Dissertation Progress

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I've been making significant progress this summer on my dissertation. For my degree I need to have two papers deemed publishable by a committee of three faculty members. Normally this is done from papers written for classes, with significant effort put in during the summers in the first few years of the program. Because they changed the requirements during my fourth year, I hadn't been expecting even to think about those papers until after I was done with coursework in my first semester of my fourth year, so I was behind as soon as they changed them. Then I began teaching on my own for the first time, preparing a class outright that for the first few semesters needed significant revision as I realized some of what I was doing needed serious improvement to fit with my teaching style and what I thought a course like that needed to be like. Then the three professors who would have been my advisors left in one fell swoop, and the papers I had been working on didn't seem as worthwhile given what the new faculty who had replaced them were saying about my ideas. It didn't help my motivation. All that, combined with teaching new classes regularly, and having to spend a lot of time and energy with the developmental issues with Ethan and Isaiah, not to mention just ordinary family responsibilities and lots of grading, has contributed toward my being basically at a standstill with respect to my work for the last few years.

I did have one good idea for a paper two years ago, and I began working on it with a junior faculty member. That lasted only a couple weeks into a new semester with a new course to teach. I found it hard to reserve the time to write when I was finding it hard to reserve time even to get my class prep and grading done. Several times I tried to get classes I'd done before so I wouldn't have to spend as much time with teaching responsibilities, and then it wouldn't ever be enough to overcome my motivation barrier, and the time I could have spent working on the one paper idea I had would never end up being used for that. Last summer I'd even reserved half the summer to write, and then at the last minute my department offered me a course to teach during that time. We really did need the money, so I took it. Last semester I even ended up with three separate courses to teach, and I barely managed to keep up with teaching responsibilities even with having taught two of them before (in slightly different forms; a huge schedule difference made one very different, and the other had some new material to try to overlap some with the third course, which I'd never done before).

This summer things have changed significantly. From the end of May until mid-June I tried to find some large blocks of time to get some pages out on a paper. I did finally have the first half of the summer off, and I had reserved it for writing. It wasn't working very well after one week, so I insisted on sitting in the basement to work for week two, and I did get a couple large blocks of relatively undisturbed time to write. I got eight pages done that week. A month ago I sat down with a faculty member and talked through what I had in mind for the project I was working on. I sort of had it in the back of my mind that I might eventually turn this paper into a dissertation, with some rough idea of what other things might go into it. By the end of the conversation, I realized that I had a pretty comprehensive picture of what I wanted to do. He helped me put it together as a proposal with a four-chapter plan and encouraged me to write it up and submit to the professor who would be the best candidate for an advisor for the project I had in mind. A week later I had a ten-page proposal in addition to the eight pages I'd already written on one very particular issue. That meant 18 pages.

I submitted that paper to a member of my department who is very well known for her work in the philosophy of race, which is what the dissertation will be on (in case you haven't been paying attention to the few blog posts I have had where I've mentioned my dissertation recently, but it might be good to post the rough outlines of my dissertation at some point for those who are interested). For several reasons, I wasn't expecting anything like the positive response I got. I'd taken a class with her something like seven years ago, but we haven't any philosophical contact since then. I work in an area that generally produces people who don't appreciate the kind of work she does. Some aspects of the proposal were, in my mind, really undeveloped. But she loved it. She said it was well thought-out. She said I showed a good knowledge of the literature. She was excited about bringing analytic metaphysics to bear on the issues I wanted to look at, since not many people had actually done that, and it fills a real need in the literature. She thought I had enough in my proposal to indicate that this could be a really good dissertation. I also sent the proposal to two other faculty members, who will be on my committee, and together with the professor who got me started on this they will now form most of my committee. I've met individually with all of them except my actual advisor, but I did have a phone conversation with her.

