Disser-dating: Musings on Dating While Writing a Dissertation

by The Ebony Tower Contributors

Disser-dating is what I call it when a person is dating while writing their dissertation. It’s a precarious experience that I, and many of my colleagues, have spent hours lamenting over.

Dissertating, or writing your dissertation, is hard enough. After you’ve completed your coursework, passed the comprehensive exams, and done the fieldwork, everything rests on this final hurdle. The pressure is unbearable.  

At first, I completely refused to go out on dates all together. Who has time for mindless chatter over mediocre food when researching for a literature review chapter?! Once my writing schedule and style was established however (which took a lot of time), I ventured back into the dating world, desperately looking for a temporary distraction that would allow me to go back to writing the next day feeling refreshed.

I tried Bumble after hearing it described as a feminist Tinder. It was very white, which I guess I should have gleaned from its “feminist” label. I eventually met a well mannered, man of color looking to take me out and after meatball pho and dessert, I was strangely intrigued.

I felt like the first date was actually a great extracurricular activity and foil to my writing process. It was quick, light, guilt-free distraction.

But by the second date things started to get messy. That’s when expectations would materialize and futures would have to be contemplated. “Where do you see yourself after you finish writing?,” he asked me.  “Are you going to try to teach around here or go back to DC?”

I struggled to find an explanation of the academic job market that didn’t make me sound disinterested and elusive. “I’ll apply to jobs all over the Northeast coast and as far west as Chicago. I kind of have to go wherever the job is”, I said to a blank face.

Not to mention, these second date questions concerning my future triggered all sorts of defense mechanisms and feels in me.

I realized that managing other people’s expectations while writing is dissertation  kryptonite. Why?

Well, because the whole dissertation process is one large, looming expectation itself. The dissertation is an expectation that you can condense your whole graduate experience (or even a lifetime of academic work) into one disciplinary document. Dissertations come with the expectation that you will be familiar with all the literature on your topic and most of the literature mildly related to your topic and definitely be familiar with all the “sexy” literature currently trending in your field. Then there are those pesky (often familial) expectations that the completion of a dissertation will land you a job… quickly. There’s an expectation that you will successfully cross over from student apprentice to expert professional. Oh, and add to that the racist and sexist expectations of failure that are hoisted onto any student of color crazy enough to attempt penetrating the Ivory Tower.

For a black woman navigating the oft times hostile world of academia, the last thing I wanted to add to that debilitating list of expectations, is the expectations of a man I barely know to be charming, funny, available, sexy, smart and, did I say, available.

If there’s one thing I’m not right now, it’s available.

I remember once at a party, a cute but drunk man came over to me and while “complimenting” me on getting a PhD, stated flatly, “Wow. You know your posture is really bad.” I instantly felt the sting of embarrassment. Clearly he did too, because he backed off immediately.

What he didn’t realize is that I’ve sacrificed a lot of things for this Ph.D., including my posture. I wished that the non-academia people in my life could recognize that the curvature of my spine is a reflection of all the days I’ve spent spooning my laptop, nurturing it with my body, filling it with my thoughts. I wish they could see how the expectations of my dissertation have mounted on the base of my neck causing my back to permanently arch forward.

Where in this serious and long-term relationship with my dissertation could I make space for someone else? But after all the instabilities of graduate school- 2 years of coursework, a year in the field, 2 years of writing; going from campus, to home, to campus, to my field site, to campus, and back home- if I’m being honest with myself, what I crave most right now is stability and job acquisition/security is a lofty dream for those of us wishing to stay in academia. And so I was left thinking, maybe relationship stability is worth the time and sacrifice?

But how does one balance the overwhelming force of dissertation writing with finding and nurturing a long-term relationship? I am sorry to say, I cannot provide an answer to this question.  

I can, however,  share the few things I’ve learned since this realization. I’ve been dating someone for a few months now and in a way, the dissertation has kept our relationship extremely grounded by forcing me to take things slowly. I’ve learned to extend the steady faith and patience I tap into daily to deal with my advisor issues and finish these last few chapters, into my relationship as well.

I’ve also learned that being upfront about your priorities and schedule with any new person in your life is key.

For me, texting is important in my relationships; I can ignore it if I’m writing and look at it when I’m free. And it’s short. Yes, I just said the benefit of text messages is that they are short. Listen, I have enough things to read while dissertating. I need my loved one’s to keep it short. Not to mention, I am wittier over text—you know, since there’s not enough space to complain obsessively about my PhD status.

Keeping a strict schedule is also key. I always take Fridays from 5pm to Sundays at 5pm off. I dedicate my weekends to my sanity. I also found that this has allowed me to stay involved in my friends’ and family’s lives so that they know I still care about them.

Dating is no different. I try to plan my dates for days I have off or plan to do intensive writing for at least a few hours beforehand to help ease the “you should be writing” guilt.

While I’m still figuring out the practicalities of disser-dating for myself, I think it’s important we un-banish our conversations about disser-dating from the realm of brunch discussions with our crew. I’d like to see academic forums spend more time discussing and offering support for building and sustaining healthy relationships during your graduate career (that includes family, friendships, dating and marital advice as well).

Disser-dating is a struggle that will surely be different for everyone, depending on their needs, so what tools can we share to help us maintain healthy relationships throughout this process? Especially considering that many of us (read: POC) have had long histories of trauma impacting our most intimate relationships due to all the institutional pressures we have had and continue to endure (be it the impacts of the prison industrial complex, immigration laws, redlining, misogynoir, the slave system, the colonial system, etc.).

While we readily share advice on surviving academia and the importance of self-care, let us not forget to use each other as a support and resource for tending to our most intimate relationships as well because it is those relationships that carry us through our toughest hurdles.  


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