Why Dissertation Writing Is Lonely for Women and Non-White People

LaToya R Jefferson-James
12 min readDec 18, 2022

Finding reading circles and setting up communities outside of your home institution may be the best move for graduate students-becoming-published-authors.

This is my first book. It grew from a dissertation.

The above book is my first book. It grew from my dissertation. And IT IS AN UTTER FAILURE. YES, I ADMIT IT: MY FIRST BOOK IS A SCREAMING DISASTER.

It is rather difficult to assess one’s work as hard as I just did and it is not just an eye-grabber in order to keep you on this page, Reader. My first book really is a failure. There is a typo or misspelled word on every page. If you follow my blog posts, you know that they can be full of typos and leave-outs. At this point, though I am ashamed of this book and humiliated by the mistakes in it, I still use it to teach my composition students. Here are several ways that this book serves as a teaching tool at several different levels. Look to my failure, Reader, and take the advice that I wish I’d had myself.

Why am I writing to you about a published book when this post is supposedly about the dissertation phase? Well, because most academics’ entry into the publishing industry begins with the dissertation. There are two very good ways to write a dissertation: a.) Write each dissertation chapter as a stand-alone journal article. That way, when you are finished, you can break the dissertation up and start your career as a junior faculty member with up to as many as four possible publications. b.) Write the dissertation as a fluid academic book. That way, when you begin as a junior faculty member, you already have the first draft of your first book-length project. Even before you are done with the dissertation, it is a good idea to think about what you’re going to do with it. As for me, I hope mine is buried somewhere deep in the inner-recesses of some mezzanine never to be found. It is a source of deep embarrassment for me, and so is my Master’s thesis.

  1. Find a reading circle or writing community outside of your home institution. My first book grew out of my dissertation and that was such a lonely process. I decided to write the dissertation as a fluid book rather than four stand-alone journal articles. The rejection rate for journals and African American Literature is just ridiculous at this point and I figured it would be easier to publish my research as a book. At the moment, I honestly believed that sending my things out to journals would be a waste of time. So, I wrote a book, and I did it all alone. I received absolutely no support from anyone in my home institution. No one gave me research advice or read any of my drafts. Looking back, I was not even taken seriously as a scholar. I had to beg for a meeting with anybody to discuss my research. I expected this from white people. What can you do? White people are gonna white people. But when Black folk, who are supposed to be your superiors and mentors, distance themselves from you and even appear to be afraid to be seen with you, well that just downright hurts. I can tell you how to get over this: spend less time being angry and find support in your professional organizations. As I grow as a professor and writer, I am hearing the same story repeatedly: a woman or person of color goes to graduate school. That experience is totally alienating but the student slogs through anyway. At the dissertation stage, the student receives no support and some are even dismissed.
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One of my friends was dismissed from graduate school during the dissertation stage and he was two chapters in! He had a great academic record, passing grades, had passed a national licensing exam that some of his professors had not taken, and was published. However, he wanted to write a dissertation on narcissism and failed marriages. Now, I am thinking that none of the people on his committee had ever heard of narcissism, let alone developed a therapeutic plan for it. My friend was sitting in his apartment in North Carolina engrossed in a conversation about narcissism with me when he received a letter of dismissal. First of all, they designated him a Master’s degree student (he was a doctoral candidate), they gave no reason for the dismissal, and he was never given any type of hearing in response to the dismissal per the graduate student handbook. He followed all of the steps for reinstatement available at the school and even went to the school’s Board of Governors. The answer was still a firm, “no.” My friend employed an attorney and when the attorney asked for his academic record, the attorney was given a bunch of fluff. There was absolutely nothing in those 40+ pages that would justify his dismissal. The attorney did not want to take this very well-known institution to court. My friend just gave up. After 6 years, 30+ hours over the required amount for a doctorate from this institution, a six-figure student loan, and two chapters of an unfinished dissertation, he left school empty-handed. And no one answered his one question: why?

