it’s not you–it’s your committee

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Yesterday, I passed my publishable paper requirement. It’s a triumph and a milestone worth celebrating, particularly because I failed my first defense.

I was really, really surprised that I had failed. I had done everything students in my program were supposed to do to pass the publishable paper requirement. I developed the paper in my methods classes, brought the paper to a workshop, took a class on academic writing to edit it, presented it at a conference, and I received positive feedback every step of the way. A lot of that positive feedback came from members of my committee. Two members had even recommended an earlier draft for publication at the top journal in my subfield. Just before my defense, the chair of my committee had talked about how she expected the paper would pass easily, leaving time for my committee to discuss expectations for my dissertation. Walking into my defense, the requirement felt like a formality and an opportunity for some additional feedback before I sent the paper out to the next journal on its long road to finding the right home for academic publication.

That’s not at all what happened.

My first defense took the full two hours allotted. My committee deliberated about the paper twice and in between those closed door meetings, they took turns critiquing the paper. The critiques were harsh, hard to hear, and surprising considering the many times I had offered the paper to the same people for feedback in the past without hearing most of the concerns raised. But what unsettled me most was the direction the conversation took when we started to discuss the changes the paper required. Whenever a new idea came up—whether I suggested it or someone on the committee did—someone else immediately shot it down. We ran out of time before reaching any consensus about what to do with the project, aside from a consensus that the paper should fail the publishable paper requirement.

Unsurprisingly, I left the defense confused. I wasn’t sure if my committee thought my current idea could be salvaged or if I needed to write something entirely new. If I was writing something new, one committee member suggested a detailed outline while another wanted an entire polished draft. Most of all, I was in shock about how we reached this point. I hadn’t sprung this paper on my committee. They had all seen some version of it previously as individuals. If the paper was so bad that we needed to discuss scrapping the idea altogether, then how did any of them let me waste the last two years on it? How did I not get the feedback I needed before?

I tried to talk to each of my committee members individually to get more clear feedback and some sense of direction. For the most part, they all deferred to each other.

I spent the next couple of months in what can only be described as a pit of despair. I didn’t sleep much or well. I couldn’t concentrate on my academic work. I cried most days. Every time I sat down to write, I heard the conflicting critiques from my defense ringing in my ears. This happened whether I tried to revive the old paper or come up with a new idea. I couldn’t see a path forward and I thought very seriously about leaving graduate school altogether.

I remember the day I started writing again. I listened to an episode of Science in Color in which co-hosts Veronica Varela and Jonté Jones told the stories of how they ultimately left graduate school. (It’s here—and I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone in academia.) As I listened to their stories, I saw the barriers that stood in the way of their PhDs. There was racism, sexism, and ableism. They had individual professors who had blocked them as they tried to finish their degrees, even as others supported their work and encouraged them to keep going. In the face of these insurmountable difficulties, they went down swinging. I wanted to go down swinging.

I pulled out my notes from my defense and read through them one last time. This time, I shut out the voices of my committee members and decided to just take the advice that I thought made sense to advance the paper. I opened a fresh Word document and hammered out a new draft in a week. By the end, I had a paper that I was proud of again.

For the next couple of weeks, I debated whether or not to send the latest draft back to my committee. We had ultimately agreed that I would write something new and there was a part of me that wanted to protect this draft from their bickering. There were a lot of reasons to keep it to myself, but I sent it anyway. Just as in the committee meeting, responses were mixed. One person thought the changes I made had strengthened the paper and saw promise in the latest draft. One thought the paper was still irreparably weak. The third said the thing that woke me up to what was happening: she made a recommendation for a journal she thought would publish the paper, but told me that it still wouldn’t pass the committee I had convened to meet my publishable paper requirement.

The problem was never my paper. It was my committee.

Still, it was hard to move on. To bring the paper to a new committee meant accepting failure with the old one. There would be no chance to prove myself to them. If anything, they might think I was just looking for an “easier” committee out of some unwillingness to grow as an academic. As far as I could remember, this was the first time I had ever backed down from an academic challenge.

Except that I wasn’t backing down. My committee had irreconcilable differences in their expectations for a publishable paper—and the same problem would surely surface if I ever brought a dissertation to them. Their perspectives on what counted as good scholarship clashed and they used my paper as the setting to air their critiques of each other’s views. (Or maybe to impress each other with views they didn’t actually hold.) On an interpersonal level, they seemed to work poorly together and my academic work was suffering as a result.

Finally, I was ready to change my committee. I chose a new advisor and asked her for recommendations about who she enjoyed working with. We spoke at length about my personal goals and scholarly project. Together, we compiled a long list of possible committee members. Many of them were people I never would have considered—our research areas seemed so different from each other—but we all ultimately had similar ideas about what makes good scholarship and what are acceptable goals for aspiring academics. Ultimately, I learned that those values matter more than having the three people with the most similar academic interests.

This brings us to yesterday. My second defense could not have been more different than the first. I still received critique, but the kind that felt helpful and inspiring, rather than antagonistic and destructive. My committee members built on each other’s comments, instead of tearing them down (and bringing my paper along with it). By the end, I had a clear list of changes to make in the next draft of my paper, authors to read, and ideas of my own that had come flowing from our conversation. I was excited to get writing again—on this project and the others that I have felt stuck on.

In total, the process took seven months between my first and second defense. And I’ll admit that not everything that has happened has been bad. My paper is a lot better than it was seven months ago and I now have more clearly articulated academic values and goals. I had to learn to stand up for those values and goals, even when doing so is scary and hard. These things will serve me well on this project and whatever scholarly endeavors are in my future. That being said, the process was so emotionally and intellectually brutal that I nearly gave up entirely—and those feelings are isolating and paralyzing. I didn’t write anything for months and it felt like a big secret I couldn’t tell anyone lest they confirm my fear that I’m not cut out for this kind of work. It saddens me to imagine what scholarship I could have produced if my first defense had shaken out differently.

Failure is not always a bad thing. Failing a defense (at least, in my department) doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to switch committees. Often, it can be the permission you need to really focus on a hard intellectual challenge with extra oversight and assistance from seasoned academics who can point you in the right direction. That wasn’t what happened in my case. I write this essay because it might not be what happened in yours either. It is tempting as junior scholars with a lot of impostor syndrome to assume that any problem you’re facing is the direct result of your own inadequacies. But sometimes the problem wasn’t you or your work. Sometimes, the problem is your committee.

Author: nbedera

Nicole Bedera is a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @NBedera.

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