Dissertators Anonymous

Re-posted from This Ordinary Day

I’m about a year away from finishing my doctorate. I have a bachelor’s degree (with five minors… I wanted to be “well-rounded”), a master’s degree, a graduate certificate, and now my title is A.B.D. (all but dissertation). All this before the age of 30. Impressed?

I have been writing my dissertation for what seems like forever. Last year, I tackled the research while planning a wedding and working as a graduate assistant, which meant I made little progress. So this year I’m writing and researching full-time (or dissertating, as we say in the biz). Here’s my work pattern:

Monday—Home/the coffee shop next door (I go back and forth)

Tuesday—Lunch at Eric’s school then a coffee shop and/or the medical library

Wednesday—Home then, you guessed it, a coffee shop

Thursday—Campus library

Friday—Home then a restaurant

I don’t even like coffee. But I go crazy trying to work at home for too long, and I have to be around people. So I have visited just about every wifi hotspot in Houston in search of the ultimate workspace. I should write a Zagat for dissertators.

Most of my days are frustrating. Some days I have nothing to show for my time. Some days I stare at the computer screen, hoping the cursor will move by itself, and it doesn’t. Some days I get announcements from colleagues who started the program when I did (or later) who have finished their work and now I have to call them “Dr.” Some days people ask me if I do anything, because I just sit in coffee shops all day. I sat on my front porch editing a draft one day and my neighbor, a retired English teacher, asked, “Do you even work at all? What do you do?” And some days reorganize everything in an attempt to stretch my chapters closer to that 200- to 300-page mark.

People keep telling me it’s wonderful, and they couldn’t do what I do, and they are so proud, etc. etc. But the reality is that it all feels so painfully ordinary, and not at all glamorous. There is some sort of fight every day, either within myself, or with the research or with someone I have to please. I feel worthless at times without a job. I easily get bogged down in the minutiae of it all.

Affirmation from friends and family are necessary, but it means more when someone I’m writing about goes out of their way to thank me. My dissertation recounts the history of professional women of color, and part of that journey has included interviewing women about their experiences. I interviewed a Jamaican immigrant whose father gave her a doctor bag as a child and told her, “Reach for the stars, because even if you don’t grab one, you’ll still be high in the heavens.” She has incredible stories of perseverance, a positive awareness of all her obstacles and a strong identity. She chose to work for the urban under-served and has pursued a culture of diversity in her professional and personal life. I found her tale so engaging, and was surprised when she concluded our talk by thanking me profusely for my work and for telling this story.

I fell in love with historical study because I felt strongly about telling stories that no one else had told. This experience showed me that I’m a part of the story because I’m telling it. I will never have to endure racism and half the other hardships these women have faced. But I can bring the story to light, and, and least on some level, that’s commendable.

I guess it doesn’t matter how banal the daily work feels, it all adds up to something pretty extraordinary. In the mean time I’m trying to be all right with days full of coffee shops and libraries and blank computer screens. The daily details are part of the story, after all.


Explore posts in the same categories: Academic Anecdotes

One Comment on “Dissertators Anonymous”

  1. Phil Says:

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

    Dissertation writing is a funny thing. Sometimes the words and thoughts flow, sometimes it feels like you are starting over. You are correct when you say that every little bit adds up to something big and meaningful. When friends and family asked how my dissertation was going, I’d smile and say, “One keystroke at a time.” Keep plugging away, you’ll cross the finish line very soon!

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