My blog feels as stale as a week old bagel. Or maybe a three-month old bagel since my last post was December 8. Gross.
I would like to say that a lot has happened between then and now, but really I was just immersed in the dissertation grind. I submitted my final copy to my committee on February 27, celebrated my 28th birthday the next day, and have been trying to recover ever since. I felt bad for leaving my blog to sit idle and lose any flavor or freshness it might have once had. I had hoped to return with renewed energy once I unloaded that dissertation, but I didn’t know where to start or what to say. I’ve abandoned any hope of saying anything earth shattering or revealing brilliant insights that I had while I was away. I think today, in the spirit of “getting back on the horse,” I’m just going to tell you what these past few months of revising have been like. If there is a theme with this blog (besides landscapes, which I don’t talk about as often as I had intended) it is that I’m hoping to demystify the process of getting a doctorate in public history. Our program has a very detailed handbook that is supposed to outline the process very clearly and concisely, which it does. Our advisors want us to succeed, but they also want us to give us enough room to figure things out for ourselves, which I also understand. However, I’ve always felt something was missing. MTSU is a great program, but we are kind of lacking in graduate student culture. This goes beyond having a group of friends that will go out with you on Friday night (because who has the money for that?), but extends to the issue of not having very many students ahead of me in the program to really clue me in on what exactly goes into qualifying exams, residencies, portfolios, and dissertations. One recent graduate has been very helpful to me over the past three years, but not everyone has a Kristen Baldwin Deathridge. I even reach out to doctoral friends at other universities, but their requirements and expectations are different from our program, so their advice only goes so far and creates different types of anxieties. So anyway, if this post helps someone in the next cohort, I will consider this time worth spent.
If I could have done anything different when writing this dissertation, I wish I would have figured out my argument sooner instead of the third draft. The whole time I was working on this project, including all the way through the fall when I was drafting, I was most concerned about developing this framework for interpreting park landscapes. It wasn’t until Christmas break, after I had submitted draft chapters to my committee, that I realized that a framework isn’t an argument. I figured this out when I started reading other park histories that had been published in the past few years. I was like, “Wow, their argument is really interesting and I can pick out easily…Uh oh, what’s mine???” I sat down for a weekend and just made a short outline about what my real argument was and then I spent time developing that in the third draft. I am embarrassed to admit that it took me three drafts to figure it out, but I don’t think I’m the only one to experience this. Also, let this be a reminder that it is important to step away from your own work for a few weeks to read others in your field. I had a major breakthrough during this time.
Prepare for your timeline to change. Last November, my advisor and I worked out a timeline for completion that gave me instant anxiety. One deadline was literally on Christmas Eve. I won’t get into details, but let’s just say things didn’t go the way we planned. In January, I was mentally preparing myself for an August graduation. But, thankfully, I met with my advisor and we came up with a new game plan. And so far, I’m still on schedule for May graduation. But that time in January was tough for me; I am a planner and I work really hard to meet deadlines. Let me reassure anyone out there that it is not the end of the world if your game plan changes.
“Revising a dissertation is like moving,” a doctoral friend from another university said to me. So true. You move big things first and you feel like you’re making progress, but then you are left with all the little things and you think I’m never going to pull this off. Eventually you do. Just know that it is normal to feel like it will never be done even when you are close to the finish line.
Don’t take revisions personally. If I didn’t say so in previous posts, I’m saying it now. One reviewer made something like 365 comments on one chapter (the chapter was 60 pages long if that makes any difference). I don’t normally take revisions personally, because I know they make the final product better in the end. However, the sheer number of comments on one chapter gave me pause. “Where do I even begin? Is this even salvageable? Am I cut out for this?” This experience could have put me in an imposter syndrome spiral, but fortunately I met with this person beforehand so I knew the big picture changes she wanted. I started with the big structural changes first and then tackled the details. I wish I could say that was the last I had to revise that chapter but I still went through it a total or five or six times. It took a long time, but I think it is my strongest chapter now. But I realize how important it was that I didn’t give up after that initial shock. I would have never made it through if I let my emotions get the best of me.
Formatting is the devil. Speaking of the little things, give yourself plenty of time to figure out the ridiculousness that is formatting when dealing with two different style guides (Turabian and the College of Graduate Studies). Personally, I think they should give you a degree in Microsoft Word when you finish.
Perfectionism is both your friend and enemy. If you are in a doctoral program, I’m sure you have some degree of perfectionism in you. I don’t consider myself a perfectionist, but I do hold high standards. As I was nearing my February 27 deadline, I was waffling between the need to get everything perfect and the sincere desire for just pressing the send button. In the end, I did all I could with the knowledge that I’ll have two more levels of vetting before ProQuest gets its greedy hands on my dissertation.
Have something to look forward to and plan to give yourself a break. I held tight to the February 27 deadline because the best gift I could give myself on my 28th birthday was not worrying about my dissertation. My boyfriend kept asking what I wanted to do for my birthday, but I couldn’t make any plans. I just wanted to not work. And I didn’t and it was great! I had grand plans of taking a few days off before starting in my next project. But here it is March 12 and I haven’t done much of anything. I went home to West Virginia and enjoyed being with family. It felt like the first time in a long while that I could enjoy their company with no deadlines hanging over my head. I also realized that my brain needed a lengthy break. The few things that I did try to do after submitting my dissertation were kind of terrible.
Time to wrap up. I just want to point out one last thing. Some doctoral students take years to write their dissertations. I only had ten months between my proposal defense and my submission to my committee. My final draft is 385 pages, so I definitely didn’t skimp for the sake of time. I’m here to say it isn’t easy, but it is possible if you can work on it full-time. I very much treated it like a full-time job and even tracked my hours (because I’m weird like that).
My defense is scheduled for March 23. Wish me luck!