Sunday, July 7, 2013

Planning the Dissertation: Part II

"Free Me," Free Cooper Union march and rally, December 2012, New York City

A little over a year ago, I wrote "Planning the Dissertation," a somewhat serious, somewhat satirical, post on the process of charting out my destiny for the next half-decade of my life! That was May 2012, when at Stony Brook I was actually presenting my dissertation prospectus. At that time, my prospectus had just been finalized and approved and I was ready, finally, after three years of coursework in my Ph.D. program (plus another three semesters of graduate work from a previous M.A.), to begin writing my dissertation.

It was a moment of great excitement and great trepidation. The excitement part was contained mostly in my dreams: dreams about the adventurous journeys I would take to the Pacific Ocean to conduct research (yes, research in the archives can still be an "adventure" even if you're inside an air-conditioned room for eight hours every day). The trepidation part concerned what I call Pacing and Benchmarking: how was I going to finish this damn thing in a timely manner, or just finish it at all? So in my May 2012 post I attempted to chart out how I could finish the dissertation in exactly 24 months...up to the moment when my funding would run out and I became just another unemployed American.

Well, now it is over twelve months later, and I have inevitably pushed that goalpost back a year. Now I'm shooting to finish the dissertation in spring 2015. I do not have guaranteed funding up to that point, but I am cautiously optimistic that I can throw things together and still have enough income to keep food in my belly. Anyway, with my goalpost set at spring 2015, this means that I will be throwing myself into the lion's den of the Academic Job Market in the year 2014-2015—just one academic year away. And while I may be unemployed at the time, my goal is to at least be employable: so that, if I can line up an academic job somewhere by the end of spring 2015 when I turn in my dissertation for a flimsy piece of paper with the words "Doctor of Philosophy" on it, I can at least rest assured that while I'm blowing my life's savings just surviving through my sixth year of graduate school, I know that there will be a real job coming around the next corner.

So the goalpost is now pushed back a year. And the benchmarking has changed, too. In May 2012 I thought that my dissertation would have five chapters. Now it has seven chapters!! WHY?! People keep saying to me, "Why are you writing seven chapters? You know you only have to write five to make it a 'decent' dissertation, right?" Others gently nudge me, "You know it doesn't have to be perfect, right? It doesn't have to be a masterpiece." And then I hear from senior scholars, "oh, well, you are going to be spending the next five years or more of your life still working on this same project, turning your dissertation into a book, so don't feel like you have to throw everything you've got at it just yet."

Somehow these words do not comfort me. I am not even sure that they provide helpful direction. When you're in the middle of the dissertation, you can hardly see what the world looks like beyond it. There is just one small opening to escape from the dissertation tunnel—well, two openings actually—one door is marked "Defend and Graduate" while the other is marked "Drop Out." Like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, these doors feature blurry images of my future self and what my life will look like on the other side of the door. I know that, for me, only the "Defend and Graduate" door leads to a happy life. (I've dropped out of enough things in my life that the Ghost of Christmas Past knows that I don't really need to experience that feeling all over again.)

All this is to say that when you're in the dissertation, you're in it, and you're running and racing towards that one golden door to a promising yet uncertain future. I can't think right now of what it will feel like to be still working on this same damn project for five more years, or ten more years, after completing the dissertation, because such an awful thought actually diminishes the luster of the golden door, and when I can no longer see the door, then I stop running towards it, and I take the other door. So I must keep the "Defend and Graduate" door golden...and to do so is, yes, to willfully ignore the realities of the job market and the realities of tenure and the realities of all that is awful that is yet to come, and to focus only on what I stand to gain rather than what I will lose from the process of turning in my dissertation and putting on that cap and gown.

The good news is that my dissertation is progressing at a pace that I am satisfied with, and that the golden door is coming into view, slowly but surely.

So let's look at my Pacing and Benchmarking plan from May 2012 and see how I've done so far in the past fourteen months meeting my goals.

Summer 2012
GOAL: primary research for whaling chapter; two weeks of archival research in California
RESULTS: I probably didn't do as much reading on whaling as I should have, nor did I translate as many Hawaiian-language sources as I could have, but I did spend two weeks in California last summer (as detailed in my "California Research Adventure" travelogue!), acquainting myself with both the Bancroft and Huntington Libraries, as well as seeing the historic Gold Country first-hand and meeting a number of other great Hawaiian history scholars at a conference in San Diego. (You can read all about this in the four installments of my CA Research Adventure.) So, all in all, a good summer.

Fall 2012
GOAL: finish writing drafts of my chapter on whaling/guano and my chapter on California. Begin primary research for my sugar chapter—that is, translating Hawaiian-language sources
RESULTS: I did translate a number of sugar-related newspaper sources in the fall, and began at least thinking about sugar. But my whaling/guano chapter actually exploded into a huge mess. What was supposed to be just one chapter about Hawaiian maritime labor in both the whaling and guano industries became, well, by the time I had written over one hundred pages of text just about whaling, two separate chapters: one on whaling and one on guano. In the late Fall I turned in a version of my 99-page draft chapter on Hawaiian whaling labor to my advisor. He was sort of flabbergasted by the length of the chapter and threw it back at me with instructions to turn it into two separate chapters. So, by the end of the fall, I was now envisioning three chapters on whaling and guano where originally I had planned to have only one. Oy vey!
(Oh, and I didn't even touch the chapter on California.)

Winter 2013
GOAL: two weeks of archival research in Hawaiʻi
RESULTS: Done. I had to use all my own finances to get there. But it ended up being a very productive trip—our first time back in Hawaiʻi in three years. I wrote about the whole experience in my "Hawaiʻi Research Adventure" travelogue, a series of six blog posts. I became acquainted with the Hawaiʻi State Archives, the Hawaiian Mission Children's Society Library, the Bishop Museum Library, and the Hamilton Library at UH-Mānoa. And I got to meet lots of great people, including some new friends who helped me with my Hawaiian-language translations. All in all, a very good trip.

