I just received an email from Prof. C, my second dissertation advisor and the more critical one. I adore Prof. C., but he’s the type of academic who can cut you down in a second (with a sweet smile) and you don’t realize it until you’re out the door, thinking, “Hey, what just happened back there?” He’s the type of academic you simultaneously dread and delight in seeing in the audience during a presentation you’re giving, because on the one hand you know he’ll give a lot of great feedback but on the other you know that a single negative comment from him can destroy your confidence in the quality and importance of your work for months. My dearest friend used to say that “Prof. C. can make you feel like crap, but he’ll do it in the nicest possible way.”
When I began writing this dissertation last year, I really didn’t know what I was doing. Sure, I had a prospectus that had been revised to death (courtesy of Prof. G.), but when it came to expanding that prospectus into actual chapters, I floundered. A lot. I drafted the first chapter and both Prof. G and Prof. C. liked it. I drafted the second chapter and they both hated it. I redrafted the second chapter and they still hated it. Finally, the third version of the second chapter (the literature review, for goodness’ sake!) passed muster and they were both happy. But then the wrangling over Chapter Three began – a total nightmare – and before I knew it, three months were gone. In June, before I started this blog, I really didn’t feel like this dissertation was ever going to get off the ground. Finally, however, Chapter Three took shape and both advisors liked what they were reading, I had direction, and I was able to take off, make progress on the job market, go to Europe, get the job, and set down to work again.
Throughout this long process, Prof. C. has been the one I feared the most, the one whose emails make me feel queasy before I even open them. Each time I read his comments on my work, I'm waiting for the axe to drop, the red light that will stop progress in its tracks and mark the demise of my confidence until at least 2008. Conversely, each time he says something nice -- even if it's just a scribbled "Good!" in the margin -- I am floating on air.
This morning I received an email from Prof. C. that said that he had read the five chapters I sent to him at the end of last month. His verdict: “Overall, this is in good shape.” I breathed a sigh of relief and my hands stopped shaking. Pages of comments followed (graduate students expect nothing less from Prof. C.), but they didn’t point to any major problems I cannot address in the long weeks ahead as I finish drafting a few chapters and revising old ones. I feel like now I have an official green light to continue, to press forward, and to finish.