On Dissertation Proposals
It's been nearly two months since my last post. Since then I've been busy with work and research, including grant and book proposals, regular research, and kids stuff. And as of two weeks ago, I'm adjuncting for the first time starting in January, so I had a syllabus to throw together.
But the big event was last week when I passed my dissertation proposal defense. I was going to make this post about my dissertation itself, but thought rather to make it about the prospectus process. Nothing like "wisdom" from someone who just did something, right? Like learning military strategy from a private fresh out of basic training.
In spite of this I thought I'd write about it because it was for me, by far, the most stressful time I've had in grad school yet. Coursework and comps can be stressful, and they are barriers to continuing to many people, but I've always managed to keep these sorts of things in perspective: they were never close to the hardest things I've done in my life. This was something new and unusual, with huge impact, and I had no idea what to expect going into it.
But for some reason, my proposal defense really got to me. I wasn't worried about washing out or anything, but unlike comps it wasn't a hoop to jump through, a right of passage. It is an important step in the dissertation process, which can (from my perspective) define the initial stages of my career. So getting it right is important, which is hard when you're going into a meeting that feels like a broadside against your work. Meanwhile, even though your committee is there to help, this is when the training wheels really start to come off and decisions are ultimately up to you. I don't know about other schools, but I didn't have prior proposals to use as examples - it seems these are mostly unique events, each one. I had an idea of what I want to work on, where it fits in the field, and how to get there, but not how this high impact process works. And it's the first time you're really on your own in grad school. I've heard about the lonely road that is a dissertation, and the proposal process are those hard first miles of it.
I was a ball of nerves for the whole week before. For the first time since maybe my first year, I asked a friend/mentor to talk about it and that was the best decision I made in preparing for the defense: everyone goes through this, it seems. Knowing that made it easier to handle. That's not to say the defense itself was easy. My committee had a lot to say, and like most of you I'm guess you don't like hearing about the obvious things you missed. It's embarrassing. But. It was probably the most useful hour and a quarter I've had in grad school, getting pointed, detailed feedback on my research plan from people invested in making sure I succeed.
There's a long road ahead on actually getting this dissertation done, and this was a difficult milestone along the way. Going into it, I questioned the point of making it a formal event, but now that I'm through it, I'm glad that it's actually kind of a big deal. It increases the sense of accomplishment, even though the outcome was more work.
But for those of you going through this in the future: this is hard. It's stressful. It's probably unlike anything you've done before. And (from my small-n convenience sample) everyone seems to go through the same thing. But there's a method to the madness, and it's really worthwhile. Know that you're not alone, prepare as best you can, and call a friend.
Have you ever wanted to follow my research in (not-quite) real time? You've come to the right place.