Regina Sierra Carter recently graduated with her doctorate in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Read more about Regina here.
When I first began my appointment as one of the 2015-2016 Phillips Exeter Academy Dissertation Year Fellows, I was psyched. I was blessed to receive free housing, a free meal plan (vacay from the kitchen… Woot! Woot!), stipend, travel funds, and a dedicated office space in the renowned Class of 1945 Library. To top that off, I did not have any teaching or grading responsibilities. No one forced me to be anywhere or do anything except finish my dissertation. It was heavenly.
Every morning between 7:30am-8:00am (after chowing down in one of two on-campus dining halls) I cranked out chapters in the library, dipped out for lunch at 11:30am sharp, and returned to my apartment around 6pm. My first few months were highly productive. I had laser-like focus. Writing was a privilege rather than a pain. I worked like a mad black woman on a mission because I was.
Allow me to explain... I was working on my doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign during a time of financial uncertainty. By spring 2015, I had applied for a number of fellowships and had not received one single offer. Not one.
I was praying, fasting, and holed up in my apartment feeling angry. I did not dare to venture out too regularly because I was afraid somebody would ask me about my funding for next year, and I knew that I might pop off on them. So going out and broadcasting my business at that time was not an option…for my sanity and society’s overall well-being.
Finally, I had a breakthrough. After engaging in a series of interviews, I was offered a fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy. Hallelujah!!! I was praise dancing in my apartment and having a clap happy party at my crib. Thank You JESUS!!!
I was (and am) ecstatic that my financial concerns for 2015-2016 academic year have been addressed. By the time I officially accepted the fellowship, Illinois was in dire financial straits. A budget still had not been passed. That’s when I made up my mind that this was the final year that I would allow myself to hustle to obtain my doctorate. I was fed up being irritable and living on a shoestring budget. I wanted to live life more abundantly. I figured that the only way I could do so was to be done with my dissertation.
Fear, exhaustion, and anger involving Illinois’ financial woes motivated me to do something I had never done before—to write fast and furiously. No one in any shape or form was going to get in the way of my completing my degree. I had a “You don’t want none, son!” mentality.
I was ready to knock some blocks and was so focused on fending off external foes that I failed to realize that internal forces could sabotage my progress. In sum, my enemy was really my “inner me”—got that from a sermon way back when. Like I said before, I began my fellowship with laser-like focus. That should have ensured my success.
However, this was my first experience with boarding school culture, and I was eager to learn how things worked. I was ready to meet new people. So... I attended faculty events and student performances--even though this wasn’t required. Additionally, I tried to maintain very close ties with my kinfolk. Every single day I called my family (in the morning and at night) to engage in what was supposed to be speedy check-ins. However, these check-ins mutated to lavish news reports and hour-long lectures, which went like this... “See, this is what happened to so-and-so.” “Yeah, girl… you work on that PhD because I’m about to get my MRS.”
You get the picture.
I needed to get a handle on how I made myself accessible and to whom. That’s when I began to think deeply about “disappearing.”
Tips to (Thoughtfully) Disappear:
1. Avoid people like the plague. Arrange to go out when mostly everyone else is indoors. Instead of shopping during primetime, make Walmart and Target runs in the middle of the night or wee hours of the morning. Not only is there less people traffic, there should be fewer vehicles on the road. It’s a win-win. My only caveat is that you have to be safe about doing stuff at odd hours. I’m just keeping it 100.
2. Case the joint. No, I am not saying that you only need to peer out the peephole to your apartment to ensure that nobody is lurking in the hallways. I am talking about everywhere. Instead of just going to the cafeteria, employee break room, or wherever to grab some grub or socially acceptable drink, I am asking you to pay attention to who is out and about. Plus, you need to see what said person(s) are doing. My colleague, DeWitt Scott, has written about the types of folks you may encounter in graduate school. There are also real-world personalities. (No, I am not suggesting that graduate school is not the real world. However, outside of graduate school, you will meet, work with, and even live with some interesting characters.) Pinpoint the talkative folks and the time suckers. Steer clear of them. Look to see if there is some tucked away corner when you can eat, drink, and catch a breather in peace. Pinpoint this place and keep it under wraps. Don’t tell nobody! After you handle your business, slip out.
3. ID Your Caller. Speaking of sneaking in and out of social spaces, you need to be savvy about your phone. Pre-screen calls and don’t pick up on folks who don’t know how to hang up—especially if you have an impending deadline. Explain to loved ones that you will be accepting calls/answering emails at specified periods of the day/night for X amount of time. After you deliver the news, stick with it. This might sound cruelly calculating, but it’s necessary. Remember: you are practicing social abstinence. It’s temporary. Once you are done with the dissertation, life will (hopefully) resume its regularly scheduled programming.
4. Mean mug. If you must go out during peak periods of the day and really do not have time for distractions, look (and act) determined. Make minimal eye contact. Have a writing utensil, notepad, or electronic device that you consult constantly. However, please don’t be one of those overly distracted people who are oblivious to dangers like changing crosswalk signs, fast-approaching automobiles, or pets on a rampage who is ready to munch on an unsuspecting graduate student who is too preoccupied to notice s/he is about to be lunch, dinner, or simply a snack. Need I say more?
5. Go Ghost. Hideout in your living space. The first tip I shared was to handle your business at odd hours of the day and night to avoid distractions. What I did not mention is that when you do go out, please stock up on supplies. When I made my grocery store runs, I did so on sale days and stockpiled essential food items and toiletries. Although I am blessed to have a meal plan, I do not always use it. I discovered that some days (and even some weeks) it is better to maintain a low profile. So I had my staples—bread, milk, cheese, meat, etc.—in the fridge along with some sweet n’ salty snacks. I had gym equipment in my closet. My entertainment was covered--Amazon Prime was just a click away. There was no need for me to go anywhere or do anything but glue my derriere to a cushioned chair and write.
During my last semester, I figuratively disappeared. I stayed indoors, “talked” with my family via text, and adhered to a strict writing schedule. When I finally re-emerged, people seemed surprised. They were like, “Where have you been?” My response: “Oh, I have been hiding.” I always smile when I say this. However, I am straight up serious. I was a mad black woman on a mission. I was not going to let nothing or nobody (not even me) stand in the way of my obtaining my degree.
What unconventional strategies have you utilized to ensure the timely (whatever that means) completion of your dissertation?
[Image from Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons License]
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