Dear Captain Awkward,
As a fellow academic/nerd, I hope you can help me out with this one.
My relationship with my in-laws has never been very good, partly because my husband’s relationship with them isn’t either. They really would have preferred it if he’d married someone with an MBA, but instead they got a historian. And all they ever ask is every grad student’s least favorite question: when am I going to finish my dissertation?
They also hounded my husband about it during his program, even though he tried to explain that physics experiments are unpredictable and that his crazy adviser was the one who decided these things, not him (and she ended up driving him out of his program entirely!)
I’m a year behind as it is due to some struggles with the patriarchy and having to change advisers, so I’m only finishing the research phase up by this August. I admit this makes me a little more sensitive to questions of progress/completion than I might otherwise be.
Of course I have no idea how long it will take me to write the whole thing, let alone how long it will take my committee to read it and let me set a defense date. Since so much about the actual process of finishing is out of my control or unpredictable (who can tell when they’re going to have a good writing day?) I get frustrated when that’s the only question I get about my work, especially when my explanations about committees and drafts and all that just earn blank stares.
I’d like to direct the conversation so I can talk about the parts of the dissertation that I do have answers about–what chapters there will be, how long it will take to outline, what a good writing day looks like. How do I redirect the conversation off of finishing and onto these things? They take cues badly–I tried to explain to both my mother-in-law and sister-in-law that they were upsetting my husband with their constant questions about when his dissertation would be done and asking nothing about the day-to-day work, and it didn’t seem to stick.
Thanks in advance for any help!
We tell people that they should ask questions in order to be polite and show interest in others, and overall, that’s a good strategy, but I swear there is a certain kind of routine “catching up with family holiday chit-chat” question by people who actually care about you and are interested in the answers and probably don’t mean any harm that is guaranteed to steer the conversation directly into the questionee’s most sensitive spots.
- “So, how is your job search going?”
- “What are you majoring in? What are you going to do with that?”
- “When are you two getting married?”
- “When are you two going to have kids?”
- “Are you seeing anyone right now?”
- “Are you past the hand-holding stage yet?” (A question asked of all 10-13-year-old female relatives at holiday dinners by my uncle G., which causes the female relative to say a tentative “Ye-es….? No? Why is everyone laughing? What does that even mean?” NOT CREEPY AT ALL, UNCLE G.)
So let’s add “When are you going to finish your dissertation?” to the list of “So, when will you be leveling ‘up’? questions, with the understanding that “leveling up” is a totally subjective thing based on a lot of sometimes ridiculous and narrow assumptions about what people “should” do or “should want” or what things are considered achievements.
These questions don’t go away even when you do “achieve” whatever-it-is. This is not comforting, or maybe it is in a dark back-handed sort of way: If you were to finish your dissertation right now, or if you were to know exactly the day you will finish, the next question would be “So, have you found a full-time job yet? When do you think you will?” So you have that to look forward to (by which I mean dread beyond the telling of it).
Most of the time your relatives just genuinely want to know what’s up with you, and they are asking out of kindness and curiosity – they’ve figured out what the next sort of “leveling up” looks like for you and they are rooting hard for you to do it. The part where that sets off a previously unexploded FEELINGSBOMB of your own struggles with whatever it is and/or inner monologue of judgy self-criticism when you just wanted to get away from all that for one single day and hang out and drink egg nog…is completely accidental. Sometimes they are Judgy McJudgersons, and they want to use this opportunity to remind you that you are failing this Annual Audit of Things What You Should Have Achieved By Now (According To Them/Some Arbitrary Notion of Should) as a “motivation” for you to get on the stick already.
The worst of it is for me (when I’m in similar situations) is that if I’m feeling good about things I don’t have a problem telling myself “This person really wants to know and is being nice, they don’t know about the sneaky awful jerkbrain that’s been waiting for a question like this so it can go to town” and finding a way to gracefully answer. But if I’m stressed, depressed, or run down, and the question gets right at the heart of what I’m already feeling bad about (or it’s coming from someone I have a bad history with) I can’t put up the shields fast enough so I end up getting tearful or snappish in front of everyone. Which makes me feel even more pathetic, yaaaaaaaaay!
So I speak from experience when I say that you’re going to feel better if you find a way to keep your poise in the moment, and to detonate that FEELINGSBOMB later in a less populated area. But that doesn’t mean that you have to pretend that everything is going great or that you love hearing that question. So here are some possible answers and redirects.
“When are you going to finish your dissertation?“
“How I would love to be able to answer that for you! I’ve just completed the (Outline? First few chapters?), and I am really excited to dig into (fascinating thing you’re disserting about)…”
Inside yourself, ask the question “How evil am I feeling right now?” Because that will guide how much detail you go into when you answer. I bet you could talk about this stuff for hours, right? You could play a game where everyone who asks you about your dissertation gets to hear about all of it, and I mean ALL of it. Use this opportunity to throw some ideas at the wall and think through some of your arguments out loud for an interested party! I mean, they asked, right? “You asked such a great question, let me grab a notebook so I can remember this later.“
If they try to cut you off or push you with “Yes, but when do you think you will be done?” A possible answer is: “I can’t answer that for you – a lot of that is out of my hands as my committee reviews various drafts. Right now I’m just enjoying (or slogging through) the research and the writing process.” This is a good general answer, right? It’s the truth. If you you really can’t get out of giving a date, just pick a date that your next thesis committee meeting is or next draft is due or some other milestone.
A commenter recently suggested countering with “Why do you ask?” when a question gets too personal, so keep that one up your sleeve if you need it.
And if the news is really bad? Try leveling with them:
“Thanks for asking, it’s not going so well right now, so I would love to talk about anything but that. How are things with you?”
“Thanks for asking, it’s a really sensitive subject for me right now. I’d love to talk with you about the research itself, though!”
You could take a page from my older brother, who answers every question of this ilk with “It’s hard to say,” except he has a thick Boston accent, so it’s even better: ”It’s hahd to say.”
Finally, get your husband to intervene for you the way you did for him, since it’s his family. “Mom, haven’t you learned by now that you should never ask a graduate student that? Jeezy Pete, research shows that that question causes writer’s block and could delay completion by like, 3 years! This stuffing is delicious, whatever did you put in it?”
I hope this helps, and I really wish you luck in completing graduate school and finding a way to make the dissertation process as enjoyable and educational for yourself as possible. Jedi hugs to you.