To Chapters, New and Old

TasselOne of the nice things about social media is that you never forget an important date, like the one when you defended your dissertation. In the six years since then, so much has changed, but not everything. For example, I haven’t entirely left grad school behind – or at least, I’m still working on what once was my dissertation project. Only now, I have a little more to show for it.

Before I finished the dissertation, before I took my teaching job, I was part of a panel proposal for the 2012 American Historical Association meeting.I didn’t know in February 2011 – when the proposals were due – whether I would even have a job the following school year. I hoped, at the time, that having this as a forthcoming talk would look good to a prospective employer.

Almost a year later, I flew to Chicago for a quick weekend, making sure I didn’t miss any teaching obligations. I hung out with old friends and enjoyed conference sessions on my terms. I hit up the Art Institute in Chicago (and had an unfortunate run-in with a light pole while walking down the street). That Sunday morning, our panel convened in the final hours of the conference in front of a small audience of people. (The panel focused the military’s experiences of integrating women and minorities as a way to manage the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.)
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Meeting yourself where you are


Eighteen years later, I still remember the moment I first told someone I wanted to be a writer. The certainty of that idea developed over a year I will always hold close. It was one of the most challenging years of my life, but it was also the year I learned what it felt like to achieve a dream.

A year earlier, I had been uncertain of what I wanted out of college and unwilling to take out loans without more direction. I left school after my freshman year, and by late October, I was flying east to be a nanny for a family I’d never seen. It was one of the scariest and most thrilling decisions I’d ever made.

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Three Tricks to Finishing that Dissertation

Anyone who has completed a PhD dissertation, or who is currently in the throes of completing one knows what it’s like- It’s this marathon writing session that lasts for years. After jumping through multiple supervised hurdles (coursework, comprehensive/qualifying exams, prospectus defense, teaching evaluations, language requirements, etc.) professors tell you to go away and do it. Just do it.

And at that point, you are absolutely qualified to do it. And you are absolutely able. But you spend several days procrastinating and scared of where to begin, and overwhelmed by how much information has to go in, and what the right balance of evidence to argument to sources to lit review should be. And once you do get started, you keep running into places where you’ve written yourself into a corner, or where you discover that you are writing about the same phenomena in every chapter when maybe those phenomena should be their own chapter…

Last month I was invited to speak to Vanderbilt’s dissertating PhD students of History as part of a roundtable on dissertation-writing. While I prepared, I thought through some topics to talk about – do I talk about how to organize your sources? How to figure out the frame that best showcases your evidence and argument? Writing grants to help keep you financially afloat while you work? The digital tools that can help streamline the writing process? How to form and structure a dissertation writing group?

When I got there, they didn’t want to know any of that stuff. These are PhD students at a top-20. They didn’t get there by not knowing how to do this stuff or how to figure out how to do it. Their questions were about the things that no one tells you while writing a dissertation- things that you really only learn by doing and by asking someone who has. Continue reading “Three Tricks to Finishing that Dissertation”

Journaling and My Dissertation

If you follow me on twitter, you’ve probably seen me talk about how much I love the concept of journaling as a way to nurture my creativity, as well as to process and work through self doubt. Indeed, I journal almost daily, usually in the morning with a coffee – and in these cooler and darker mornings here in Portland – under a blanket on my couch. This is a practice that became part of my regular routine back in 2015 when I was in the last stages of my graduate school.  I began that year with two big New Year’s resolutions: I would keep a regular journal, and I would finish a dissertation that I had been writing for some time and finally receive my PhD. While I suspected the first goal would help to achieve the second one, I didn’t anticipate how important that journaling process would be. In fact, in those last few months before I defended my dissertation that spring, the journal became one of the main tools for success.

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