On Wednesday I met with my advisor for 2+ hours to talk about the dissertation. The research question I had ostensibly been working with for the last year or so just wasn’t working any more. It was too big. After those 2+ hours we had something that was much better and tighter. At the end of the meeting, however, I knew we weren’t done, so we made time to get back together on Thursday.
Thursday morning I woke up and got to work. When I started looking at the new draft of the research question, I panicked. It just was not right. Each time I read it over I felt like there was no significance to the inquiry. Heck, it did not even seem like a question. Not knowing what to do I went into the office and took over the conference room for six hours. Three white boards, 12 tables, and many marker colors…. I was no where. By hour four I no longer knew what my project was or what work I even did. By hour five I latched on to something. It was not perfect and it seemed to eliminate over half of my project, but it was tighter and answered the “so what” question.
By the time I met with my advisor I felt lost. Not as lost as I had at hour four, but still, I was lost. It took us another 2.5 hours of painstakingly re-crafting my question so that it better reflected my interests. We mulled over individual words for 10 and 20 minutes at a time; reassessed sentence construction; and made sure that the implicit was made explicit. I went home that night feeling exhausted but really good because I now has something that worked for me. My advisor was content with the first question, and I am sure I could have done something with it, but doing the unpopular thing and saying “NO” is key.
I spent part of Friday, Sunday, and this morning working on aspects of the Dissertation Pre-Proposal. More about that document later….
Yesterday afternoon I arrived in my advisor’s office with a stack of 3×4 note cards, a yellow legal pad 95% full of notes, and an open mind.
Last year, some where around this time and long before I took my exams, my advisor and I sat down and really got to honing in on my research question for the dissertation. I knew even then that things within that question would change, that there were a lot of things that I felt were implicitly expressed within the diction that would need to be made explicit, and that at some point greater precision would be necessary. Yesterday was that day.
I guess I have to stress that patience, open mindedness, and a lack of fear are key to getting down to a good research question for a dissertation. It is hard to strike some sort of balance between a specific enough question such that the data points easily emerge from your desired sources and a question that will transcend your specific sources and (ideally) your own discipline.
Truly I feel very fortunate that I have an advisor who is really good to work with on these larger conceptual issues, and that he is someone who never shuts me down (no matter how crazy or harebrained the scheme I have lit upon). After two hours yesterday we are down to two sentences we like. Today I will go back and perhaps I will emerge with more of the pre-planning accomplished. But for as much as I would just like to power through a dissertation proposal, I would rather take my time and linger around these issues and decisions now then find myself having to revamp large sections of a chapter or half the dissertation later on.
Today we shall spread more 3×4 note cards out over a table, scribble down sentences, revise some note cards, and see what we come up with. And if that does not produce something that feels right, well, I will just go home and do it again until what I find on paper seems to match the image of the dissertation I have had in my mind for the past year.
I am frustrated at the moment with my lack of progress or direction. Right now I am just holding out until my meeting with my advisor tomorrow as I really do believe talking things through with him will be of great help. There are just so many things pinging about in my brain – variety of interest levels in specific areas of the dissertation, what things must be included to make me competitive in the job market, what sources of data will work better than others and will allow for multiple job fits, what organizational structure will work best, should I have an outside committee member from some prestigious institution or just stick with the people I have here, and on and on the list goes.
I did at least do some work yesterday as I added to my stack of 3×4 cards. My advisor has been stressing efficiency for a long while now. Ideally this means work from my exams can end up in the dissertation and papers I will be presenting at various national conferences this fall will be taken out of or directly put into the dissertation. So to my stack of cards I added the paper and panel titles. I should also go ahead and print out a call for submissions that is looking mighty interesting right now — a friend/colleague and I are talking about combining our forces and submitting something to a journal, so ideally the information in that article would find its way into the dissertation too.
In truth I am not sure if striving for efficiency and redundancy ends up being all that efficient in the end. Sometimes it just feels like you spend more time reshaping and recrafting an essay to fit into a chapter than if you just had started the chapter anew. I might be wrong about this, or maybe I have just been going about it all wrong in the past. Perhaps this is another skill I will need to work on in the coming year.
Is it sick in a good way or in a bad way that I am so very excited to meet with my advisor tomorrow??? I guess I am just so excited because I know that this type of big picture thinking is the area in which he really, really shines. Ultimately that skill of his is why I chose to come here.
I had some good moments of work this weekend and then some not so good moments.
Saturday was really good – I was in the zone. 100% of my attention was directed towards thinking through various aspects and possibilities for the dissertation. I have lots of ideas/potential diss components written on note cards, but the other two things my advisor asked me to do did not happen. In my hours and hours of thinking I realized two things: #1. I think that as it stands right now my ‘working’ research question is too broad. #2. I really like one of my dissertation parts better than the other.
I should explain that my diss as envisioned right now is in two parts. We shall call them “outside” and “inside.” I have fun with both sections, but I really do like the inside stuff more. However, I do think both portions are necessary. Furthermore, I really should be working on the “outside” part first (and soon) as I have two national conferences I will be attending (one fall and one in the winter) and papers to give related to that portion of the dissertation.