I am not sure how this advice would have helped my friend, because he did all he was supposed to do as a student and was still dismissed high-handedly. He was not even researching a race, sexual, or ethnic specific area. All populations experience narcissism. Narcissism is not race or gender-specific. It crosses intellectual ability and sexual preference. Using the words of another blogger, Ossiana Tepfenhart, “Narcissists are gonna narc.” Please see the very insightful blog here:https://medium.com/@ossiana.tepfenhart/tech-bro-meltdowns-arent-uncommon-elon-musk-is-just-famous-b1cc3974c4cc

Has it dawned on any of us that there are narcissists hiding behind their credentials in the academy? At this point, I am not sure what graduate students can do to avoid them. However, I do want people to be aware. For anyone who has ever gone through narcissistic abuse or rage, we can tell you that these people set out to destroy those that they cannot control. This is why finding support or even retaining legal representation outside of your home institution is important. Yes, for students like my friend, I am recommending that you all find a good education attorney and pay that attorney a retainer fee. Many times, when colleges and universities are faced with a horrendous professor who academically hazes students, the school rallies around the professor and castigates the whistle-blower student in order to save the school’s reputation. More often than not, colleagues and administrators know of the abuse and look the other way.

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College administrators refuse to recognize that some students have sacrificed time in the private sector where they could have been making money in order to enroll in a graduate program. Some women and students of color have as many as three generations riding on one degree. A first generation student is often carrying the hopes of him/herself, parents, grandparents, and perhaps children. Failure for a first generation student spells failure for an entire family or a community depending upon that student for uplift.

Outside support can be found in professional organizations. When you conference, NETWORK! There are two groups on Facebook currently that are very supportive of Black graduate students and women. Simply search “Black Ph.D.” and several organizations are produced. There are general doctoral groups available and those that are subject-specific. Additionally, the Women’s Ph.D. Network is available and supportive everyday.

2. Understand that some regions are more comfortable mentoring graduate students into their dissertation and into possible publication than others. I hate to say it, but institutions in the South do not mentor students in the same way that schools in the East and West do. For that matter, schools in the South have turned tenure into some kind of carrot stick for we faculty donkeys to chase while they ride us down with more classes, less pay, and harsh work environments for speaking out. Many South are no more than educated straw bosses who expect compliance even from highly-educated professionals. The South lags behind in liberal arts for a reason. Some areas of the South are not known as academic powerhouses in the publishing world. Why? Because minimal mentoring is being done. Many graduate students do the best that they can and are often left alone to publish. I cannot tell you how envious I have been of those graduate students who are products of Eastern institutions. They are the second author on publications headed by established scholars. Many of us languishing in the South experience no such nurturing. Some of us turn our backs on higher education and do other things.

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If you are a graduate student looking to be mentored and you find that some faculty members run away from you, do not take it personal. They are protecting their own tenuous positions and do not want to become embroiled in any controversy or anything that would rock the boat for them. Even helping certain students is frowned upon. I was always known as a trouble-maker and that reputation hurt. But what was I supposed to do when I faced hazing (a faculty member called my cell phone after 10 pm to call me stupid), and when people outright lied on me because they were too lazy to perform their duties (seriously, I was a Black person, so the “lazy” lie was easy to tell. This woman hadn’t come to work in a week and tried to blame me for it)? How was I supposed to handle that situation? How is any graduate student supposed to react to hazing? Are graduate students supposed to quietly quit and leave years, hard work in the library, and six figures of student loans on the table because a faculty member or two is a narcissistic psychopath?

Do not expect any support from your department. Others know that this person is a psychopathic egomaniac. Get an attorney!

3. Spend the money on editing/citation software if you must. Again, my first book taught me this lesson. As aforementioned, my first book is just FILLED with typos. When I received the published hardcopy and saw that first typo, I was crushed. I know that I know that I know that I know that I spent 3 straight days, shut in a hotel room in Jackson, Mississippi near Tougaloo College, doing a hard, line-by-line edit. I know that I did. By the way, shout out to Tougaloo College, a liberal arts jewel.

