Thursday, May 17, 2012

Planning the Dissertation

Master of Degrees, Shackled by Debt!
1T Day [the day when student loan debt in the U.S. reached 1 trillion dollars], April 25, 2012 
Union Square, New York City

I have been in graduate school now, off and on, for the past five and a half years. When I received my first Masters degree in 2007, I completed that entire program in 15 months. But this time around, working on my Ph.D., I have been at it already three years and only just recently finished my coursework and exams. Having advanced to Ph.D. candidacy, there is only one thing left to do: write my dissertation.

All of this work is supposed to lead to something. But Ph.D. students sometimes have trouble keeping that endpoint in view. And of course, we hear from our elders that a Ph.D. is no longer worth what it once was a decade ago, even five years ago. There is no job waiting for us when we finish our degree.

So...let's just chill for a moment. Let's think about what a beautiful thing it is, after all this hard work, to have nothing left to do but write a really big dissertation that is all my own, and as long as I am writing that dissertation, I need not face the "real world" possibilities and pitfalls of the academic job market.

So how should I plan this dissertation project? How to make these next few years of my life worthwhile? How to make the whole thing fun, rather than stressful? How to write a really good dissertation, but not just that, but also, be happy about it?

Step 1: Pacing and Benchmarking

Students and graduates march through NYC's Financial District on 1T Day 
[the day when student loan debt in the U.S. reached 1 trillion dollars], April 25, 2012 

Some people take two years to write a history dissertation. Some take ten years. Some take even more. I have heard that the average nationally is something like seven years to complete a Ph.D. in history (including coursework and dissertation). In our department, I hear the average is more like nine.

My goal is two years (five, if you count the three previous years of coursework). Why? Well, first, because by the time I finish it will have been nine years since I graduated with my Bachelors degree. So, in a way, if you compare me up against someone who goes straight into a Ph.D. program after college, I will race to the finish just to match that not-so-hot average of nine years. To put it another way, when I graduated from college, I was a headstrong, idealistic 22-year-old. I wanted to go change the world. I was young. But when I receive my Ph.D. in the future, I will be in my thirties, married, still headstrong and idealistic, but certainly not out-of-my-socks if I were to say, "Am I still in school?!" Of course, that's why we get Ph.D.s, because we love school. We feel safe there. I wouldn't want to be a professor if I didn't love school and want to live the rest of my life on the school calendar. I guess I learned this from my dad, also a college professor, who always told me what a good life academics have. And I believed him, and I still do.

Anyway, who am I to complain about aging? Some people don't receive their Ph.D.s until they are in their 40s, or even older. If this is what I love - and it is, or at least it is part of what I love about life, but certainly not all of it! - then what's the problem with spending so much of my time doing it??

So, why two years? Not just to save myself some early gray hairs, but for another reason, too: because it may take longer than that!

Yup. I figure that planning to finish in two years might put me on track to actually finish in three. The earlier I get drafts of chapters to my advisor, the sooner I'll find out that those drafts are rubbish and need complete overhauling - months and months of editing and revisions. If I waited years before even turning in my first draft chapters, then that would push the whole thing back some years. So, it may not be realistic to finish the entire dissertation in two years, but striving for that goal will put me on track to finish it in no more than three years.

Lastly, why two years? Because that's when my funding runs out! :) A minor technical matter, for sure. Because, seriously, there is almost no difference between making $15,000 a year and zero dollars a year. Indeed, the difference between those two figures can't be more than the annual raise SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher gives herself every year. And if she says that that's not enough money to huff and puff over - and that is exactly what she says (or something close to it) - then how can I complain about getting zero dollars rather than $15,000 a year?

I don't blame SUNY for my troubles. I organize. I protest. Not that it is so bad for me, but it's worse for the undergraduates who are facing tuition increases and an upcoming mid-life crisis when they have to pay off all their student loan debt and interest.

But, sidetracked again. The goal is to write the dissertation. Whether I've got the funding to support that project or not, I've got to finish it on time. There is, also, the matter of outside funding. For my project, I need to travel to Hawaiʻi to do almost all of my research. But traveling from NYC to Hawaiʻi is not cheap. And yet funding agencies may not be that excited about giving thousands of dollars to a young dude from New York to spend months on the beach in Hawaiʻi doing "research." Of course they do know that I'll actually be inside a cold, sterile library everyday from 9am to 5pm, staring bleary-eyed at old documents written in bad handwriting in the Hawaiian language, right?! Now, does that sound like a vacation to you?! :)

So, we'll have to see about money issues. I may have to paddle out to Hawaiʻi on my own homemade "Kon Tiki" if it comes to that.

Pacing and Benchmarking, for real

A Cooper Union student, scaling the thirty-foot-high memorial to Peter Cooper, the founder of Cooper Union as a "free university" in 1859, protests the administration's effort to begin charging tuition for graduate students. He was later arrested by the NYPD.
1T Day [the day when student loan debt in the U.S. reached 1 trillion dollars], April 25, 2012 
Cooper Square, New York City

Cooper Union students cheer from the second-floor balcony of the Great Hall as hundreds of students rally below.
1T Day [the day when student loan debt in the U.S. reached 1 trillion dollars], April 25, 2012
Cooper Square, New York City

Okay. So how am I going to do it? This whole "two years" thing?

