Dissertation Frustration

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A very candid look at first-year Steffi. Oh, how naive I was back then…

When I started graduate school in the fall of 2012, the DGS (Director of Graduate Studies) explained to me and my fellow first-years that the key determinant of PhD success is not brain power but “Sitzfleisch”, ie the ability to sit. On your rear. For incredibly long periods of time.

… and let’s just say that at this point 3.5 years later, I have gotten pretty sick of sitting—and all the frustration that goes with it.

No, grad school isn’t all bad. There are definitely moments when I like, or even love, what I do. I enjoyed the rigorous discussions with my fellow students during seminars. Teaching my own class last spring was incredibly rewarding. And even my exams, hellish though they were, still rank among the greatest and most satisfying accomplishments of my life thus far.

But this whole archival research and dissertation-developing process? Well, sometimes it’s just not my cup of tea/coffee. You see, sometimes it just plain stinks. And, you guessed it, right now is one of those times.

While lamenting my plight to EQL the other day, I likened this stage in the dissertation to a high-school relationship (not that I know from personal experience, but having seen enough Disney Channel Original Movies, I have a vague idea of what one looks like). I express an interest in a topic, I spend lots of energy, time, coffee money getting to know it, only to have it dump me in the end—or play so “hard to get” that I ultimately just give up.

Odd though that analogy may sound, it’s the best description I can think of for my research situation right now. No matter how hard I try to get something to work out, I only find myself back at square one again, with seemingly nothing to show for it. And after five, six, or seven failed “relationships”, this can become very, very frustrating.

And to make things even worse, this is my problem! You see, at this point in graduate school, I have already made the leap from being a “consumer” to a “producer” of knowledge. Or to use another metaphor, I have been pushed out of the nest and expected to fly. Yes, my advisor, committee members, and colleagues are still there for me. And yes, they will support me and help me as best as they can. But ultimately, this is my project, which means that these are my problems. No one can solve them for me, and there are no more answer keys to tell me which direction is correct. I have to figure this out on my own. Which oftentimes leaves me feeling a bit like this:

circus monkeys lucy

And so at this point, halfway through my archival research, I am simply exhausted. And I am really, really tired of what I am doing. In one sense, I’ve been here before multiple times. Each semester of coursework brought its own set of challenges, and exams were anything but fun. But unlike the end-of-semester “crunch mode” or my 10-day exam period, there is no definite end in sight. Yes, at some point in the still-distant future, my funding will run out, I’ll start getting “motivational” emails from the graduate school, and it will no longer be socially or academically acceptable for me to be a PhD student. But that is still a long way off, and there are still many mountains to climb in the meantime. And the one I have been trying to climb for the last several months is so unstable and slippery that I just keep sliding back down again.

So besides ranting on the internet or eating my feelings in Nutella (*cough* both of which I may currently be doing), how am I supposed to respond to this? Yes, it’s all well and good to say that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”, but that expression never says exactly where they go. And right now the only place I seem to be going is backward, and the only place I want to go is out of here. What am I supposed to do?

I don’t know. I really don’t.

But as I’ve been trying to figure this out the last several days (while also trying to drag my well-trained Sitztfleisch to the archive), I keep coming back to my first marathon last spring. After years of saying that I wanted to run one, I finally decided to commit to a race in Nashville. I’d run a few halves before, but I’d always shied away from the full because it required so much more time. Who has time to run 10-15 miles multiple times in a week? But last spring, I decided to make time, and so train I did. It had its share of difficult moments, and some days my body felt absolutely miserable. After my first long run of 9 miles, I was so tired that all I could do was curl up on EQL’s couch and watch a movie. But as the training progressed, my body slowly got stronger, and by the end, I was cranking out double-digit mileage with virtually no trouble at all. Yes, some runs were grueling (12 miles around an indoor track, and 20 miles around Stone Mountain in the pouring rain weren’t exactly fun), but I got through them. And when race day came, I managed to do what I’d been doing all along: I just kept going.

That’s exactly what a marathon is: a deliberate choice to continue forward, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, mile after mile after mile. And the more that I think about it, the more convinced I become that a PhD is basically the academic (and very sedentary) version of a marathon. No, it’s not fun. Some days are harder than others, and oftentimes things just plain stink. But when you boil it down to the core, the key to success is to simply keep going.

And so I guess that’s what I’m going to do, putting one academic foot in front of the other. Thumbing through another file, visiting another archive, writing yet another mediocre draft of my half-formed thoughts. Someday it has to come together, right? And someday when I cross the finish line (or, in this case, the commencement stage), the process will have worked, I’ll be done, and it will have all been worth it.

Alright, that’s enough sitting and thinking for one day. It’s time to go for a run. Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten so much Nutella…

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2 thoughts on “Dissertation Frustration

  1. Congrats on finishing your first full marathon! Great comparison to doing your dissertation – both suck but you get awesome bragging rights when you’re done 🙂 keep going!

    1. Thanks, Jenny! You (aka the runner of all runners) would definitely understand! 🙂 Hope you’re doing well and good luck with all your upcoming races!!

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