The dissertation was only the beginning.

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Thursday, May 04, 2006
I'm working on revisions to Chapter 1 of my dissertation, and I must admit that it's not nearly as bad as I thought it would be (the bad stuff is waiting for me in Chapter 3, I'm sure). As I read the words I first drafted so many months ago, back when I was a new ticket-holder for the dissertation rollercoaster after defending my prospectus, I recall how uncertain writing those words felt. I remember typing up the first "real" section after the introduction and thinking, "Does this make sense? Is this even right? Where is this going?" Today, however, I read the words and I know that I'm right.

There are precious few moments in life lately where I can hold my head up high and say with confidence, "I am sure about this" or "I know I'm right." So it's been especially uplifting when I read some of Prof. C.'s questions scribbled in the margins of my draft: "Does [causal process] really work like this?" or "I understand [overarching principle] to mean XYZ -- can it also be interpreted as you have written?" or "Wow -- is [strange fact] really true?" I love that I can answer his questions immediately. Yes, it really works like thatand here's proof. Yes, my interpretation is correct and here's why. Yes, strange fact is really true. These revisions are making me feel, for a moment at least, smart.

Before I reached graduate school, I always thought that I'd feel really, really smart when it came time to write and defend my dissertation. After all, you'd have to be "smart" by some standard to come up with a topic in the first place, a topic no one had yet investigated. You'd have to be "smart" to know how to support your ideas, to know where they fit into the larger literature, and to write hundreds (and hundreds, if you're Mon) of pages about them. But as it turns out, I've never been less confident about my abilities as a scholar than during this time when I've been working on my dissertation. While I was taking courses and certainly when I was writing my comprehensive exams, I felt like I was at the top of my game. I was up-to-date on the literature in three different subfields, was writing interesting seminar papers, and incorporated discipline-related jargon in my conversations with classmates. I was learning and I was having fun, for the most part. Then the prospectus was successfully defended and voila! I was expected to take off and produce something great on my own. It is not easy to be smart when you're alone.

I was explaining this to one of my friends recently, a friend who graduated from my program last summer and is now a highly successful Assistant Professor at a Major Southern Research Institution. She told me to gear up for another "wave of confidence" once I start my job. She said that she felt the same way I do now when she was finishing her dissertation last year: unsure of herself, unsure of her work, unsure of her future. But when she started her job, she said that her confidence surged and she somehow felt "smarter." She said in all honesty that things come easier to her now: ideas for teaching, answers to student questions, ideas for new research. "I know it sounds ridiculous," she said, blushing a little, "but once you have that Ph.D. in hand it's like a personal Enlightenment!"

I hope that will be true for me. After suffering through this dissertation, I feel like I've been holed up in the Dark Ages for far, far too long.
Posted with care by Prof. Me @ 5/04/2006 11:44:00 AM  
6 Words of Wisdom:
  • At 5:20 PM, Blogger phd me said…

    Well, I knew Ch. 1 wasn't that bad. Of course you know what you're talking about - this is your stuff!

    But seriously, I know exactly how you feel. I had so many low points while I was writing my dissertation: "What am I talking about? What's the point of my argument? Why did I think this was a good research question?" But I swear, now that I'm finished, those fears are dust in the wind. Your friend is right; just finishing the darn thing and having that degree (well, almost, in my case) makes an absolute world of difference. It shouldn't, but it does.

    And you're almost there!!!

  • At 6:26 PM, Anonymous slantedtruth said…

    i think your friend is right. getting a full scholarship to study at my dream school for the phd helped me soar through the end of my MA. similarly, having a t-t jonb for next year has given me the confidence to tackle my diss quickly and effectively, and actually enjoy the process at times! i think the trick is being open to enjoying one's successes instead of being afraid or intimidated by them.

    congrats on all of yours!

  • At 6:44 PM, Blogger ABDmom said…

    Prof Me, I could have written this post; in fact, I was just talking to someone about mamy of these same issues yesterday. I hope that come fall, both of us will be feeling fabulous again. :) Because I know you are!

  • At 9:04 PM, Blogger Lilian said…

    I can totally relate. Writing the dissertation just seems to make me feel very insecure. I revised my first chapter this week as well, almost six months after I first started writing it, and I'm glad I feel quite happy with it.

    Well, the best of you (and ABDMom) as you start working, may your confidence soar!

  • At 11:13 PM, Anonymous Peri said…

    I just totally related to your comment about it not being easy to be smart when you're alone. That is so true! I'm on the verge of actually sitting down to write chapter 1 and I feel so alone. After all the hoopla of the proposal being finished and accepted it's just a wimper now. Just get out there and do it, they say. Ha!

    You are soooo close to being done. You are smart and good and the world's best mom. Be encouraged and confident. So much good stuff is coming your way

  • At 4:48 AM, Blogger Dr. Mon said…

    Sigh, Can we PLEASE not talk about the hundreds and hundreds of pages right now?? Came by to see you because I am about to fall over from polishing this thing up to mail. Update over my way coming soon. Glad Ch. 1 is shaping up nicely for you. I must admit, as I get closer to the actual defense, I do feel a lil smarter than I did even a couple days ago--I think there is great truth to what your friend says.

    Ok, I broke my hiatus just for you--be happy. Back to work for me!

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