Here's my plan:

My dissertation is planned to be five chapters long. Two theoretical chapters, and then three more narrative ones. Plus an introduction and a short conclusion. The introduction and conclusion, of course, should come last. As for the five main chapters, I plan to focus on the three narrative chapters - my three case-studies first - and then hit up the two more theoretical chapters after I have exhausted all my evidence in the case studies. The idea here is that I am not going to have to do much primary research for the two theoretical chapters, because I will just put the juiciest stuff there from the three case studies, which will be heavily based upon primary sources. The theoretical stuff will require more secondary reading, and at this point I think that should come after I've done exhaustive amounts of primary research.

So, primary research and case studies first. Secondary research and theoretical writing second. Intro and conclusion third, including going back and conforming everything to the new overarching narrative and thesis.

Summer 2012:
Primary research (aka summer reading): whaling
Travel: two weeks in California; archival research
Add to this that I am teaching a summer course, getting married, and honeymooning during the summer. So not much dissertation action this summer!

Fall 2012:
Teaching Assistantship (pro: $; con: holds me down to NY instead of traveling to do research)
Chapters due by November 1, 2012: 3 (on California); 4 (on whaling/guano).
Primary research: sugar

Winter 2013:
Usually I teach a winter course to make some $, but now I need to travel to do archival research
Travel: at least two weeks in Hawaiʻi; archival research

Spring 2013:
Teaching Assistantship
Chapter due by April 1, 2013: 5 (on Hawaiʻi)
Secondary research: the body & the Pacific World

Summer 2013:
Now, during the 2012-2013 school year I will be applying to as many grants and fellowships as possible. The best outcome will be if I receive enough funds to spend the entire summer conducting research. Worst possible outcome: I could stay in NY and work for $, but by this point I need to really, really, really jump into the, worst possible outcome: I spend my savings to live and study in Honolulu for a summer. (Fingers crossed: please, higher power out there, give me a fellowship!)
Travel: months somewhere, perhaps Hawaiʻi, perhaps California, perhaps Massachusetts. All would be great, and whichever one I end up with will lead the dissertation in a different direction. The key is to be open-minded, patient, and accepting of whatever comes my way!
I should go out there with a cardboard sign: "Will research Hawaiian history for $."

Fall 2013:
Teaching Assistantship (unless I have secured funding to be somewhere else doing research)
Chapters due by November 1, 2012: 1 (on Pacific World); 2 (on the body)

Winter 2014:
Hopefully there is no need to travel anymore at this point, because I will have swept all the archives clean of every morsel of data relevant to my dissertation. But if there is still funding, then I will travel. Indeed, if there was funding for five years for this project, I would take five years to do it.
Travel? If not, then I hunker down in my cave below the noisy streets of NYC and meditate upon the dissertation in its entirety. I will try and visualize the thing in my mind and hold it altogether like a ball of energy. I will see the interconnectedness of every chapter, every page, every word, every character, every pixel, until I am the dissertation and the dissertation is me.


Spring 2014:
At some point early in the semester, I submit the full draft, including the introduction and conclusion, to my committee.
I schedule the dissertation defense.
I get ready to graduate.
I continue to make whatever changes are necessary to graduate.
Go, go, go, go, go, go, go.


My Reactions to the Dissertation Plan

Students burn loan documents in an act of civil disobedience
1T Day [the day when student loan debt in the U.S. reached 1 trillion dollars], April 25, 2012 
Union Square, New York City

It's crazy.
It's impossible.
I'm gonna go broke and have to wait tables.
Good reason to just give up now.
I'd be better off occupying Wall Street.
Or occupying the SUNY administration building.

"I call for a general strike of all dissertators!"

"Ph.D. students of the World unite!"

No. Really, it's an okay plan. One problem I already foresee is that when Spring 2014 comes around, and I submit the dissertation, defend it, and graduate, if that's the plan, then what? I haven't scheduled anytime in there for going on the job market, interviewing, getting that awesome tenure-track job lined up for Fall 2014. And do I really want to receive the Ph.D. without any plan for my future? Some people do it. They adjunct for a year while devoting all their energy to playing the job market.

Certainly if I am close to finishing by Spring 2014, I could then hit the brakes and slow it down to take an extra year - although I will still have to adjunct to make $ either way - and then take my time working the job market. So, I guess there isn't much difference between these two options. No matter what, in two years I will need a job. Some kind of job. Any job.


Any readers have suggestions for me? Do you already have a Ph.D. and want to offer some sage advice? Or are you in the same boat and want to offer your alternative proposal? Or do you perchance know of an awesome grant or fellowship for dissertation research in Hawaiian or Pacific history? I'd love to receive your comments.

Best of luck to all dissertators. "And may the odds be ever in your favor...

1 comment:

  1. Student debt is certainly one of the biggest problems many grad students are facing. And worse, some can’t graduate in time because of it. So, it would be wise to really plan your dissertation carefully. Otherwise, you might find yourself in a more difficult situation that just worrying about student debt.