Get Ready to Run


While working on a Masters degree, I recall an early-career professor in whose office a friend and I would regularly meet for one of our classes. As I recall, he was still working on finishing his own Ph.D. at the time and on his wall he had nicely mounted a large piece of interesting-looking driftwood, all gnarly and weathered, which had been signed by a bunch of people. One day we asked what it was. He replied with a story that, as I recall it now, went something like this:

When I finished comprehensive exams my friends held a dissertation writing party for me, since I was now starting to write the dissertation, and they presented me with that piece of driftwood, and everyone signed it. And they told me a story when they gave it to me: writing a dissertation, they said, is like building a vessel to cross a great body of water. And all along the shoreline you can find people getting ready for the voyage by meticulously crafting their ships, working for years to carefully cut and join the timbers, making sure they’re watertight and seaworthy, painstakingly carving their mastheads, etc. But there are also those who, instead, look around the beach for a good piece of driftwood and then, when they find one, they just run like hell at the water.

Moral of the story: while no doubt important as a possible first book in a very competitive job market, the dissertation is really just the ticket to enter the game — it is not your life’s work. Your life’s work, whatever that may or may not end up being, begins only once you’re credentialed, once you complete and defend the dissertation, once you’re lucky enough to find work, and then begin the second project, and maybe the third, and so on, and so on.

I’ve always remembered that story, which I first heard almost 30 years ago. While it’s tough, when one is knee-deep in researching and writing a dissertation, to keep this long view in mind, it’s crucial to remember that, while you need to write it well, of course, you also need to just get it done, to move on to the next project and the next stage of the game.

So, don’t just pick up any old piece of driftwood, of course; choose wisely. But also, get ready to run.