Spring 2013
GOAL: finish a full draft of my chapter on Hawaiʻi, and begin research for my chapters on the Hawaiian body and the Hawaiian Pacific World
RESULTS: Well, this kind of all changed. There is no "chapter on Hawaiʻi" anymore—which I think must have been my proposed chapter about sugar. Rather, there are now two separate chapters on Hawaiʻi-based economies: one on sandalwood, and the other on sugar. But these chapters are now on Hawaiʻi-China connections, rather than just Hawaiʻi. (So this is how I ended up with a seven-chapter dissertation!) Oh, also, I scrapped the idea for an introductory chapter on the Hawaiian Pacific World (because that would make eight chapters!); instead, that material will go into my Introduction.
But what I did begin this spring was drafting both chapters 2 and 7 which deal with the Hawaiʻi-China relations. By the end of the spring I had very rough drafts of both. But I did not yet have anything good to turn into my advisor (after that 99-page whaling chapter debacle).

Summer 2013:
GOAL: to win grants and fellowships so that I can do archival research this summer
RESULTS: A success. I won four different grants/fellowships in 2013 to conduct dissertation research. These awards will allow me to travel to California twice and to Hawaiʻi twice over the next twelve months. So get ready for more "California Research Adventures" and "Hawaiʻi Research Adventures"!
I have also, since school let out in May, worked on finishing up some solid chapter drafts for my advisor. I revised my 99-page whaling chapter as ordered and I now have two distinct chapters on Hawaiian whaling. One is about 45 pages long and the other 55 pages. I also finished my draft of chapter 2, on sandalwood and early Hawaiʻi-China connections. I am happy to report that I have dropped off all three chapters to my advisor this summer...and hopefully, if they are still bad, I can get back to work on them in the fall.

So that brings me up to the present moment. And here are my goals moving forward:

Summer 2013:
July-August: One month of research at the Huntington Library in California.
August-September: Three weeks of research in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, at various libraries and repositories.
WRITING: Finish full drafts of my chapter 5 (on guano), chapter 6 (on California), and chapter 7 (on sugar). If this is possible, it means that I will have only one more chapter to draft (chapter 1 on the history of the body) and then just my Introduction and Conclusion.

Fall 2013:
November: One month of research at the Bancroft Library in California.
Get back comments on my chapter 2 (on sandalwood), chapter 3 (whaling), and chapter 4 (whaling). Turn in chapters 5, 6, and 7.
Finish full draft of chapter 1 (on the body) and begin writing the Introduction.
The goal is that by December 2013 I have submitted a full draft of the dissertation to my advisor, minus the Introduction and Conclusion.

Spring 2014:
Revising any and all chapters as needed. Finish full draft of Introduction and Conclusion. Now the whole thing, in draft form, has taken shape. Once my advisor begins approving some of these chapters I can also begin to circulate them among other committee members and outside readers for further feedback. Here we are somersaulting towards the golden door of "Defend and Graduate"...

Summer 2014:
RESEARCH: Two final weeks in Hawaiʻi to check sources, get help with translations, and otherwise make sure that the dissertation research is solid.
(If possible, and if I've also got the funds to do so, I'd like to visit Samoa, site of a possible "second book project"—something I need to start thinking about before heading out on the job market where every potential employer wants to know, "So, after this Hawaiʻi thing, what will be your next project?"
Editing, revising, resubmitting, rethinking, rewriting, lots of tinkering.
Putting together my job portfolio and really, deeply thinking through how I want to present myself when I go on the market. Getting sound advice from others. Making sure my suit fits well.

Fall 2014:
No guarantee of funding at this point. And perhaps I just blew the rest of my money in Hawaiʻi and in Samoa. (Whoops.) But I need to survive just a little bit longer. Do odd jobs. Make things work. Make money!
RESEARCH: none. Unless I'm crafting ideas for that elusive "second book project."
Editing, revising, resubmitting, rethinking, rewriting, tinkering. Everyone should be reading my dissertation right now: my advisor, other committee members, outside readers.
I hope to defend my dissertation during the fall semester of 2014. This doesn't mean that the dissertation will be 100% complete. My committee can always say, "You passed, but you need to change this, this, and that." But completing the defense is a good strategy in the fall because as I go on the job market I can tell employers that yes, "I will have a Ph.D. in hand by May 2015. I guarantee it!"
Scanning the academic job market, near and far, high and low, and applying to as many jobs and job-related opportunities as possible. Now I've got a solid dissertation in hand as I go out there, I've got a dissertation defense, I've got writing samples, and I even have some good ideas for a "second book project."

Spring 2015:
Finish up everything that ever mattered (and even the stuff that seems to have no meaning or relevance) so that I can close the book on six years of doctoral study, and seven and a half years of total graduate study. Clean out my department office. Hopefully some employer somewhere contacts me and offers me something, even if it is just for a year...somewhere to go, so that when I box up the hundreds of books in my office, at least I know what to write in black marker on the outside of those boxes.

Now I can't really imagine what life is like after that moment. There is no escaping the deep, dark tunnel I am in right now. And the future is so uncertain—too uncertain—that I can't even know if I'll be moving far away at that point or moving back home with boxes piled up everywhere and a doctoral degree gathering dust on the floor.

All that is irrelevant now. Now is the time to keep marching. Forward ho!—to finish this dissertation with grace and style, or, if that's not possible, to simply ingest lots of sugar and caffeine and "go manic" and just finish the damn thing, so that I can walk across that stage, unshowered and unshaven but hooded in a freshly-scented doctoral robe.

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