My dissertation story

My EME6920 class is currently discussing the dissertation process. I thought it might be nice to share my dissertation story. So, here it is:

In 1996 I started my PhD program. I had successfully written a master’s thesis and was not the least bit intimidated by the idea of writing a dissertation, but I also had no thoughts about what my topic might be at that time. In fact, I thought I would be focusing on some element of multimedia design and taking a minor in digital art or something like that. Within a year, that idea had changed. I discovered online discussion, Vygotsky, Wenger, and computer-supported collaborative learning. I knew that I was not interested in digital environments themselves so much as I was interested in how people interacted and co-constructed knowledge in those digital environments.

I muddled through the 96-97 school year, and began to focus my interests during the 97-98 school year. I got involved in research projects, began teaching for the first time, and made friends. I did not yet think I would become a professor. To be honest, I’m not sure what I was thinking. I was confident I’d get a job doing something practical in the instructional design realm – a higher level of the work I had done prior to starting the PhD program. I had returned to school for the PhD for what was probably all of the wrong reasons: I liked being in school; the last company I had worked for folded; my boyfriend of several years was moving from the city we had been living in to start a PhD program at that same university.

By fall 1998 I was wrapping up my coursework. I took one day of the comprehensive exam that term – a minor question, because I had 2 minors. I would complete the rest of the comprehensive exam the following term (Spring 1999). That term I was enrolled in a dissertation proposal preparation class and one other class. I passed the written part of the comps without a problem, and walked into my oral exam with a 5-page proposal. My committee and I discussed my general idea for a dissertation at that time, and I continued to meet with my advisor throughout the term and shape up ideas for an actual study.

Then, everything changed. I moved several states away. Yes, to follow that boyfriend, and also for a job that basically fell into my lap. [No need to tell me I was lucky. I believe that my career reflects a combination of hard work, being open to new experiences and opportunities, and being the right person in the right place at the right time.] For the 1999-2000 school year I became a Visiting Assistant Professor at another university in a related field. Moving when ABD and taking a full-time job is exactly what we always tell our campus-based PhD students to not do, and I entirely understand why. The money was nice, and better than what I made as a graduate student. The job title was nice, and put me on the path to the career I’m in now. However, living away from the university and having a full-time job that is not the dissertation makes it difficult to get the dissertation done. Simply put, it is no longer the first priority in everyday life that stares you down when you aren’t working on it.

I made it through the dissertation at a pretty good pace. I was usually motivated to finish, and being employed full-time actually made me more motivated. I needed to finish to get to the next stage. Still, there were times when I did not work or hardly worked, and I will readily confess to those.

The summer of 1999 was not a productive time for my dissertation. I was newly ABD, had a summer job that occupied much of my time, and was moving. That kept me busy. During Fall 1999 I knew I needed to get the dissertation underway. I had two semesters of employment ahead of me and figured I needed to keep moving along so I could be finished and employable in a permanent position. That term, while teaching 5 classes (4 on campus, 1 online), I wrote and defended my dissertation proposal. I also lined up all of my data collection sites (that took HOURS of cold calling people and plenty of rejection and unanswered messages) and got my IRB approval.

I was studying intact classes for the whole term, so you can pretty much imagine what I was doing for my dissertation during Spring 2000. I was still teaching, and the rest of the time I was collecting and organizing data. I had a dissertation buddy. We had studied for comps together, and had been in the habit of meeting up weekly for coffee, cake, and coursework. We had the same dissertation timelines, although totally different projects. She was still at the university, and we remained connected via email. Once a week we would email each other a progress update. These were often long, rambling emails, but it helped to have someone to chat with. She was an audience for my research diary, and I reciprocated.

As spring eased into summer, I rounded out data collection with post-course interviews.

Oh, wait. Something else happened. Because I had 2 semesters of employment I was also looking for a job that year. Sort of. I applied to one academic job. I hadn’t really planned on being a professor, but because I had been hired as one that year and liked the job well enough so far, I decided to apply for tenure-track jobs. Really, it was too early to apply, and by January I was already told I could stay on for another year’s contract. However, I’d sent out one job application and got the interview. Then I got the job. It was a tenure-track job, and I was still collecting my dissertation data. This is not the norm, but it happened in this instance. I was told I had a year to finish the dissertation.

So, during Summer 2000 I again had the job that occupied most of my time and then moved. I got nothing done on the dissertation. During Fall 2000 I was adjusting to the new job and various life events (including moving to the other coast without the boyfriend and my little sister moving in with me). At some point, however, it clicked in that I needed to finish my dissertation. My classes were at night or online, so I developed a routine. It went roughly like this:

7 or 8 am: Wake, grab backpack, head to neighborhood Starbucks (where they affectionately called me “the prof”

All morning: work on dissertation

12: Swing home. Shower. Lunch. Head to campus.

4-7 or 7-10: teach, or if not teaching prep/grade for other days.

Evening: Sit on porch and listen to waves crash on the beach while drinking a glass of wine. Pack work into bag for next morning. Collapse.

Repeat for every weekday. On weekends, vary schedule but include 3+ hours of work on dissertation.

Carving out time and consistency was the key to getting it done, and my dissertation buddy was a great support. I carted my orange oversized backpack (which I think I still own) with my heavy orange laptop (tangerine clamshell iBook — I loved that computer) almost everywhere I went. I told people I was carrying my burden. I had to carry it with me as a reminder that I needed to be writing. I usually had several folders of articles or printed data in the backpack, too.

By January I had a draft to my advisor. By March the full dissertation went to my committee. Because I wasn’t local and because the year was 2001, I spent a lot of money sending heavy packets of paper via FedEx. On March 30 I defended. In May I graduated.

I remember having no energy at the end. I had to print out multiple copies, and ensure the formatting was correct. That process seemingly took forever, and the pagination kept getting weird. I also had to get copies bound for the library. I got one bound for myself too, in a cool purple color, because I could. It’s still in my office. I wish I had bound my MS thesis. I’m not even sure if a copy of it still exists.

Anyway, I was done. I was exhausted. I didn’t want to write for several months after that. But I had earned my degree, and it was all worthwhile.


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