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In one of the most powerful articles I have ever read about graduate education and academic life, scholar Susan Sidlauskas writes, “Dedicating yourself to a substantial, difficult project over a long period of time is transformative and will shape you permanently for the good. Building an idea from scratch changes you.”
As I worked on my dissertation, I read those lines over and over again. Eventually, I came to feel and believe them in my bones. The type of close looking, reading, thinking and writing we do over long periods of time can indeed change us. And it can be “for the good.” What I also learned is that the experience of building a dissertation -- the process itself -- deserves, even demands, space for serious reflection.
The messiness, the ups and downs, and the deeply personal and lived experience of creating something from scratch are components of academic work that we need to attend to, reflect on, learn from and share.
While I was a graduate student, I thought a lot about what we can do -- what levers we can push and pull -- from our positions with respect to our dissertations. One actionable (and doable) step I propose is that graduate students include a section in their dissertations specifically and explicitly about the dissertation process. This section could take many different forms and be part of dissertations in all different fields. Graduate students often include brief reflections as a component of their acknowledgments. What I am calling for is a much more expanded, prominent and perhaps even required component. And if you have already graduated, I would encourage you to write a section like this anyway -- to jot down some notes or record your thoughts and musings about your experience in some form.
Creating a document like this is valuable for many reasons. What follows are a few that I find most compelling.
First and most important, a dissertation section devoted to process can serve as a valuable tool for self-reflection on the process of producing a dissertation -- which, for many people, myself included, is the first large-scale, solo project developed from the ground up. Through writing about the process -- thinking through, sorting and digesting your ideas -- you may take stock of and glean new insight into your project, your work, your skills and your own evolution as a human being.
You might include a discussion of your motivations for doing the project and how they changed over time, how and why the project’s focus evolved, and how you overcame different challenges. You could also offer any key lessons you learned from guides and mentors from all parts of your life, as well as reflections on the value of the dissertation and graduate education more broadly. When developing a section like this for my own dissertation, I also wrote about moments when I felt lost and stuck as well as times of utter joy and reverie. I explored the value of questioning who my audience was and other assumptions about my work, my need to transform my relationship with writing, and how the project resonated with who I am and want to be. And I shared my thoughts on how we might reimagine what a dissertation is.
In the near and distant future, when the trials and tribulations of your dissertation experience slip into the past and rose-colored glasses cling to your face, this record will serve as a reference and reminder of your journey as you face new adventures ahead. With this at hand, you will also be better able to respond to someone else in the throes of their first massive undertaking with not simply pat phrases like, “everyone experiences it” or “enjoy this time while it lasts,” but with understanding, perspective and wisdom.
For Fellow Graduate Students, Mentors and Advisers
Second, such a document is a tool you can use to share your experiences with other students, as well as with mentors and advisers. I have told the story of the evolution of my project countless times to other graduate students, who have asked me about how my ideas developed and for insights into my psychological and emotional journey. I looked to older graduate students who shared glimpses of their own roller coasters, their ups and downs and in-betweens, when I was at the beginning, stuck or just feeling as if no one else had ever felt the way I did -- even though I rationally knew that not to be the case. Such conversations can be nourishing in the most ineffable of ways.
But to write something down does something different for you and for your reader. Such a document can be more comprehensive, returned to and marked up. I have shared the section of my dissertation entitled “The Evolution of the Project” with many graduate students and colleagues. It is remarkable what parts of my story resonate with different people and how each person I shared it with has used it in a different way, often depending on the stage of academic life they are in. Mentors and advisers have a lot to gain from engaging with these documents as well: as tools to reflect on the experience of their students, on their own work as advisers and on graduate teaching and advising more broadly, of which there is little literature to date.
To be able to see, hear and have a record of a diversity of experiences and approaches will allow for graduate students to feel -- with their abundant individual skills, experiences, backgrounds and interests -- that they too belong and can contribute as well as seek help. Imagine if students, and academics more broadly, were truly allowed and actively encouraged to be themselves and to lead with their own distinct strengths. How diverse and interesting the projects and scholarship could be, would be.
For Your Family, Friends and Anyone Who Does Not (Yet) Have a Ph.D.
Another important reason to reflect and write about the dissertation process is so people who don’t work on them or are unfamiliar with academe can gain insight into the types of work we do and why we do it. This is a great document to send to family members and friends to allow them into your world a bit more and to open up different types of dialogue. One family member whom I shared my own evolution section with remarked that, while she had heard about my dissertation over the years, in reading about my journey as a story, she gained insights into the mental and emotional work involved and a new sense of curiosity about what scholars do.
Graduate students are often asked, “What do you actually do?” Rather than shy away from these kinds of questions and consider them as an attack on certain values or decisions -- which, at times, they might indeed be -- we need to be able to answer this question head-on. We can approach it as if we were teaching and figure out, depending on the “student,” how best to explain it to someone who may not want to or be able to spend years devoted to research or writing. We can choose to view the “what do you do” question as one of curiosity rather than criticism. To be able to talk about the work we do outside the context and confines familiar to other graduate students and academics will allow us to more easily imagine the many potential values of the processes and skills involved.
As Princeton University Ph.D. and university trustee, entrepreneur, board director and educator Ann Kirschner powerfully asked in an article last year, “Is doctoral education only good for academic employment? Doesn’t the world need more, not fewer, thinkers and researchers who have devoted the time to a deep understanding of a field of knowledge and are committed to contributing to that knowledge? How could we add new value to graduate degrees -- and new variety to their prospects?”
Wouldn’t it better serve humanity to have people in all different sectors and positions who care about knowledge and the stewardship of cultures, value thorough research, know how to navigate and even embrace ambiguity, and are always learning? Graduate education has the potential to be -- and, indeed, it must become -- a training ground for incredible storytellers and leaders inside and outside academe. We must start by sharing our own stories.
In academe we don’t talk enough about how the sausage is made. It’s as if a dissertation, article, lecture or book come into existence through spontaneous generation. They’re presumed to arrive fully formed. It’s easy to forget about the process someone went through to produce the product that you hold in your hands or read on your screen. On top of this, many aspects of graduate education lack transparency and facilitation. It’s especially apparent during what can often feel like an abyss following coursework and general exams. The lack of safe and open dialogues about major components, such as the dissertation, probably contributes to the omnipresence and suppression of mental health issues among graduate students.
To brave the intellectual and emotional venture that is a dissertation, we as graduate students ultimately have to determine what works for ourselves individually and develop our own arsenal of tools. But why not openly share stories that can serve as references and offer tools from which we all can learn? We don’t need to figure it all out ourselves, over and over again.
If we share and build on what we each learn about what, how and why we do what we do, academe will have a chance at evolving into something that better serves us and the world.