Crossing the Void: The Importance of Community and Perseverance in the PhD

Ozlem Ezer writes of her experiences of both the PhD process and the post-submission period in Canada, the US, Cyprus, and Sweden, stressing the usefulness of supportive communities in these two periods. Describing her journey through the PhD and “across the void,” she explains that it is okay to stop, to take breaks, to experiment, and to realize in the process what works best for you. 

Let me be clear: I have been skeptical about “support groups” since watching Fight Club (1999) and laughing out loud. I started my PhD at York University (Toronto) in Fall 2002 and became increasingly involved in North American society since then, only to find out that support groups were really part of this culture and their extent still surpassed my imagination. In 2004, my partner and I moved to Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, where he began his full-time academic post at a community college. We didn’t know anybody in the area. I lost my York-based feminist academic circle and felt like a fish out of water. In fact, I remember coming up with a penguin metaphor in my diary. York was the sea, where I could swim fast (I finished my course work and comprehensive exams all in one year), but I was wobbling like a penguin on land in Naperville. One day, I received an email about an ABD [all-but-dissertation] support group, whose members are writing their dissertations in gender and women’s studies programs. I remembered Fight Club. I can’t recall the reasons but the support group wasn’t formed or gathered regularly. However, Michelle Morkert, a young, bright feminist ABD reached out to me, and drove to Naperville to meet me in a coffeeshop called Arbor Vitae (Tree of Life), where our friendship began. Her presence and our conversations meant a lot, and made me realize how crucial it was to have people who share the similar experiences with you. We built a strong bond despite the years and we both believe in the significance of women’s support of each other in academia as well as in other fields of life.

Every PhD student has a different story and I can’t tell how typical mine is. Losing my network as an ABD caused me frustration and anxiety. Had I stayed for one or two more years at York, I might not have experienced the alienation  I had toward the whole PhD process because I would be nourished by many academic events, hang out with like-minded people and learn more. Then again, I was never fully comfortable with the idea of becoming an academic in the first place. I love teaching, writing, and research. However, I didn’t enjoy teaching full-time because the workload (three or four courses per term) didn’t allow me to enjoy the privileges of research and writing.

In my third year, I made the difficult decision to write a letter to my committee at York, asking them to pardon me for my desire to quit the program. I had decided to move to Cyprus after securing a fulltime English-Language Teaching position at a prestigious university.  My first year didn’t allow me to think of anything but work and to explore the island’s culture and natural beauties. However, my post was more demanding than the faculty’s in terms of teaching hours and it paid less. Along with  pressure by loved ones, my family in particular, this gap between the lives and the working conditions of language instructors and faculty affected my decision to return to my dissertation after a two-year break. In Cyprus, I had a supportive group of colleagues, who were language instructors themselves, and who kept me motivated during my writing process. I spent evenings and weekends working on my dissertation while teaching fulltime. Without the Internet/technology, this would have been impossible. My committee was very detail-oriented and demanded many revisions, more than I want to remember. During the last semester before the defense, I took a leave from teaching. This period was helpful for dealing with the stress and the logistics.

The keys to completing a dissertation are discipline, patience, and concentration. Having applied these three rules carried me to the happy ending. If you have faith and an ambitious plan of getting a tenure-track position in two years, that’s also great. However, I have an ongoing skepticism of people who attribute too much to the PhD process. There is no denying that it is a long and valuable learning experience, which includes coursework, proposal writing, and two rigorous exams, known as “comps,” before you are allowed to write a dissertation in the North American system.

Despite the above, not putting too much weight on it, perceiving it as just another step in the journey of life, was what allowed me to complete it. Ironically, before I defended my thesis, I was awarded a generous post-doctoral fellowship in Sweden. I remember accepting it very cautiously, keeping in mind that my committee members were very meticulous and the external examiner flying to Toronto for my defense might give me a difficult time. When I defended my thesis and flew directly to Stockholm in December 2010, I felt relief more than anything. My advisor was right: “The best dissertation is the completed one” (something which I kept quoting to many ABDs and also to MA students of the university where I taught). I still can’t believe that in Sweden, I immediately began transforming my dissertation into a book published in Turkey, which I finished in five months. I was very motivated by the fact that a Scandinavian university afforded me this opportunity to focus on writing. As I returned to Cyprus, I was re-appointed as faculty thanks to my new title (an absolute must in their system) so it was rewarding.

Currently, I don’t have a teaching position, and I am working efficiently on the topics I want to write about, which is about Syrian refugee women’s life stories and how stereotypes can be challenged through them. I need to repeat that everyone’s experience with and attitude toward a PhD completion is different. I don’t know where I will be located in the long run (I am currently a visiting scholar at Berkeley), but I have freedom of speech, time to think, to write, and to read, and these are the most precious fundamentals for an intellectual. In an ideal world, I would argue that the same essentials should be provided for graduate students as well. This might mean one or two terms that are still funded but without the tasks of teaching assistants.

This person whom I called an intellectual doesn’t have to be located in academia, but having a PhD definitely makes that person’s life easier when it comes to holding posts in, or receiving invitations from, academia. My advice, if I may give it, is to invest the time and discipline into your doctorate but not overstrain yourself because of it. Balance real life, nature, and academia.  Keep exercising and lead a healthy life even when you are going through the final stages of it. I hear too many excuses for skipping healthy meals or exercise because of the dissertation (sounds familiar?). I’d argue strongly that especially during those stressful times, pre- or post-defense, you need to take care of your body since it’s inseparable from your mental health.  Just remember the cliché metaphor of giving birth whenever one finishes a manuscript after working on it for months if not years. Hold on to this metaphor and now consider how careful pregnant women are from the very first day they learn they are going to have a baby. Contrarily, we (well, most of us) writers and researchers do the opposite during our intellectual pregnancy. We shouldn’t if we want the baby in full form and with the least trouble after it is born.

Discipline, patience, and having a supportive community and partner helped me throughout my PhD journey. Ups and downs were inevitable, but there is light and life at the end of the tunnel, and you will not regret crossing it.

Read more from the series and learn how to submit your own story to “Crossing the Void.” 

Ozlem Ezer
is a writer, researcher, translator, and educator originally from Turkey, and has taught literature and women’s studies across the world for the past 18 years. Her area of expertise is women’s life writing, oral history, and representation analysis of women in literature, travel accounts in particular. Her book Doğu, Batı ve Kadın (East, West and Woman, 2012) has been taught at several universities in Turkey. She is particularly interested in recording the oral histories of women in Turkey, Northern Cyprus, and Syria. Most recently, Ozlem was a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her interviews with Syrian refugee women are being collected in a book to be published by Syracuse University Press, called Lifelines: Syrian Womanhoods in Transition ( She obtained her PhD in Gender, Feminist, and Women’s Studies from York University, Toronto, was a post-doctoral fellow in Sweden in 2011, and a writer-in-residence at WISC-Acequia MadreHouse in Santa Fe in 2014. Ozlem has been a Peace Writer in the Women PeaceMakers Program at the Joan Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, and wrote the life story of Thavory Hout from Cambodia, entitled Peace Between Banyan and Kapok Trees.

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