Wednesday, May 24, 2006

How to Finish A Dissertation in Two Easy Centuries! (Part I)

PART I: How I Became Blocked and Unblocked

Okay, so it didn't literally take me 200 years to write my dissertation, but it sure felt like that at times. And technically I did start the sucker last century. So before I move on to the next big change in my life, I figured it would be good to pause for a de-briefing. Maybe someone else out there is as blocked as I was...

So, forgive me for a moment, but since I'm a historian, I have to go back a few years to put this in its proper context. As we historians say, in the "olden days," I passed my doctoral exams. Nothing had ever or has ever terrified me as much as my doctoral exams -- it was a 3 hour oral exam with 5 faculty members lobbing questions at me. After passing that trial, I needed a break. Plus my husband and I moved away from my Home University into a much unhappier situation. Not a good combination. Thus began my dissertation block. A much-deserved break turned into years of avoidance. Now that I look back, I was battling all sorts of tough things such as working crappy jobs, missing my friends, not having my usual academic support system, missing my previous professional identity, etc. Probably some depression thrown in for good measure. In my defense, I did manage to spend my summers and occasionally times during the semester doing all the research I needed to do. But somehow three years had passed! I had crates and crates of xeroxed documents, but nothing much else to show for that passage of time. And there was at least one, if not two, chapters that I could have been working on, even prior to a single research trip.

So then we moved again. This time to a happier situation, but I was still blocked. And now I was really blocked. No more research trips to give me the semblance of making progress. Now I really had to WRITE. No more excuses. And that was pretty terrifying! How do you start? After all, I had thousands upon thousands of pages of documents. What if I can't make sense of them? What if I can't say anything original about this? I'm sure many of you have heard a similar chorus in your heads. Starting from a cold start is probably the hardest thing to do. You have no sense of how you're going to do this -- after all, you've never written a dissertation before! You haven't developed any coping skills or tricks or routines. And in some sense, graduate school doesn't really prepare you for this task. And since I have an advisor who is relatively hands-off, I didn't have anyone out there holding my feet to the fire or giving me deadlines. At times I appreciated that, but at other times it was probably to my detriment.

So how did I get un-blocked? Two events come to mind. One, my husband and I had an emotional, horrible, terrible, yet necessary Come-to-Jesus conversation in which he told me he was basically disappointed in me, and did I really want to end up like X Person in Grad School Who Never Finished? Even though I had my tenure track job at a community college, and even though getting tenure at this job was not contingent on finishing, I had to take a good, hard look at myself. He was right. Did I really want to become that person (we all probably know them) who never finished? Could I live with being disappointed with myself, and knowing that others would also be disappointed in me? I knew that if I decided that quitting was best for me, my friends and family would have solidly supported that decision -- but the key was to decide what was best for me. To finish or not to finish? I decided for a number of purely personal reasons (thankfully the professional ones were not weighing heavily upon me) that, yes, I did want to finish what I had started.

Secondly, once I decided that I did intend to finish, I had to face the music. How much had I accomplished so far? (not much.) How much was left to do? (pretty much all of it.) Okay, stock taken. Situation not looking good. Then I had to give myself some sort of rough timeline. Problem is that I faced no official deadline and no advisor-imposed deadline. What possible time constraints would I have? Well, I knew that my husband and I would eventually want to have kids. And I knew I was already in my early 30s, so we couldn't wait forever. And I knew that I most certainly wanted to wait until I was closer to being finished with my dissertation before having a kid. So I tried to plan ahead a few years, guessing when we'd want to have a kid, and guessing how long it would take me to finish. [In the end, I ended up being pregnant later than I had originally planned, and finishing my dissertation took longer than I had originally thought. Turns out the timing of finishing was perfect in terms of being pregnant, but that was actually just a lucky coincidence.]

So there I was, sitting at my desk, pondering the road ahead. I knew I intended to finish, and I knew there was something of a deadline out there. When I worked backwards from my prospective finishing date, it became painfully clear to me that I was already behind! I had no more time to waste. The time was NOW.

And I think that was it. I had my "moment of clarity" and knew what needed to be done. I'm not saying it was easy or quick or effortless from then on, but at least I had made a commitment to myself. And now, in hindsight, it is clear to me that the decision to become un-blocked and really work on my dissertation had to be something that came from within myself. It wouldn't have worked for me if it was due to external pressures, personal or professional. Those pressures might have helped to get me off the fence, but moving forward would have to come from within. How I navigated the bumpy road ahead will be the subject of part II.

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