Question #155: “So, when are you going to finish that dissertation?” and other deeply personal questions.

Gandalf the White has leveled up.
Gandalf the Grey levels up in his own sweet motherfucking time, as will you.

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!

Grouchy ABD

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.

43 thoughts on “Question #155: “So, when are you going to finish that dissertation?” and other deeply personal questions.

  1. What’s wrong with just answering the question without sharing the emotion?

    “When are you going to be done with your dissertation?”
    “In about 5 years, maybe.”
    “Why’s it taking so long?”
    “Classes, teaching, research, writing, whatever.”
    “Oh. What are you going to do with a PhD in *that* anyway?”

    In my family’s case, they didn’t have any experience with graduate school so they really had no idea what I was doing or why it was hard. (Though that didn’t stop them from offering their opinion about how stupid it was that I was doing it anyway.)

    They’re probably just asking out of politeness/obligation, so it’s not like they’re going to schedule it on their calendar.

    1. First of all, people are not robots. Feelings happen. The point is that even if you don’t share the emotion, you still have it, and it’s better for the askee if they can steer the conversation in a less scary direction. God, if I just tried to blithely answer a how-long-till-you-defend question and the follow up was “Why is it taking so long?” I would probably just start crying right then and there.

      Second, the LW has let us know that these particular people have been TOLD that these questions are NOT HELPFUL. She needs a way to get them to stop asking. I think going on AT GREAT AND BORING LENGTH about your topic is a great way to teach people not to bring it up.

      1. Snowy Penguin, the conversation you’ve described sounds a bit like dealing with 3-year-olds who respond to everything you say to them by asking, “Why?” I would find it incredibly frustrating to be asked a question that I couldn’t give a concrete answer to, only to have the my answer lead to more questions that I couldn’t give a concrete answer to.

        I also love the idea of answering the question in as much specific detail as possible. If you’re really lucky, after the first or second time the topic will be the kind of thing they Don’t Want To Get You Started On, so they might never bring it up again. If they do ask again, at least you’ll have another opportunity for a brainstorming session!

  2. “Never. I’m dropping out so I can get an MBA. HA! In your dreams, that is…” and then you can go into a very long discussion of the major themes in the latest phase of your research/writing process.

  3. Oh, LW, I feel for you! I’m not an academic, but I’m about 1.5 years out of a professional master’s degree and have yet to land a full-time job. I’m lucky enough to be working in my field, but juggling three (!) part-time jobs doesn’t have the same social capital, you know? I dread the job search questions because so much of it is out of my hands.

    I try to remind myself that most employed people don’t *really* understand how hard it is to find a job right now, let alone how to find one in my very specific field. In that respect, I agree with Snowy Penguin that your in-laws might not really know what goes into a dissertation or all of the department politics you have to play on top of doing the research and the writing. But of course knowing that doesn’t make it sting any less!

  4. Someone call Urban Dictionary and add “jerkbrain,” “FEELINGSBOMB,” and “Jedi hug” to the international lexicon of awesomeness immediately.
    OR you could use that procrastination trick with your dissertation and catalogue the many socio-emotional situations that have been better dealt with, handled, and/or defined by the author’s use of the above than with the less colorful, flat, yet probably semi-accurate “id,” “emotional outburst,” or “air-hug.”
    I mean really.

    Signed, a fan

  5. If what you say is true, I think the people hounding you have given you all the tools you need to dismantle this frustrating situation–namely, they don’t ask about your actual work, and they don’t really care about committees and defense dates and publication standards and what have you.

    I get this question too…

    Them: “So why haven’t you finished your Master’s Thesis yet?”
    Me (Real Answer): “Well, I work full time, sometimes long hours, plus personal projects, so it can be hard for me to get motivated when…”

    Them: “So why haven’t you finished your Master’s Thesis yet?”
    Me (Answer I Give): “Well, when you’re trying to simulate a living international system in computer code, there’s the issue whereby…”

    You know how in writing they say “show, don’t tell” (except in academic writing of course, TAKE THAT, ACADEMIA!)? It’s not important that you give them an accurate answer, and you also don’t have to lie–just pick your facts and story elements so they convey the overarching theme (namely: ‘IT’S HARD!”).

    If they care about you, they’ll give you cooing assurances and hugs and such. If they just want to judge, they’ll back off because you aren’t nourishing them with your discomfort and anxiety. If they’re just trying to make conversation, they’ll change the subject (or you should, so watch out). And if they’re interested in what you’re doing, SCORE, conversation!

    They want to ask about your dissertation, you talk about that dissertation! They’ll learn.

    1. If you’re lucky, you’ll get someone like me, who is all “Oh, you work on the particle collider? TELL ME EVERYTHING ABOUT THAT.”

