Last week I promised to launch a series on surviving the dissertation process. Over the next few weeks I will share the story of my dissertation: what worked for me, what did not, and how I got through the process in one piece. I would love feedback from others who have been through the process if they feel comfortable sharing what benefited them.
Dissertation: it is the project that never seems to end. It is the most daunting task of your program. It is the source of countless hours of research, writing, re-writing, head-banging-against-walls, cursing, and crying. Where do you even start on a project of this magnitude? It is unbelievably unsettling to start a project that will take one to three years to complete, if you are lucky.
At the end of my first year, my partner moved 2000 miles away. My job in the academic counseling and tutoring center ended for the summer, since there is no one to counsel or tutor when there are no undergraduate students on campus. I was fortunate to have entered graduate school with an idea of what I wanted to do, and so I spent the summer reading more than 100 articles about sexual violence on college campuses. Using templates I found online, I wrote my prospectus and began my literature review prior to the start of my dissertation seminar course. My adviser had already expressed an interest in my project, so she agreed to be my chair. My history with academic counseling provided me with a toolbox of time management skills, and I channeled my long-distance relationship frustration into productivity.
Later in this series I will talk about creating a work space that is conducive to productivity, keeping self-imposed deadlines, and staying motivated. For now, I will be discussing how I chose my dissertation and how I kept my sanity throughout the process.
My dissertation consisted of a literature review about the psychology of survivors of sexual violence, sexual violence on college campuses, and best practices for crisis intervention and response to first disclosure experiences and a manualized training for student employees of Residential Life on college campuses for how to respond to residents reporting sexual assault. I found that, although many such trainings exist, colleges prefer to use less effective manuals that are proven to be less effective in reducing rape myth acceptance and increasing crisis intervention skills, because these trainings tend to be more cost-effective to implement. My goal was to create a resource that I could make available for free that actually accomplished these goals.
Why a manual? I have always known that statistics are not my friend. There already exists a huge research base about survivors of sexual violence, and I knew that I wanted to create something that could be used directly to help survivors in their recovery. I felt that a manual would be the most effective way for me to do this. I also liked the idea of being able to make my own schedule. With data collection, you have to work around a dozen other calendars. You have to reserve the space, recruit the participants, gain Human Subjects approval, and (most likely) make time when the computer lab is open to perform statistical analyses. Yes, I spent countless hours writing my manual. No, I do not believe I took an easy way out by not having to collect data. But if you have to spend 1000 hours on a project, it does relieve stress slightly to know that those hours can occur whenever you want them to. Good luck finding participants who will work with you at 2 AM when you can’t sleep – my manual was always ready for me. It isn’t the right choice for everyone, but it was the right choice for me.
That brings me to my second point: taking care of yourself during this project. You have to remember that it is your dissertation and no one else’s. Each of your classmates is writing their own dissertation, and each project is unique and incomparable to any other project. Graduate school is competitive, so our default setting is to constantly compare everything we do to everything everyone else is doing. My school is 1300 miles away from my family, I have no children, and like I said, while I was writing the bulk of my proposal, my partner was living 2000 miles away, so it was easy to designate the weekends as “dissertation time,” and my proposal was completed by the start of my third year. Under different circumstances it would not have happened.
Also, because I chose to write a manual, my proposal encompassed about 90% of the work required for my final project. I had to compile a very detailed outline of what the manual would be, and so I defended my proposal in the same year that I proposed. Had I needed to collect data, my proposal would have taken less time, and my final dissertation would have taken much longer.
As difficult as it is, try to drown out your classmates’ dissertation work, since it is not relevant to your project. You end up wasting precious energy that could be used on your own dissertation worrying about what everyone else is doing, and to what end? Just like only you know what is right for you, only they know what is right for them. Maybe you are a parent, or maybe you are fortunate enough to be able to spend every weekend with your family. Maybe you are having trouble finding a project about which you feel passionate enough to invest the 1000 hours it takes to create a dissertation. It is better to start later than to spend all that time on a project that makes you miserable.
So you’ve decided to write a dissertation. What project speaks to you? What contribution to the field will be the culmination of your graduate work? Just remember, this journey is yours alone. Don’t let yourself be distracted by journeys unrelated to yours.