As we count down to 2013, I think this is sage advice for all of us who feel a little stuck or in a place of transition. As I try to get through the dissertation process and decide what the path forward looks like, I have had many a sleepless night wondering “What if?” and “What’s next?”. No one knows that answer. But the best we can do is to jump enthusiastically and purposefully forward with the hope that if we follow our internal compass, the net will be there to guide us safely to the ground.
This post is a little late, but I feel like it’s still important to share…
After the comps extravaganza, I became a candidate. I felt flustered and happy. I felt a little bit like this. However, knowing the dangerous chasm that lies between accomplishment and satisfaction (or, rather, resting on one’s laurels), my advisor and I had a meeting almost immediately to start planning next steps. Don’t get me wrong, there was a little happy dance of celebration. But, “student” to “candidacy” means that I have hit the stage where dissertation will be the sole focus. It is a milestone, not an endpoint to the journey.
In that meeting, we discussed many things: timeline, logistics, and the next steps in firming up a dissertation committee. We also discussed the need for self-motivation and the huge swing in self-efficacy that must take place in order to keep yourself on deadline when no one external is assigning due dates. To sum up the sometimes intangible nature of the dissertation, my advisor compared the process to Winnie the Pooh chasing the Heffalump: a process filled with mystery, some hysterics, misperceptions, and ambiguity. You have to have faith that the Heffalump exists, and moreover, be persistent in your pursuit.
“Arms out at chest height. Shift your weight onto one foot. Lift your opposite leg from the hip. Cross one foot over the other. Shift your weight onto that foot. Glide.” No, I wasn’t re-learning how to walk. It was my weekly skating lesson and doing crossovers was a lot more complicated than it looked. Persistence, however, comes in handy for a whole host of activities, from ice skating to dissertation writing. And time on task counts. In his recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell repeatedly references the “10,000-Hour Rule,” his hypothesis that success or mastery of a skill is there for anyone willing to practice for the aforementioned number of hours. I don’t aspire to mastery, nor do I have that kind of time at this stage of my life to devote to ice skating; however, about 3 hours of instruction and close to 30 hours of practice have yielded graceful, tick-tock gliding, one step crossovers, and backward swizzles – none of which I was able to do six weeks ago. Of course, part of my progress has been due to “just in time” feedback from one very experienced coach. The kind of on the spot, timely feedback Doug Reeves recommends that teachers give students in classrooms and that instructional leaders look for from teachers as they visit classrooms. As for the 30 hours of practice? Well, for that I have to thank Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian born psychologist who first defined flow, the state of being totally absorbed in a voluntary activity that challenges the mind and/or body. Concentrating on remaining upright while listening to directions and attempting to twist all parts of my body into the positions my skating teacher has just so effortlessly demonstrated, is both absorbing and challenging for me. Time dissolves. There’s no room in my brain for anything else. Just this movement. Just this challenge. Just this moment. It’s self re-enforcing, almost addictive.
It’s billed as a distraction-free writing time. There’s a pledge to sign, a basket to park your cell phone, and a vast silence broken only by the clicking of computer keys, the turning of pages, and the occasional clink of shifting ice as some poor soul tries to unobtrusively pour a glass of water from one of those diabolical plastic jugs. (A great goal, but impossible.) It’s Lehigh’s dissertation boot camp and one of the best of many activities organized by the Graduate Life Office. After a full breakfast, replete with plenty of protein, fruit, and grad student fuel (read coffee) there’s always a motivational speaker to kick off the day. This morning, Greg Skutches, Lehigh’s Writing Across the Curriculum Coordinator, spoke to the group. I collect quotes, so the one he started off his presentation with made me laugh out loud, “You either wrote today. Or you didn’t.” His advice was practical and included such commonsense tips as organizing one or two writing spaces where all you do is write, resist temptations to clean up your writing site instead of writing, limit your social interactions, write every day, and give yourself permission to write an awful first draft. He even referenced one of my go-to researchers on scholarly writing, Robert Boice.
