Leslie Waggener Professor in Fine Arts
and Professor of Music Theory, School
I joined the faculty of The University of Texas in the year 2000, after teaching for 22 years at the flagship campus in another state. For the last seven years at that school, I was a departmental Director of Graduate Studies, roughly equivalent to UT's Graduate Advisor, and it is mainly out of that experience that I make some observations about the academic "time of life" that candidacy and the dissertation-writing period represent.
Once you have passed comps and reached candidacy, all the familiar programmatic structures fall away: a curriculum of courses with specified order and content, syllabi within individual courses with their obligations for student and instructor. In an odd way, even semesters fall away, as you merely continue to enroll in dissertation until finished -- your framework is now expanded: the three years to review, not fifteen weeks till final grades are posted.
At this point, it's you and the faculty -- that's all. Since I'm a faculty member, I'm free to say that can be a scary prospect. You come up against it first in the appointment of the dissertation committee. Many of you will have spent considerable time in your graduate course years studying intellectual differences and disputes in your discipline and, reasonably, would rather not have the next famous dispute arise in the middle of your defense. So, you have to negotiate the process of choosing members on the basis of intellectual rigor, "matching interests" or whatever else "compatibility" may mean to you. Any readers who have already chosen committees know what I am talking about. The one important bit of new information is this: it won't change from here on out. The issues that arose in thinking about and forming a committee are the same ones that will continue to arise through writing the dissertation, the committee's reading it, the oral defense, and even final corrections.
Thus, it's knowledge and people, in the starkest form the academic institution can offer you. You will of course be fixated on the knowledge, on formulating and writing that book-size beast, the dissertation -- but my advice is, don't forget the people. First, your supervisor, who can help you set up the relationships with the rest of the committee; if there are difficulties with committee members, the supervisor can often help, including providing the rationale and support to change committee members if that seems to be the only course (although most graduate schools, including UT's, discourage such changes). Your department's graduate advisor can provide the same advice and support, including "cover" for your supervisor, if necessary. For truly serious problems, you can (with or without supervisor or graduate advisor) talk with associate deans or other staff of the graduate school. Sadly, it is possible to have a faculty member who puts deliberate obstacles up, but such cases are rare; almost always, the resources of supervisor, graduate advisor, or graduate school staff are able to resolve issues for you. My advice then is, don't be afraid to take advantage of those resources.