      1. If you’re really really lucky, and the conversation is with someone who is NOT a relative and IS of your preferred gender, then you’ll get “Oh, you work on the particle collider? Tell me everything about that AND TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS!”

        (My apologies to the LW for this not particularly useful aside)

          1. I’ll collide your particles.

            This comment brought to you by the Committee for Inappropriate and Esoteric Innuendo, who have given it their Stamp of Approval, if you know what I mean.

    2. All of it, but especially:

      “If they care about you, they’ll give you cooing assurances and hugs and such. If they just want to judge, they’ll back off because you aren’t nourishing them with your discomfort and anxiety. If they’re just trying to make conversation, they’ll change the subject (or you should, so watch out). And if they’re interested in what you’re doing, SCORE, conversation!”


  6. I’m embarrassed to say I asked someone this question.

    What I really wanted to ask was “do you have some results from those projects you once told me about?”, but it came out totally wrong.

    I think that guy has given me the side-eye ever since!

    1. I think that’s recoverable! I come at it sometimes sideways, from what Brene Brown calls “telling your shame story”. It’s where you own whatever thing you’re kind of ashamed of and admit it. You don’t just swan up to the person and beg forgiveness for whatever wrong you did to them ages ago–but you kind of talk about something that’s been gnawing at you. Instead of being quietly afraid that someone might have noticed that terrible slight you did, you bring it out casually and say, “There’s this fault and it’s right here in me! But I am a complete, flawed, caring, good person, so here’s all of me. I’d like to connect with you”

      So in that case it would mean someday sidling up to that guy in conversation and saying, “The other week I was talking with a friend who’s doing his MA. He said that every time someone asked about his thesis, it gave him a heart attack! Gosh, it made me embarrassed, because I used to ask people that question, when I really just love hearing about the neat things people study. Did I ever do that to you? I remember being really fascinated by your research topic, so I think I might’ve.”

      He may have remembered the incident in detail every bit as excruciating as you, or forgotten it completely, but this lets you take the little splinter out of the link between you and move on.

  7. Another historian who struggles with these questions when interacting with non-grad school people! My parents have basically learned not to ask, but it’s hard to explain to other people that grad school isn’t just an extended BA!

    I do especially hate the ‘so, what will you do with a PhD in History?’ question. I realize that it doesn’t come from a bad place — most people just really don’t know — but I still hate it. I also have the additional pitfall that I study Islamic history, so I get a lot of questions about terrorism and assumptions that I can parlay my knowledge of Arabic and Persian into millions working for the government (which is not true and not what I’m getting this PhD for).

    I could rant about this for a long time. But I’m trying to let go of a lot of that negativity!

    1. We should start a club! (It could be the anti-AHA for those of us not on the market who still want to converge on a major metro area!). I have the same problem with the government thing, thanks to Putin, since my specialty is Soviet stuff. It is nice to feel not alone, even if it is for kind of a sucky reason!

  8. I am only annoyed by this type of question when the intent is clearly to invalidate my experience, e.g. the real question is “When are you going to grow up and get a real job?”

    I’m having that problem with “You’ll understand when it happens to you.”, which means “Keep your mouth shut until you get married, buy a house, have a baby and become what we consider An Adult.”

    I find a convenient “Sorry, I have to take this call”, exit-stage-left is the best way to deal with it.

    1. Yes, THIS. You have perfectly articulated what it is about that question that bothers me. Not everyone means it that way, but a lot of people do.

      1. I have an uncle who asked this type of question in a way that was explicitly abusive. Every time I went home during college he would ask me if I had changed majors yet (he’s a CPA and pushed his children and stepchildren to either follow in his footsteps or become engineers — my major was English) or if I had changed schools (he’s very, very loyal to the state school he and most of his family attended). The last time he did this I had just finished school and gotten a job at the local newspaper. Which was not even close to my dream job, but it felt great to tell him, “I stuck out the English major and now I have a job in the field,” and then walk away. I ignored him at family events for several years. He’s been an absolute peach to me ever since.

  9. Don’t they know that being a historian is an insanely lucrative career? Look how much Newt Gingrich got paid to do it!

    I feel your pain, LW. Great advice here, and good luck with the holiday season if it’s going to involve in-law time.

  10. Dear Captain and Commenters,

    LW here. Thanks for the good wishes and insights! I am so grateful to the concept of FEELINGSBOMB for getting to the heart of the issue.

    My in-laws definitely trend toward the “when are you going to grow up” end of the spectrum, with extra helpings of “why are you so not like us?” (They’re both in the medical field, so the idea that school does not have clear end dates like an MD has drives them nuts). While their hounding my husband was definitely an ignorance issue, I have politely told my in-laws about eight times in the last two years how long a PhD in my field usually takes and what the stages are, so these redirects are a godsend.

