Monday, March 3, 2014

The Measure of a Scholar: Doubt and Insecurity During the Dissertation

Right now, I'm at the beginning phases of my dissertation study. It's been quite a journey getting to this point. One I'm not sure that I was prepared for. One that has taken much longer than I thought it would. I'm writing this blog post because I'm sure there are others out there, like me, who will be totally surprised by the path their graduate work takes them, who will be a bit shaken when things don't go quite according to plan, but who probably also need to know that that's ok.

In May 2012, I passed my comprehensive exams. I was so excited! I figured, "it's go time!" In my Virgo over-planning mind, I figured I'd have my prospectus done in the middle of the fall semester, I'd write my first chapter by the middle of Spring, knock out the rest by the following year and defend soon after that. I figured it would take just a little longer than my lengthy thesis for my masters program. I couldn't wait to be Dr. P!

It's been almost 2 years, and I haven't even started writing chapters. 

Instead of the process I imagined, a year and a half to write a dissertation, it took me a year and a half to get a prospectus approved. It wasn't because I was lazy and put things off. I was writing and reading the whole time. I think I have something like 31 drafts. When I sat in my dissertation workshop week after week and heard my peers get their prospectuses approved, start chapters, and defend, it made me feel really inadequate. The hardest one for me to swallow was when a student who began her work only a bit before me-- and who seemed to have followed the same path from lit to writing studies-- managed to complete her dissertation in about a year. I didn't understand why I was falling so far behind. From time to time, I even thought maybe I just wasn't cut out to be a doctoral student, that I wasn't of the caliber to do that kind of research.

Sometimes, I still have those thoughts. It's almost mid-semester, and I've been working on recruiting undergrads for my dissertation study for a few weeks now. I guess because I strongly believe in the work I'm doing, I thought on some level that others would be equally excited. I imagined being overwhelmed with responses rather than underwhelmed. I didn't really take into consideration how difficult it would be to find participants. I thought I'd be doing interviews and have notes already.

My biggest challenge is managing myself.

The dissertation comes with many challenges. It's time consuming. You must learn the conventions of your discipline as you research and write. Sources can be hard to track down. Participants might not flock to you. None of these will be as difficult as managing yourself, though.

It's much more difficult to stop thinking about your insecurities-- how much you don't know, how many times you mess up along the way, how many times you had to ask for help, how slow you must be because Suzie Q is so much further along with her project, how your writing is no where near as good as Dr. X's, how you can't even process thoughts as deep and insightful as the great-and-all-powerful Oz. The worst one for me... how my friends are buying homes, getting married, and having babies while I had to move back in with my parents and am working part-time jobs to make ends-meet.... There's just an endless list of doubts and flaws. You can get lost in the way you don't measure up.

If you're like me, or if you might be about to be like me, then, I have three words of advice for you:

Knock that off!

Seriously, the hardest lesson for me to learn and something I have to constantly remind myself of is that I must stop comparing myself to others in a competitive way. It's great to look at what someone else is doing and use it as inspiration or just notice how well what they are doing is working for them, but saying "why can't I be like that?" is only counterproductive. It clogs up your focus and makes you feel incapable of things you are certainly most capable of. Sometimes, it even makes you want to throw away years of work and sacrifice to have it go away. In simplest of terms: it's bad; don't do it.

Once I figured that out, things got a little better. I try to keep in mind that I am my own person with my own journey. In my case, I have to give myself a little credit for shifting gears and remember that it takes time, probably a lot more than the 2-3 years I've had, to become fluent in a discipline. Changing over from lit to writing studies left me with some things to learn. And qualitative studies definitely take more time and have more variables than making an argument about published texts that are not in flux. I'm also younger than many of my peers in the doctoral program and had some growing room to take up. Plus, assuming I don't get hit by a bus or fall off a cliff any time soon, I'm looking at an 80ish-year life expectancy with plenty of time for buying houses and making babies that I'm not sure I want yet anyway. It will be much harder for my friends who have all that responsibility to decide to pursue my level of education for the next 25 years or so at least. I'll get where I need to be as long as I stay focused.

So, next time you're feeling down, think about this:

If you're working on your doctoral degree, you have an opportunity that most people will never have in their lifetimes. Not just one person, but a whole committee of people, agreed that you were the right choice for that program when pooled with a giant pile of program applicants.

And if you're working on a dissertation, there is a committee of people who believed enough in your ability to perform scholarship that they were willing to take time out of their work to see you complete yours.

Now, go be productive :) and remember....

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