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My Dissertation Sweater

If your dissertation were an object, what would it be?

September 11, 2014

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is the Managing Editor of GradHacker and recently completed her PhD in modern Chinese history at UC Irvine. Follow her on Twitter @mauracunningham

Two years ago, I attended a summer school at Heidelberg University on doing scholarship using material objects as sources. At the end of our one-week institute, one of the professors asked all the graduate students in the room to answer this question: “If your dissertation were an object, what would it be?”

An enthusiastic, if intermittent, knitter, I replied that my dissertation was a hand-knit sweater. At the time, I knew a lot more about knitting sweaters than I did about writing dissertations, but now that I’ve finished and filed mine, I think that my dissertation-is-a-sweater metaphor was pretty much on target.

When I learned to knit, about a year before starting my PhD, knitting an adult-sized sweater seemed an impossible undertaking, just like writing a dissertation did when I was a first-year graduate student. Sweaters (and dissertations) are so big! So complicated! I’d have to learn so many different techniques! How could I ever think of tackling that kind of project?

Most new knitters don’t jump into the deep end and attempt a sweater as their first project: they build their skills. Scarves, hats, socks—these are all smaller, more attainable objects that taught me the techniques that I would later use in sweater knitting, just as writing research papers and literature reviews during my years of coursework would prepare me for dissertation writing.

Eventually, I was ready to do something bigger: I had proven I could handle small projects and could move on to a more ambitious one. I picked a sweater pattern (dissertation topic) and gathered my materials (sources), then nervously cast on (started writing).

In both cases, I battled bad bouts of impostor syndrome. I spent way too much time on Ravelry (which is basically Facebook for knitters) scrolling through photos of sweaters-in-progress that other knitters had posted and comparing my work to theirs, always feeling that my growing sweater looked lumpy and homemade next to their professional-caliber knits. Similarly, reading other scholars’ dissertations was helpful in teaching me what a thesis should look like, but also made me worry about the quality of my own scholarship. Eventually, I just had to trust that I truly had developed the skills I would need to complete these projects and that I could handle them.

So I kept going. And going. And going. Knitting an adult-sized sweater is interesting at the beginning, when you form the neckline and divide for the sleeves, but then you have to knit the torso, which feels endless. Back and forth, back and forth (for a cardigan), or around and around and around (for a pullover), and you start to think: I’m never going to finish this thing. Anyone who is working on a dissertation will be familiar with this feeling.

And then, suddenly, one day I took a step back and realized that I had done way more than I thought and was, in fact, at a point where I could see a faint light at the end of the tunnel. The body of the sweater (dissertation) was done, and I just needed to knit the sleeves (or write the introduction and conclusion of the dissertation). This, in fact, took more time than I expected (arms are longer than you’d think!), but I felt like things were flying by after the slog of the middle section. Almost before I was ready to let go of the project, I was finished—the only thing left to do was block the sweater (wash and shape it), or, in the case of my dissertation, laboriously work through my school’s formatting requirements for the final manuscript.

Of course, I, like almost all knitters and dissertation-writers, had some setbacks along the way. Knitters misread the pattern or drop a stitch, while dissertation-writers realize that something just isn’t working out the way they had planned. In some cases, these glitches can be fixed with minor surgery to the piece (“tinking back,” in knitting parlance), while other situations require you to undo hours and hours of work (“frogging,” to knitters ... because you “rip it, rip it”). Frogging a big section of knitting, or deleting pages and pages of carefully written words, can be really demoralizing and sometimes tempt the knitter/writer to abandon the project altogether. This is where community—a knitting circle or writing group—can make all the difference, as members support each other through the tough times and help them focus on their achievements, not dwell on setbacks.

It’s also important to own your accomplishments. When my mother admired the sweater I knit for myself, I resisted her praise, instead pointing out all the little things I thought I had messed up—none of which she (a non-knitter) could see. I’ve found the same goes for dissertation-writers when people congratulate us on finishing: we’re often quick to talk down our own work or say how much better it could have been if we’d just had more time. But knitting a sweater and finishing a dissertation are both big accomplishments, and we should smile and say “thanks” when someone expresses their congratulations.

Unfortunately, there’s one final way that a dissertation is like a hand-knit sweater: both will give you a nice case of carpal-tunnel syndrome if you’re not careful. Right now, my knitting needles are sitting unused in a basket next to my desk, waiting for the day when I can cast on my next project. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be something small, like a hat—after finishing a dissertation, I’m not quite ready to tackle another sweater.

So, GradHacker readers, if your dissertation were an object, what would it be? Leave your answers in the comments or tag them on Twitter with #MyDissertationIsA.

[Image via Flickr user milele and used under a Creative Commons license]

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