End of the doctoral journey

The past few months have been intense.

Ph.D.ead Music Capital Band: grad school killed us. Photo – Nathan Hoppens

But my dissertation baby has been birthed!

I worked on writing up findings for most of winter break, although I did take a day off for Elmar and my 10-year wedding anniversary (!!) and other holiday-related events. But I built and kept up momentum.

My process at that time was non-linear. I’d basically randomly decide from my organized mounds of data what story I wanted to tell that day and crank out rough paragraphs that amassed into rough sections. And by the way: even writing this blog post is non-linear; maybe that’s just my creative/intuitive brain.

When classes re-started in mid-January, I kept my strict “dissertation mornings” and “dissertation Friday” schedules, meaning that I wouldn’t let teaching or emails or other less cognitively challenging tasks distract me. (Not having WiFi at home or a data plan helped and is still an intentional choice). Since I’d already taught beginning German with the current curriculum, that meant I could binge course prep for each chapter to free up mental space for dissertating (yes, that’s a verb). And as I sensed that the homestretch was near, I contacted my committee to schedule an April defense. And with the fire properly ignited in my belly, I proceeded to…

… have a super fun happy pre-Mardis Gras weekend in New Orleans to perform with my band in the Krewe of Apocolypso Ball and Krewe of Chewbacchus parade. In true Karneval style, I partied hard and then commenced ~6 weeks of “dissertation lent” to almost coincide with Catholic lent. I deactivated facebook and said “no” to any extra academic or teaching or social thing. For example, I’ve been somehow involved in the annual Texas State German Contest for eleven years of my life. But 2018? Nein!

To continue the cycling metaphor from my last post, I traded out the mountain bike for a road bike. I had a paved road mapped out ahead (an outline of sections), and I just had to pedal, and pedal hard. I got up to a consistent 90 RPM. For spring break, I ramped up to a 100 RPM sprint. But life is funny, and I got a “revise and resubmit” on a collaborative article I wrote with fellow grad students (two of whom are now either currently in or on the way to tenure-track professor positions). The deadline was the Monday after spring break. SO KEEP PEDALLING GET IT UP TO 110 RPMS YOU CAN DO THIS GO GO GO GO GO! I finished the last bit of content in my findings chapter on Sunday to deliver to my advisor at her home before band practice (see below – hobbies are important!). I kept going the week after spring break to fix my intro and concluding chapters, and to incorporate revisions. And somehow, the night before I flew to Chicago for a conference, I made a pdf of a big fat document and emailed it to my committee (from a free WiFi spot in the neighborhood next to the Home Owners’ Association. No joke, I saw a coyote on my way there).

I was probably a hot mess in Chicago, but a happy hot mess. A relieved and proud and confident hot mess. I had just thrown the One Ring into Mount Doom with the help of my advisor, Diane, and the rest of the fellowship of the ring (my committee). And while I still had to get out of Mordor (fix formatting, citations, prep for the defense), I recognized this as THE MILESTONE TO RULE THEM ALL, at least for me. [end Lord of the Rings metaphors]

I’m actually looking forward to my defense as a thoughtful conversation with my super supportive committee. I expect they will point out and pick apart the wrinkles I need to smooth out, and I may need to justify my choices of methods and themes. But anyone who has ever asked me about my dissertation knows that, if unchecked, I can geek out about teaching and learning and drama-based pedagogy and experiential learning and multiliteracies and perspective-shifting and community building and and and and and…

As I near the end of my doctoral studies, the emotions that keeps popping up are gratitude and joy. Maybe it’s because my dissertation is about graduate student development, or maybe it’s because one of my committee members invited me to talk with his grad class this week, but I now want to pay it forward with advice on what helped me through this process (this list will probably expand, but I wanted to put something together now while it’s still fresh).

Advice for doctoral students:

  • Find a topic you can geek out about. It’s with you for a long time, potentially through the start of your academic career. I can trace bits of my topic back to 2013.
  • Find an advisor who is a good fit to your topic, your working style, and your support needs. I am so grateful that I could speak to my advisor in metaphors, and also comfortably cry in my her office while working through a challenge. My favorite time was in May or June 2017, when I had lots of dissertation momentum, but knew it was about to slow because “my husband and I are going to Europe this summer!” She understood my anguish.
  • Find accountabilibuddies who are not in your program, but who are doing similar work. I’ve had regular Skype meetings or text exchanges with at least five writers and scholars. It helps to track progress over time, to see the big picture, and to stay socially engaged with someone who is on their own journey of highs and lows and can empathize.
  • Get a hobby or find a community with a common goal and regular meetings. For me, these commitments went on my calendar and were as important as job, academic, and family commitments. This was especially helpful for me because my program was socially diffused. When one hobby began to consume too much of my cognitive resources (roller derby strategy is no joke), I shifted to another hobby and combined that with family time.
  • Go to the university counseling center. Therapy is never this inexpensive, and counselors are specialized in common academic issues. I have used individual counseling at three different periods during my doctoral studies for different reasons. In particular, I highly recommend looking into the concept of self-compassion to combat imposter syndrome and recognize that you’re not alone in your grad school emotional rollercoaster. I had heard of the concept of self-compassion from an academic standpoint, as one of the leading experts in the field is a few doors down from Diane, but working with a therapist helped me to actually enact self-compassion. Someone told me once that all emotions related to dissertating are valid. Truth.
  • Learn to say no or not now to non-essential things during your homestretch.
  • Take care of your body. Sleep. Exercise. Relax. Laugh. This is a marathon.
  • Make meaningful milestones to motivate you. After a few false starts aiming to graduate May 2017, Aug. 2017 and Dec. 2017, I decided that I for real wanted to graduate in May 2018 and move on with my life, even though I don’t have a job lined up. Commencement ceremonies for Ph.D.s are only held in May, and the whole pomp and circumstances felt missing from my M.A. So I worked backwards. The final dissertation submission is due 5/4: May the Fourth Be With You (Star Wars reference). Two weeks before that seemed like a good defense date to give me plenty of time for revisions. And it’s 4/20 (stoner culture reference). The manuscript was due one month before that, which coincided with a national conference in Chicago. By giving silly meaning to arbitrary dates, I was able to add in little bits of motivation and commitment.
  • Build in rewards. I went to see a live taping of my favorite podcast the day I submitted my manuscript. And they’re coming to Austin the day before the final submission is due, so I have a motivation to submit early.
  • Accept that the process is just as important as the product, if not more important. The product is the result of the process, and is never really finished until you decide it is finished. And if you must, fix it after you have the Ph.D. letters behind your name.
  • Also, recognize that your unique process will not look exactly like anyone else’s. The duration and experiences depend on so many factors that you may or may not be able to control. My six years allowed me to develop a diverse set of skills that will help me since my job search is geographically limited. I can teach German, pedagogy, and German pedagogy. I can support grad students, undergrads, faculty in their research and teaching. I can organize and develop interactive workshops on all sorts of topics. I get to show off with three publications this year. And I got to learn to do those things and practice under the mentorship of some amazing people.
  • TTT = Things Take Time. Remind yourself of that. Often. Put sticky notes on your laptop, your mirror, add it to your mezusa (perhaps along with your research questions). Be patient with yourself. It all takes longer than you think, but then suddenly you’re there. You’re done.

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