Tuesday, September 25, 2012

State of the Dissertation update

One of the purposes of this blog is to provide a glimpse of what an academic's life looks like. To be honest, I'm not sure that's a picture I'm eager to share with you right now (at least not of this academic's life!). But I can at least tell you what I'm working on these days.

In my program, after all coursework and exams have been completed, the third year is devoted to writing something I've heard variously referred to as the "programmatic essay," the "dissertation proposal," or the "dissertation prospectus." Our program has undergone so many changes in recent years that I'm not entirely certain which of those terms I'm "supposed" to use, but for now, we'll just call it the proposal.

The dissertation proposal is what it sounds like: a document (in this case, no more than 25 pages) that proposes my chosen topic to a committee of faculty, including a justification for that topic (demonstrating that the field needs my research), my tentative argument, and an outline of the means I will use to prove that argument. Of course, at this stage, many aspects of this will be tentative. However, I need to satisfy the committee that my project is really something I can write a 200-page dissertation about.

One of my worst nightmares about this program was that I would arrive in my third year not knowing what I wanted to write about. It would be way too dramatic for me to claim that nightmare has come true. At no point have I been completely lost. Still, it has taken much longer, more discouragement, and more revisions to arrive at a topic than I had hoped (about six months). My topic is not yet at a stage that I'm prepared to unveil it publicly, but hopefully soon. :-)

I think there are several reasons it's been disappointingly hard to narrow down my topic; I won't delve into them all here. One conclusion I've reached, though, is that my dissertation will not be my dream project (and likely shouldn't be). The goal of the dissertation is to prove that I can undertake independent scholarly research on a high level. So the topic should be 1.) achievable and 2.) something I am content working on for two or three years. I don't expect to be in love with it (and it's a little late for that)...but I do hope I can sustain a reasonable amount of interest in it, for obvious reasons.

So, to break it down less wordily, the coming year should look like this:
Now-December: Drafting dissertation proposal
Sometime early in 2013: Presenting and defending proposal to a small committee
The remainder of Spring semester 2013: Completing research and starting to write the dissertation in earnest.

As for the nuts and bolts of it...it's really weird not being in classes anymore (with the exception of a seminar that meets Mondays to help us third-year students write our proposals). I think it takes a rare, exceptionally driven and disciplined student to manage the transition from coursework to dissertation gracefully. I can already tell you that is not me. I've had many more discouraged days than hopeful and productive ones, so far. But with God's grace I persevere. :-)

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