Choosing a research topic and appropriate research methodology seems so straightforward in the textbooks. Identify an area in which you have an interest and one you can “live with” through the lengthy dissertation process. Read broadly in your area to detect gaps in the literature. Formulate a question that will help fill the aforementioned gap. Tailor the methodology to fit the research question(s). It all seems so logical and, well, linear. Recently, as an “in-process” dissertation writer, I was invited to speak to an online research methods class, on how I chose an area, identified research questions, and selected a methodology. Immediately, I felt a sense of what Stephen Brookfield terms “impostership.” What did I know about it? My process certainly hadn’t been straightforward or linear. Pictures, not words, came to mind. Multifaceted stones, hexagonal soccer balls, lush jungles, interlocking gears, and Ferris wheels represented the process far better than paths or stairs.
A meeting with the chair of my committee and my qualitative advisor last week yielded the kind of reading recommendations that make you appreciate why experts are called experts. Annette Lareau’s qualitative work on social class and family engagement with school would relate directly to my dissertation topic and methodology. And, to make matters even better, Lehigh’s library had both. The e-brary offered the kind of instant gratification to which most of us have become accustomed: the first book was available and with a quick click took up residence on my electronic bookshelf. Wandering the stacks for the second book had pleasures of its own, instant and otherwise: finding it amidst an array of fascinating titles on the neighboring shelves, dropping all the grad student paraphernalia on the nearest comfy couch, kicking off my clogs to curl up like a cat in a patch of sunlight, and diving into its contents right away.
Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education (2000) is an account of Lareau’s time spent in two schools, one in a working class neighborhood and the other in an upper middle-class neighborhood. Building on French sociologist, Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital, her data and analysis demonstrate that middle class families activate a wider variety of resources and choose to intervene at key points in their children’s education than do working class parents, resulting in a substantially different (read advantaged) educational experience for their children.
Although the desktop on my laptop sometimes resembles a crazy quilt, most of the time articles and files are clearly labeled, dated, and neatly filed into folders. I’ve learned the hard way that the extra few minutes spent in organization pays off in efficiency down the road as the folders fill, especially with research articles for the dissertation literature review. Making the switch from printing, highlighting, and annotating hard copies has come slowly; however, creating a digital version of “file cards” (the “making sense” part of the literature review) has been much easier.
There’s a lot of information to extract and record in any comprehensive research review: for instance, the citation, type of study, subjects, sample and population, instruments, results, and the reviewers’ own notes as well as salient quotes. Categories can vary, of course, depending upon the needs of each dissertation writer.
Aisles of school supplies, shoes sales, and seven-thirty am school buses on the streets – all September signs of that most familiar fall ritual – back to school for kids of all ages. My youngest nephew turned five this summer, so, armed with a new Spiderman backpack, he started Kindergarten this week. The 22 thousand students in the Bethlehem Area School District started school last Tuesday. Lehigh’s campus, so quiet and sleepy all summer, is suddenly alive with a wave of undergraduates, almost five thousand of them. As for Lehigh’s graduate students, over two thousand of us, well there’s really no “back to school” for us – grad school never really stops. Courses may end; exams may be taken, passed or not, even retaken; deadlines may be set, extended, or shifted; but the dissertation has a life and a timeline all its own, more dependent upon the motivation, enthusiasm, and sheer persistence of the author than on arbitrary dates.
So, as much as I’m tempted to get juicy new highlighters, fresh notebooks, and a spiffy new book bag, there’s really no need. The old will do just fine, as I try to put the dissertation process back on track after a summer of teaching, researching and writing curriculum, vacationing and moving. Don’t get me wrong, I have great advisors, a wonderful support system, and a shelf full of books on how to “do” dissertation work. The sage advice in the latter runs the gamut from how to structure the work itself to how to manage and motivate yourself in the process.