Doctor ... Whatever 

How not to write a Ph.D. dissertation

It all seemed so anti-climactic. The final step in getting my Ph.D. required that I fly to Santa Barbara to "defend" my dissertation. That ritual, going extinct at many schools, requires you to present your research findings and then submit to questioning. If your answers suck, you can be denied the degree.

I didn't suck enough to fail. My committee members shook my hand, gave me flowers and called me "doctor." I fled the room and drove to Los Angeles where I spent a week hanging out with old friends, who repeatedly asked me, "What are you going to do now ... doctor?"

Hell if I know. My doctorate is in depth psychology -- the psychology of the unconscious -- and has no conventional clinical application. Indeed, my inspiration to undertake a doctorate was intellectual, largely motivated by my wish to understand why conventional psychotherapy is so often useless. (I have a clinically oriented master's degree.)

Several friends have asked me if, in retrospect, the effort and monumental expense -- I commuted to Santa Barbara for classes -- seemed worthwhile. I have to say no, but I think the reasons have a lot to do with undertaking a program in midlife and changes that occurred in my thinking over the years.

I initially undertook the degree because I became deeply fascinated with the work of Carl Jung and his follower James Hillman, who is a severe critic of most psychotherapy. Pacifica, the private school I attended, is literally the only school that offers a Ph.D. with a Jungian orientation. Although most psychology departments have completely put depth psychology behind them, often not even teaching the unconscious as something more than a historical artifact, Freud and Jacques Lacan continue to influence critical theory in many schools' literature programs. So I didn't feel like I had much choice. If I wanted to study the myth-oriented Jung and Hillman, I would have to commute to Santa Barbara. That's how impassioned I was.

But a funny thing happened toward the end of my third year of classes. I became fascinated with Freud, then with Lacan, then with the post-structural theorists. The plan to write my dissertation in two years was completely derailed by falling into the rabbit hole of theory. Indeed, what I thought would be a fun riff on the over-endowed god Priapus, subject of the world's first novel, Satyricon, turned into a four-year effort to create a rapprochement between archetypal psychology and these other discourses.

So, I have two immediate pieces of advice for anyone considering doctoral study. First, do it when you are young and don't have to earn a living. Between seeing clients, writing, conducting workshops and teaching occasionally, it was hard to stay focused on my dissertation.

The more important advice, though, is to limit your reading. I had been warned that many doctoral students get sidetracked by reading. It's probably an effort to learn everything so you don't appear stupid. But it's completely futile. I delayed and delayed submitting pages to my committee. When I finally dropped more 300 pages on my adviser, she insisted, rightly, that I cut 60 pages and add another 50. (Another committee member wanted me to excise yet another 70 pages. I refused.) So I read too much and wrote too much, but I also read and wrote too little.

The most dreadful thing to recognize about a dissertation is that it becomes your primary symptom. I was depressed throughout much of the period I was writing -- or avoiding writing -- but the depression was eerily related to my topic. Priapus is a god who screws everyone and breaks all the rules. He is so outrageous that he was worshipped, literally, through ridicule.

And it was ridicule I felt throughout my dissertation phase. Reading Lacan and critical theory was intellectually stimulating, but it undermined my core beliefs. Indeed, to the postmodern mind, there is no real enduring "truth." In retrospect, it seems odd that philosophy could shatter me so completely, and of course, there was more involved, like re-stimulation of the frustration years earlier when I was unable to finish a book I was contracted to write.

So, writing my dissertation became -- as it does for many -- a confrontation with my own neurosis. I had to rediscover what I believed and then push myself to the finish line, completely bereft of the passion with which I began.

Seven years after I began the process, I feel less like a doctor than like a patient who has recovered from a serious disease. On the other hand, I have a new annoyance with people who demean the work of graduate students by, for example, claiming (with big yucks) that "Ph.D." stands for "piled higher and deeper." That characterization is by people who haven't gone through the nightmarish process. Ultimately, it's not what you study but the very fact that you endure such a ferocious rite of passage that matters.

But now what? After seven years of mental exercise, I keep thinking it would be fun to own a gym. Or go get psychoanalytical training. Whatever.

Cliff Bostock is in private practice. Reach him at 404-525-4774 or at


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