5 pages per month with a friend in my field. We Skype to discuss the 5 pages. She just won full professor so we have both been working toward promotions, which has helped motivate the writing (as a PhD student is motivated to get the PhD). 2. I write with a local senior colleague on Monday and Friday mornings, for as many hours as possible. Those sessions help me because I can commiserate on the challenges of accomplishing writing goals with her as well as have a comrade in writing together. That model more mirrors the dissertation writing group I had in grad school myself. I also use a spreadsheet to account for writing goals, personal goals, etc. so I can track my progress and see how I'm *actually* spending my writing time. When I can't figure out what to do next, I pretend I have a research assistant, write a to-do list for this imagined person, and then do the tasks.


  2. I have friends and colleagues to help when this happens. I have a writing group made up of colleagues, and I call it together when I'm struggling (usually they are too, with something). I also send my writing to my trusted colleagues in the field and talk to them about what is happening. Most of the time, they can see what I can't and they help me out.


  3. I forgot…this is also about mentoring. Do you have a research mentor? Are you a research mentor? I think every prof should have one and be one, at every stage of career.


  4. definitely it is all about the conversations and swapping with friend-colleagues. someone recently told me 'write for the people who are your peers, the ones you have always gotten excited about ideas with ever since grad school, not for those ahead of you you would want to impress. the best ideas come in those honest exchanges with the friends doing the same work as you who you have good conversations with.'


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