    Also, hilarious story about people who really do not understand what graduate school involves: three years ago I had to explain to a distant relative of my husband’s that I did not want to just write novels about my field like John Grisham does about Mississippi.

    I face the in-laws for the holidays in about two days, so I feel so much better going in with backup from the Army of Awkward!

    1. Good luck, GrouchyABD! I think most non-academic-ish people have only a vague idea about what a dissertation is and how the whole grad process works… I remember talking to an old, very intellectual but not academic friend when I started my PhD; when I told him I was exhausted all the time and things were really hard (thinking he’d coo and then cheer me up), he said something along the lines of “Wow, you’ve always been so smart I would never have guessed you’d be struggling”–implying not “grad school is insane” but “maybe you’re not so smart after all.” When I told him I was struggling because no matter how smart I am it is physically impossible for me to read 800 pages a week while still attending classes, writing, and teaching, he apologized for having no fucking clue what he was talking about. NO I’M NOT STILL BITTER

      Anyway, just to add to Captain’s wonderful advice, I would also recommend actually practicing your “lines” beforehand, with the mirror or with your partner. My therapist recommended this trick to me, and it really does make it easier to keep your cool if you’ve literally said the words out loud before. They come more automatically and quickly that way.

    2. Best of luck with the holidays. I love the idea of giving everyone WAAAAAY more info than they want, especially since you say they’re just trying to be mean and judgey. I can’t imagine what a bunch of medical doctors would like least (or I personally would like more, I love history) than to hear about a very focused academic project in a field that probably fries their brains. And you can be lovely and joyful (even if it’s fake) that they’re asking about your dissertation and just bubble over with info that they *so* don’t want to hear, and politeness would dictate that they would have to listen… I’m wishing I could be a fly on the wall…

  11. Oh, LW. I’ve been dissertationing for about three years now, and my acceptance of this is about on par with my acceptance of my not-quite-culturally-approved body. Mostly, I’m fine, no hard feelings. I’m living my life. But some days, I am deeply uncomfortable, and don’t want anyone to look at me.

    Personally, when I go into details about the wheres and whyfores, I sound testy. I do think people not in academia often have very little idea of what goes on in academia – hell, I’d been in my program for a couple of years before I had any idea of what you do after coursework. I would like to inform people about these things so that they have more realistic expectations of me. But it never comes out well. So my preferred response now is a jovial, hearty “Don’t you know that you’re never supposed to ask a grad student about her dissertation?”

    Usually we move on.

    If they’re mean, they might go home and say “That Letter Writer is awfully vague about her dissertation! That probably means it’s not going well.” Hey, they might also say that if they are empathetic and have caught on to your discomfort. WHO CARES. If they like you, they won’t judge, and if they do judge you privately, to hell with them.

  12. I’m also a PhD student (history too!) and I find most of the questions I find most irritating/stumping about my work come from people who haven’t got any or much experience with attending university. I definitely sympathise with potential confusion about how degrees are structured; I’m not in North America, and though I’ve actually looked a lot at the way graduate degrees there can be structured, I’m still fairly unclear about some things, for instance! Sometimes, I think, repeated questions like the ones you’ve been getting stem from an anti-intellectualism or insecurity on the part of the questioner – they think of university, or perhaps particularly the arts, as an (optional) ‘stage’ (as CA points out), as opposed to part of the (oh, how I hate this phrase) ‘real world’ and by asking, they emphasise that they think you need to grow up and move past this ‘stage’ (it makes the ‘real world’ more attractive-sounding for them). It can be a kind of passive-aggression or putting you down to make them feel better. Sometimes, on the other hand, it really stems from having no real idea about what advanced degrees can involve. I personally HATE being asked about my research by my mother-in-law – I would far prefer she asked me when I was finishing, because then I could gesture at a concrete answer and move on – because she seems to ask out of some kind of misguided sense that not to ask would be rude. She used to ask me every week about my MA thesis when I was writing that, and since she couldn’t remember what my topic even WAS from week-to-week, how was I supposed to answer questions like ‘what have you been working on lately?’ Any time I started, you could see her eyes glaze over, and I found it indescribably annoying. I felt like shouting ‘Only ask if you’re interested!^%!*#!’

    Some advice – if it turns out that they’re really not interested in what you’re working on, so talking about that doesn’t satisfy YOU in the ensuing conversation – might be to kind of visualise a window during which time, ideally, you’d like to finish, and then if they ask, indicate that window and quickly change the subject: ‘I expect to finish writing in the next two years; how are things with your work?’ Or Travis’s way is also good – make something up – and move on. Good luck!

