Figuring It Out: A Conversation about How to Complete Your Ph.D.*

Article excerpt

We use dialogic theory to flame our conversation about how we are completing our Ph.D.s, in an attempt to help other students finish their degrees. Dialogic theory allows us to document how we think through the Ph.D. process, critically evaluate our experiences in graduate school, and transcend solely individualistic or structurally oriented advice about how to complete a Ph.D. Further, our conversational format exemplifies the open-ended focus of dialogic theory, demonstrating that there is no single "best" way to complete the Ph.D. Indeed, students may continue our conversation in order to figure out how to complete their Ph.D.s, in their own particular circumstances.


We aim to help other graduate students successfully finish their Ph.D.s by drawing on dialogic theory and using a discussion oriented method. Although coursework and seminars are important, and all students must acquire basic analytical, writing, and technical skills, our experiences suggest that success also depends heavily on informal interactions with faculty and peers to learn how to publish, teach well, complete dissertations, and, in short, become professionals. This reflexive process, generally captured under the aegis of "completing a Ph.D., " requires students to continually reevaluate their progress in relation to their existing social circumstances. As such, we find it odd that many of the books and articles that intend to help students complete their degrees are little more than lists of advice on how to conduct good research, navigate the dynamics of dissertation committees, or find perfect jobs, regardless of the social context. Although we have personally found much work on these topics useful (e.g., Becker 1998; Marx 1997; Peters 1997; Sternberg 1981; Stinchcombe 1966), the culture of graduate education implies that helping students teach themselves how to be successful-according to their own standards and situations-might be a more valuable approach.

We use dialogic theory to frame our discussion about how to complete a Ph.D. in a timely and efficacious manner, for three reasons. First, we hope that the conversational format will allow students to add their own voices to our discussion, in order to better think through the dynamics of their situations (Bochner and Ellis 1996; Warren and Fassett 2002). Dialogic theory posits that thinking is an interactive process that depends on talking with others while situated in specific contexts (Shotter and Billig 1998). That is, conversing with others can help individuals gain new perspectives on their particular social situations, an advantage that simple lists of advice may be unable to provide. Further, Mead (1934) suggests that thinking is a process that takes place through conversations with others, although those "others" need not be present. An individual may take the imagined perspective of another to better discuss-or think through-various aspects of an issue. Rather than illuminate "the perfect" tactic for finishing, we aim to prompt others to think about how they might learn from others and teach themselves to finish their Ph.D.s, given their own particular circumstances and aspirations.

Second, we hope that fostering conversations about navigating the Ph.D. process will provide students with an opportunity to reflect on their own and others' experiences to more readily become professionals. Personal transformation, from the role of student to the role of professional, is a central element of graduate education (Becker et al. 1961; Granfield 1992). Dialogic theory takes the perspective that conversations-both with one's self and with others-allow individuals to critically examine their own experiences, compare them with others, and consider alternate courses of action based on these new insights (de Peuter 1998; Gagnon 1992; Warren and Fassett 2002). We hope that students will expand our discussion to their own contexts, with an eye toward understanding how to feel, think, and act more like professionals. …