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.


  1. I hope and pray that your topic becomes clear very soon. You are doing a great job, and I know that God has great plans for you! <3