  13. … to the list of “So, when will you be leveling ‘up’? questions, with the understanding that “leveling up” is a totally subjective thing…

    In my head, I’m now going to answer all “leveling up” questions with, “You know, I thought I’d nailed it when I beautifully played my character into charming that band of renegade orcs into loyal and spirited (if somewhat inept) minions. But it turns out you’ll have to ask the Dungeon Master about this one.”

    Also no lie: If I could figure out how to work even the phrase “Dungeon Master” into family conversation, I completely would.

  14. If it were me, I might respond with my very favorite lightbulb joke:

    “Well, you know what they say… How many graduate students does it take to change a light bulb? Only one.. but it takes *years* and *YEARS*…”

    and go off into gales of laughter over the joke because honestly, it’s funny in a gallows-humor kind of way and people who don’t get it just won’t get it and it’s their loss, and laughter makes everything better and allows a bit of a vent for the FEELINGSBOMB while probably irritating the insensitive askers which is a bit of a bonus right there.

    Of course that would only work if you find the joke as funny as I do… 😉

    Another approach I’ve had recommended to me in similar situations is to reflect on how limited a worldview these people have, if they’re incapable of appreciating a graduate degree except as a marker on some narrow road to narrowly-defined “adulthood”. How sad is that?

    Or, somewhat less generously, go ahead and feel judgemental and superior right back at them.

  15. I love your nerd advice here. Do your academic work in your own time. Write all the things! I’m taking time off between undergrad and grad school to get work experience. I’m also spending free time finishing the second draft, and hopefully publishing, my novel. Unfortunately, most people don’t get the day-to-day slog of writing or working on a long term academic project.

  16. Alternately, and I don’t know how practical this is, you could pick a date in the far future (like, five to eight years). And when they ask why it’s taking that long, say “Gee, didn’t you know? That’s how long these always take in my field!” Titter at their ignorance and exit stage right.

    Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a fantasy answer, but it’s not bad to dream about?

  17. What if you crafted a response that redirects the conversation back to the questioner in a teasing/comedic way:
    “When are you going to finish your dissertation?”
    “Oh, probably around the same time you finally finish replacing that aluminum siding that mom hates!”
    “Sometime after you join AARP, but hopefully before I do too!”
    “Probably around the same time you finish that hand-knit sweater you promised me!”

  18. Love the advice and I can totally identify with the problems. Got my PhD only to get a slew of: When are you going to move in and get married?!? It never ends. I can just feel the kid pressure questions. Ya, no problem asking the girl in her late 30s about marriage and fertility. Not sensitive at all!

    I have flirted with asking as a follow-up, “So when are YOU going to die? That’s the NEXT step, right?”

    My friend has another method: Just echo the last word of the question plus “yahhhhh.” Just repeat until it becomes totally awkward!

    Asker: When are you finishing your dissertation?
    Askee: Dissertation, yahhhh.
    Asker: Do you think it will be done this year?
    Askee: This year, yahhhh.
    Asker: For real, when it will be done?
    Askee: Done, yahhhh. Is there any dip left?

    I have seen my friend do this. Hilarious!

    Another funny method is to give an awkward answer.

    Asker: When are you finishing your dissertation?
    Askee: Well, it all got delayed when I got this raging urinary tract infection.

    But seriously, people just have bad social skills and they have no idea how to be normal. That’s what my mom told me. She also said that people are really just wrapped up in themselves so they probably don’t care much about the answer.

  19. Ah, where were Internet advice columns in the ’90s when I was trying (not very hard) to get my dissertation?

    LW, I wish you could hit my house on Christmas. I’d ask you about what you’re studying, and I’d be interested in the answer!

  20. Oh, ugh, this. Especially the list of questions from the Captain’s answer. Seriously, when you are job searching, nothing is worse than getting questions like “so how is the job search going?”

    I understand someone trying to look like they’re interested in your life, but that is the worst, because if it were going well, I would certainly tell you. It got so bad and was leading to me avoiding all my family that I finally told them that IF I had news and IF I wanted to share it, THEN I would, and until then, not to mention to J-word to me.

    There’s a distinction between someone being legitimately interested in your work (in which case they are probably going to ask something more nuanced about your work) and someone just looking to twit you about it. My personal strategy is to make like a Republican candidate and answer the question I wished I’d been asked, thusly: “I’m glad you asked, actually, because just the other day in the archives I stumbled across a frontispiece for an illuminated manuscript from the Middle Ages and noticed a tiny detail in the lower left hand quadrant that leads me to believe that and continue on in this vein until they escape to the punch bowl.”

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