Patience has never been one of my strong suits. When inspiration strikes, I want to act on it immediately. And since ideas emerge faster than the actions to execute them, I perpetually feel like I have so much to do.
Work-wise, two projects currently hold my attention: the dissertation and the paper I’m leading through my job as a research assistant (RA). Three others paper drafts await. Another two papers exist in outline form, and two ideas for large-scale projects live as sketches. And then there’s the dozen or so one-line “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to do X” ideas.
I’ve accepted that my attention needs to remain on the dissertation and the RA project because I want to graduate and I want to keep my job. I thoroughly enjoy these two projects, so it’s not that I would prefer to work on other things. Instead, I wish I could work on everything at once. This enthusiasm is a function of excitement, but also uncertainty. Regarding work projects, my thinking went like this: I’m in a PhD program right now, so I definitely have the next few years in academia. The academic job market is crapshoot [this was true long before covid], and I might not get any more time in academia. So, let me cram as much research as I can into this time.
Reality, in the form of mental and bodily limits (working all the time wears you out) and relationship pressures (my husband, family, and friends want to spend time with me) luckily forced me to bound this all-encompassing attitude toward work after my first year in the PhD program. Beginning a meditation practice after year two attuned me to be present with the current moment and to accept impermanence as inherent to reality. Yes, I might feel certain that I have four or five years in academia through the PhD, but actually, nothing is certain beyond what exists right now, in this moment.
So, while I continued to juggle several projects and make plans for the future, that list of research ideas became less a reflection of inadequacy (you’re not getting enough done) and just that—a list of research ideas. I acknowledged that each week contained ~40 hours of work time, a fairly easy transition once I paid attention to the pleasure of spending time with loved ones and cultivating hobbies outside of work. But my relationship with this list remained one of détente: projects took time, and I only had a certain amount of it in each given day or week. This natural limit prevented me from accomplishing everything on that list. I accepted it, but begrudgingly. Time was the adversary I knew I’d never beat.
I’ve now grown to see time as a feature rather than an unfortunate constraint within academic work. Some, especially those outside academia, wonder why a PhD takes so long. When I started the program, I vowed to finish in four years. And if I’d avoided taking on side projects and stuck to a conventional research project, I believe I could have. But around the start of year three, after I’d finished coursework and advanced to candidacy but before I wrote my dissertation proposal, I knew I needed more time. I’d learned that entirely different ways of doing research and understanding the world existed, and I wanted my dissertation to engage with those different ways of knowing. Just like ideas outpace action, translating these exciting things I’d started learning about into a coherent and meaningful scholarly contribution required time. Time for me to read (much) more, time for those ideas to marinate, and time for me to talk through them with other people. If this was to be my only time in academia, I wanted as much fulfillment as possible. Producing a gratifying dissertation mattered more to me than finishing it in an arbitrarily determined number of years.
I recognize the amount of privilege entangled in even being able to make such a statement—institutional and social support, a welcoming advisor and committee, and a certain level of personal financial security. Neither is five years some magic number. People produce quality work in fewer (and more) than five years, and people who want more time cannot always take it. I’ve also heard the refrains: “The only good dissertation is a done dissertation” and “The dissertation is not your magnum opus.” But if an academic career is not in the cards for me, then the dissertation in some ways will be a magnum opus.
That’s not to equate the dissertation with everything I want to accomplish in research. My intention in taking an extra year was not to cram all the projects from that list of research ideas into the dissertation, but to refine the one idea I was exploring through the dissertation. The dissertation topic—the privacy issues of parents posting pictures of their children on social media—hasn’t changed, but the way I’m studying it has. The project is better because of the extra time I am thankfully able to dedicate to it.
As I’ve understood how this premise extends beyond the dissertation to many aspects of academic work, my adversarial glare toward time has softened. Last fall, I was stunned to read a timeline that one of my academic role models, Elizabeth St. Pierre (2019), presented for one of her ideas. While doing her doctoral work in the early 1990s, she increasingly felt that postmodernism and poststructuralism were incommensurable with conventional research methodologies. By 2003, she had a name for the different way she felt was needed to engage with those theories through research—post-qualitative inquiry—and she devised courses to work through this mode of research with like-minded students. In 2010, she presented her first conference paper on the topic. Over the past decade, she has published more than 20 academic articles on the topic, and in 2019 she was writing a book on it.
In other words, it took nearly 30 years for St. Pierre to refine an inchoate idea from her graduate student days into a book-level concept. Sure, career-defining achievements like opening up a new research paradigm obviously take time. But so do the bread and butter of academic contributions: journal articles. I recently saw a Twitter thread from Omar Wasow describing how he cultivated the seed of an idea from a graduate seminar for 14 years before a top journal in his field accepted it for publication. Closer to me in career stage and discipline, Kate Miltner tweeted that one of her latest journal articles was an idea she wrote about in a graduate seminar five years ago.
I’ve been studying parents and social media for seven years, so the fact that I’m only now finding the vocabulary to articulate my research contribution suggests I’m right on track. And while I’m fortunate to have two journal-level publications on my dissertation topic, I’ve been itching to publish more since my thinking has evolved significantly. These stories from academics help me tell that impatient voice to cool it.
Of course, time isn’t the only ingredient that matters. Those three unfinished papers have sat on my computer untouched for nearly a year, and they haven’t gotten any better. Those two outlines aren’t going to write themselves into papers. If I want those ideas to get out into the world, at some point I’ll have to do the work.
I began this essay referring to patience, and my lack of it. But perhaps the more valuable point is one of prioritization. Time, among many factors, prevents all of us from accomplishing everything all at once. Time also makes our projects better. But what we accomplish—and when—is partially a function of what we prioritize (acknowledging that people’s circumstances influence what they can prioritize).* Early in my program, I learned to prioritize health and relationships just as much as, and in some cases, more than work. Intellectually, I’ve prioritized the research directions that resonate with me over more conventional means.
Academia is full of people telling you what to do. Research supervisors, thesis committees, funding bodies, journal reviewers. Time is one way to respond: what do you have time to do? But priorities are another, perhaps more important, way: what do you want, or need to do? And how can you make time for it?
*All of us would be better off if the educational institutions that employ us, the publishing entities and academic associations that rely on our labor, and the publish-or-perish culture in which we operate recognized that each one of us has priorities other than work and that each one of us needs space to attend to those priorities. In other words, I’m *not* making the neoliberal argument that identifying our individual priorities would somehow magically overcome the exploitative dimensions of academia.
St. Pierre, E. A. (2019). Post Qualitative Inquiry, the Refusal of Method, and the Risk of the New. Qualitative Inquiry, 107780041986300. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800419863005