Saturday’s deep thinking was good and ultimately it will be productive, but it was an odd time. I felt like I had gone too far down the rabbit hole. In the future I think I need to do that kind of thinking aloud with another person present - I believe that processing aloud would help when it comes to feeling like the needle has gotten stuck in a particular groove of thought. Also, having someone else around for the thinking/talking would be helpful in terms of bringing me out of that deep, dark, quiet hole. After a long day of thinking I had plans for dinner, movie, and other assorted recreations with friends. It was really hard to be social Saturday night because I had just been in such mental isolation and mental fixation for so long.
Sunday, by comparison, felt like a lost cause. On Saturday I found myself in a few stuck places with various dissertation thoughts and aspects of the project. When I went back to them on Sunday, well, nothing had changed. I tried some of my usual get working and thinking tricks and those did not do it. So I washed and waxed the car hoping that doing mindless tasks would allow my brain to wander out of its stuck places. Nope. After a while I just gave up and read for the class I am teaching and watched some movies for “research purposes.”
This morning it was back to the index cards and back to the thinking for a bit before I had to head out to the writing center to work. Hopefully when I get home my brain will allow me to get to some new places of thought with the diss.
Yesterday I had my first meeting about the dissertation with my advisor. I have been feeling like a slacker because I’ve done little in the way of work on or concrete thinking about the dissertation since I completed my exams. In truth I have spent the past month and a half focusing on my teaching, taking a bit of a vacation, and just relaxing — this is all highly uncharacteristic behavior, for I am a person who makes lists, sets deadlines, and loves crossing things off of “to do” lists. While I have been feeling bad about my self for my slacker behavior, my advisor was pretty pleased with the fact I have been taking some down time.
Now, however, now I have purpose!
The conversation with my advisor was a good one. We covered everything I listed in last week’s post and some additional items – a discussion of the time line. So now it will be on to the actual work. My advisor wanted me to write-up one page of an intro to the diss and one paragraph summaries of how I saw each chapter functioning within the dissertation. This task seemed a bit overwhelming or premature to me at this point. It felt a bit awkward telling him that doing that did not seem like the right step for me, but as I was able to tell him why, it was not so scary. Right now I feel like I have so many things I can include in my dissertation that we need to begin my sorting through what goes into the diss and what gets tossed out. For next week I am going to write all potential content topics on index cards – titles of books, titles of movies, background pieces, desired data, theoretical frameworks, etc – and we will begin playing around with those.
More and more I am coming to see this dissertation as a document that needs to be completed rather than something to which I am wholly wedded. My ideas and my argument – those are the things which matter. Beyond those aspects I think it will be best if I remain pretty flexible and remember that while the diss will one day become the first book, for now the dissertation is just that – a document signifying a rite of passage.
For the most part I am an organized person. Most times I will show up to a meeting with my advisor with a list of things to be discussed or things we need to figure out. Right now, however, I am a bit overwhelmed by the number of things I feel like I need to discuss with my advisor or issues we just need to cover before I can even get started writing.
Here is a a bit of a list of things I have put together for discussion. Some of these I have pulled from various books and others I have culled from the experiences of other dissertation writers over the past few years. If you have ones you think I should add to this list please place them in the comments section.
Setting ground rules and boundaries with your advisor
MEANS OF COMMUNICATION
How often will the advisor and advisee communicate?
- What form will it take? – email, in-person meetings, discussions over coffee, video chat, phone calls?
How will the advisor and advisee keep track of and record the various decisions that get made about the dissertation?
- Might you set up a shared document file in which you both contribute to the list of decisions that have been made?
- Will the advisor or the advisee be the one to take notes during the meeting?
- Is the advisee responsible for sending his or her advisor and email after the meeting documenting what took place and the decisions that were made? Might the advisor be the one to do this?
- Might you write these things up together at the end of each meeting?
- Whatever gets decided, keep it consistent.
Will the advisor and advisee set a schedule and firm deadlines or will things be more flexible in terms of the advisee emailing the advisor a few days before he or she is ready to turn in a draft of a chapter?
- What will the advisor’s turn-around time be when the advisee turns in a draft? Two weeks? Ten days?
What does the advisor need to know about how the advisee works or what techniques are best for motivating the writer? Guilt? Rewards? Sternness? Similarly, what does the advisor need to know about what does not work – what should he or she never say to the advisee.
UPDATES AND COMMUNICATION
It is important for the advisor and advisee to clarify just how much the advisor wants to know about the writing process.
- Does the advisor want to know when you are having problems with the dissertation? When you aren’t going to meet a deadline? When you are having difficulty with other committee members? When you don’t understand something?
The advisor and advisee should establish whether or not it is okay for the advisee to share drafts with other readers and just who these other reader might be?
- Is it okay to show chapters to other committee members?
- Does the advisor want you working with your writing center weekly or for you to be a part of a dissertation writing group?
- Is the advisor the reader?
PURPOSE OF THE DISSERTAION
It is important that the advisor and the advisee have the same vision as to what the purpose of the dissertation happens to be. This is perhaps the most important thing to establish.
- Is the dissertation a draft of the advisee’s first book?
- Is the diss simply a type of test that the advisee needs to pass in order to be granted the Ph.D. degree?
- Is it a document that demonstrates the advisee’s capacity to do research or it is the culmination of the advisee’s scholarly work and the best research the advisee will ever produce?