I remember the time and effort I put in, because the typesetter was upset at the number of changes I’d made. Well, I am not sure why I didn’t do this, but I suggest that we all spend the money on editing software. Yes, Grammarly is free, but there is a paid professional edition. There is also citation software available, much of it for free in your college library. Software packages like Zotero makes the writing so much easier. There are notetaking programs available such as EverNote that can be installed across devices. These may help you keep up with footnotes and citations as well.

4. Write in stages and try to write without distractions. I can explain my typos. On any given day, I am pulled in 10 different directions. First, I am a mother of two. Second, I am a daughter and aunt. Next, I am a niece to an elderly uncle who is totally deaf. Last, I wrote while funding myself as an adjunct with a thousand classes. As a woman and person of color, I did not receive much help by way of graduate fellowships. I financed my own conferences. For one conference, I broke up my British literature collection and sold it to pay for the hotel room and airfare. Even though I’d published BEFORE I graduated, nobody in my department seemed to notice or care, and many times, I was left out of information about funding and professional development opportunities. I didn’t find out until after I graduated that the career center was offering dossier construction workshops. Sadly, I didn’t get one letter of recommendation from my committee, and once after I’d applied for a job, my committee chair told me to remove his name from my c.v. because I was an embarrassment to him and the rest of the English department. The point of this very long story is that I was left to fend for myself financially, and it can be difficult to write while worried about rent. Please be proactive in securing a job or fellowship. DO YOUR OWN SEARCHES USING EDUCATIONAL JOB BOARDS. When we are not worrying about money, we are free to concentrate on writing.

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Even today, when I am at home, I rarely have a whole hour to myself. This is why I sometimes leave my home and go three hours away in order to fully concentrate. While typing this blog, I have received at least 5 phone calls concerning my uncle and his diabetes. At some point, the phone just has to go on “Do Not Disturb,” else I am never going to finish this post.

5. If you can afford it, take advantage of writing retreats for your discipline. This is a great way to network and learn about publishing in your area. We know that the mantra in academia is “publish or perish,” but nobody tells graduate students how to search for publication opportunities, how to craft a proposal letter, or even about the high rate of rejections that academic journals dole out each quarter. Some of these rejections can be downright nasty. I stumbled across H-Net and the UPenn Call For Papers from other people outside of my home institution.

Writing retreats are a great way to escape from the pressures of daily life and concentrate on the difficult mental work that is writing. Most of America does not see writing or any art as work. Why not attend a writing retreat where everyone there understands what you are there to do and how difficult that can sometimes be? Most writing retreat hosts also alert publishers of their activities.

Here is a short list of writing retreats happening in 2023:

There are others, and some of them are hosted by publishing houses.

6. If at first, second, third, fourth…twelfth rejection you don’t succeed, cry for a little while, but try again! When I was trying to publish this first book, I cannot count the number of rejections that I received. Some of them were nasty enough to make me cry. Some academic publishing houses are not publishing first-time authors, which explains why some first-time authors are attached to more established academics. When I finally did get a contract for my book, it was from a publishing house that is not considered academic or scholarly. As a matter of fact, some people who did not have publications at all, laughed at my book and publisher. I pushed it forward anyway. And when it arrived, I knew it was a failure because of the typos, deletions, and misspellings. I cried for a little while, but picked myself up, dusted myself off, and got back at it. I had something to prove to me. I could do better and knew it. I went back to the same publisher with an idea for an edited collection. And here that collection is:

This is the first of two volumes.
This is the second part

For this collection, I took my own advice and took my time. I ran drafts through Grammarly. I revised, revised, REVISED. Reader, you will find that the writing is stronger, more carefully crafted, and has a minimum of typos.

Reader, I am not sharing all of this information with you in order to toot my own horn. My entry into the publishing world began in graduate school. And your own publishing journey begins with the dissertation. Take it seriously and do all that you can to whip it into publication shape.

This is the last sob story that I will post concerning my graduate school experience. I post these with the hopes that somebody is helped by them. If you are being ignored and hazed in graduate school, know that you are not alone. Reach out. Somebody out there is experiencing the same thing.

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LaToya R Jefferson-James

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.