Monday, December 31, 2012

Reflecting on 2012

On the whole, 2012 is a year I'll remember as having been pretty difficult.

Academically speaking, there have been considerable highs and lows. Spring semester was unbelievably stressful, yet I was proud of myself for accomplishing everything I set out to do: completed coursework, passed my Greek exam, passed comprehensive exams.
On the other hand, since June, I've watched (almost) my worst-case scenario play out. Carving out a dissertation topic has proven even more difficult and frustrating than I'd thought it would be. At some points, I've had doubts about my vocation. Reluctance, at any rate. I haven't seriously considered quitting; I've just lost much of the excitement and drive I came in with, and I can't foresee how I'm going to win that back. But I will keep working.

My grandmother's death in August was not unexpected, but obviously very difficult. It was the first time I experienced a loved one's death from hundreds of miles away. That has made it harder for reality to sink in, and I miss her.

There have also been personal difficulties throughout the year. Looking back over some of my private journaling from the year, I struggled with confidence on a level I hadn't for awhile. I truly hope this is something that will change as I look toward turning 30 in 2013! At various points, I also felt great anxiety over future unknowns. I've been working on gathering the resolve to face things that scare me, and I expect there will be more of them in the coming year. (Maybe that also has something to do with turning 30.)

However, there have been so many blessings as well. As in past years, church life was an absolute highlight. We continued participating in small groups in the spring and fall, every member of which I've come to love. I also branched out a little by joining the women's Bible study in the fall -- so many good people there, such as my gifted friend Susan, whom I look forward to getting to know more. Sometimes I still struggle to know where I fit in the church, what I have to contribute, since I'm shy, most of my abilities are overwhelmingly cerebral, and many areas of ministry don't seem to interest me. Some of that, though, probably just means I need to be willing to try more things. I've never felt anything but loved in our church, that's for sure.

Related to that, our friends have been a great gift of God this year. I don't know where I'd be without my friend Coralie and her family, who always make us feel so welcome and loved. Good talks with my sweet friend Rebekah have been a highlight, too. As an introvert, I've never been someone who has or really even desires to have a lot of friends, but I cherish the ones who are given to me.

Of course our awesome family is always a joy as well. We had the opportunity for a wonderful trip to California in March, as well as several trips to Pittsburgh. Thanks to my parents, we were able to buy a new car this November, something we didn't expect to happen for a very long time! I missed my three goddaughters a lot, but am holding out hope of being able to visit their families in New York and Maine in the coming year. Kevin and I celebrated four years of marriage this summer; we continue to do very well on the whole, and I'm so grateful for him.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this year, though, is a deepened belief in God's sovereignty. I've felt that God has pushed me beyond myself to greater dependence on Him, which allows me to learn more of His provision and faithfulness to His promises. That in itself is a great mercy. I know He has shown me more gentleness than I'm even aware of, and certainly more than I deserve.

Happy new year to all of you! Thank you so much for reading. My prayer for you in 2013 is this verse that's been on my heart a lot lately: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope." (Romans 15:13 ESV)

Monday, December 17, 2012

State of the Dissertation Update (December)

If someone asked my advice about entering a PhD or other research-based degree program, I might suggest that they not do so unless they already have a fairly solid idea of what they hope to write their dissertation or thesis on. This is because you can't assume that, in as few as four semesters of coursework, you will be assigned to write a paper that develops organically into a viable dissertation topic. It certainly could happen, but it doesn't for everyone. Or it might happen that your best paper is written for a course outside your main field of research (in my case, seventeenth-century Scottish Puritanism), and it is effectively too late to backtrack and re-tool your entire program to accommodate a new focus.

Of course, entering a program with a topic in mind is no guarantee, either. Even if you are able to satisfy admissions committees that you have a good, general idea percolating (as I obviously did), that doesn't mean the idea will bear fruit three years later.

In short, there's no foolproof approach to tackling a dissertation. Either way, you aren't going to realize how difficult it is until you're actually at that stage.

I drafted most of a topic proposal this semester, as I had planned, but after he read it last week, my advisor's opinion was that there is still too much guesswork involved. As I had sensed myself, it's not close to flowering into a full, focused argument that I can build a book-length project around. He isn't saying I need to scrap what I've got, by any means; there is good material there to work with, but it is still pretty raw. So it isn't really as if I'm having to start from scratch. That's a good thing. Still, I've been kicking around this set of ideas for six months, and I'm not sure where to dig next. It's discouraging, because I had hoped to defend the proposal and be ready to start writing chapters next semester.

Being fairly low on the self-confidence scale, I didn't think academics was an area where I particularly needed to be humbled further, but that seems to be what is happening. I already knew that identifying problems and asserting opinions about them was my weak point, so in that way, it's no surprise I'm feeling stuck. I still believe I can and will achieve this; right now, I just don't have a clear picture of what that's going to look like.

It does seem that the burden of discontentment has been lifted somewhat recently. Not that I won't struggle with it again, but it is at least shifted to the backburner, for now. I know I can only struggle with what's been placed in front of me for this moment. I'm thankful for that, since I'll accept whatever mercies I can get.