This essay is really about what writing a dissertation meant to me. For me, the dissertation process was a microcosm for my entire graduate experience, in which I spent the majority of my 20s (5.5 years).
I have been writing this since a month after my dissertation defense (several days before receiving final approval from the University of Oregon’s Graduate School). I am finishing it now in the hope that other doctoral students may use it as the starting point for discussion, and that it may contribute even minimally to normalizing discussion around the psychological and spiritual consequences of one (albeit of many) flavor of PhD experience.
At once, the dissertation process functioned as a type of mental crucible, a vessel in which part of me was burned away under high temperature and pressure; and a pilgrimage, in which I progressed toward a known endpoint along a circuitous, spiraling path, in which logistical issues, mental and emotional blocks, and interpretation questions came up repeatedly, each time with a different flavor and in a slightly different context of understanding than the last time.
Completing the dissertation included the experience of re-embodying, or feeling again, the major emotional and intellectual “themes” of each of my years in the program: the imposter syndrome of the first year, the confusion and interests-identification of the second year, the slight but increasing competence-feeling of the third and fourth years, etc. I remember remarking to friends at the time that it felt as though I was experiencing each of these states again, but in the time-span of minutes or hours instead of months and years.
One base truth from this process is that the dissertation took on a much larger spiritual significance as it progressed. When I finished, the aspect of graduating wasn’t the largest one on my mind. I felt dissociated from that aspect: I recognized rationally that it was an accomplishment, but it felt distant, as though I had watched someone else perform for and attain it. Rather, the most emotionally salient aspect of the dissertation process was that I had completed a public ritual of change, an experience of initiation in a moment of constructed public vulnerability.
For me, the biggest part of the dissertation defense was not the presentation itself; that went smoothly. I had prepared enough extra slides (and extra analyses) to talk for an additional 1.5 hours beyond my alloted time, just in case; and I had given the presentation four times before to patient family members, research labmates, and alone to myself. Rather, the weightiest aspect, that which felt most like being out on the edge of my knowledge and ability, was a series of half-seconds between when Committee members or other friends, colleagues, and members of the public who had kindly decided to attend raised their hand to ask a question, and when they began the asking.
It was in those small moments that I felt the greatest vulnerability of the process. Earlier, as I had been writing the dissertation (including 45 hours spent just debugging code for running “zero-inflated beta regressions” on multi-level data,
Rwere not currently practically useful. Instead, I logit-transformed my Dependent Variable, allowing a more traditional multi-level modeling approach.
2016-12-23-phd-graduand.html on labyrinth metaphor.
“meant to humble you”