Since that time, I made a great effort to devote most of each weekday (when we didn't have anything particularly important planned) to writing. At first I was just trying to fill out the parts of the dissertation where I had a good sense of what to say without doing any further reading, since that would allow me to make as much progress as possible and get my thoughts down without adding anything new to them that would slow me down. As I went, other things occurred to me, and I found myself writing short bits to make sure I didn't forget them. What I ended up with was a pretty scattered set of writings, each contributing toward the whole plan that I had but without fully connecting them yet and without a good sense of where each will go beyond the part I had been able to do without much reading. At some point I began looking more closely at some of the particular arguments I was dealing with, and that took looking in books, mostly ones I'd already read (or at least read the relevant sections). But I was writing, and the size of my dissertation was growing daily by noticeable amounts. Some of the sections were filling out nicely as coherent chunks.

In the midst of this, I met with the each member of my committee besides my advisor. They gave me fuel for thought, helped me rethink some of how I was setting things up, and and gave me added impetus to keep going. One encouraged me to write my first chapter, partly because it would feel nice to have a whole chapter done and would also give me a whole, coherent chunk of material to show people, but mostly because the rest of my dissertation would be a mess unless I get very clear at the beginning what terms I'm using for what exact views and so on. Since I'm beginning with a taxonomy of the possible views on this issue, I really needed to get that out of the way. That helped me focus in on one task.

I started teaching again this week. It's a five-week intensive summer course. I've taught most of the material before, but I'm used to teaching it three separate hours a week. Two hours a day really changes how I have to do things, and it's taken some time to get that set up and working, plus I've simplified things by adding a textbook and not using some of the online readings I've done. That meant reading some new material, and I need to prepare to teach some new material while coming up with new exam questions. Even so, I've spent this past week working on putting together a draft of my first chapter. What's especially helped is having a schedule and sticking to it. Monday and Wednesday I was on campus from 8:00-4:00. Some of that time involved teaching and preparatory work, but most of it was writing. If I'd been home, I'd have been doing all manner of other things. I was home Tuesday afternoon, but I did manage to sequester myself to get a lot done. The last two days have been less effective. We had a comprehensive evaluation for Isaiah on Thursday (which deserves its own post perhaps later). I have Friday mornings reserved to give Sam something of a break, without trying to get anything done on my dissertation, and yesterday afternoon didn't work out according to the schedule very much. I did get a couple hours in with course prep work, but I had to watch the kids for part of my work time.

But as of Wednesday night, when I last did anything on my dissertation, I had 80 pages. Now that I'm looking at the actual weeks, I had 18 pages at the time I finished my proposal. Over the next two weeks I wrote 42 more pages, averaging 21 pages a week. Then during my first week teaching again, with an intensive schedule no less (albeit with no grading yet) I managed to get 20 more pages done. I may not be able to keep up with that rate, but even if it slows down to 10 pages a week from here on (and ignoring the two weeks without teaching between this class and the fall) I could very easily half a complete draft of the dissertation by the end of the fall semester. Allowing for serious revisions and expansions to push things back a whole semester, I could easily have a workable dissertation by next summer, which means I could be finished and defending by next August.

Ideally, I want to defend by next September unless I want to wait for the following summer, because I'll most likely be on the job market during the 2007-2008 academic year. That process begins in October and goes through at least April in most cases. Everyone I know who has gone through it recently has gotten very little written during those months and then was so exhausted after all the work that goes into the applications and interviews that they needed several weeks even when it was all done just to recover before they could really do careful, detailed philosophical work again. Ideally I won't have to worry about my dissertation during the job search, so that's why I'd like to finish by the end of next summer if possible. Also, people who have already got a Ph.D. tend to get a lot more interviews and have a much better chance of getting better jobs. At the very least I'd hope be close enough to finishing by September that when I can have a defense date indicated in my application, and even if I'm not done by September there's very little likelihood that I wouldn't be able to devote enough time to it in May that I'd be able to finish my writing and defend by the end of that summer (2008).

I also talked to the director of graduate studies, who gave me permission to do a clarification meeting for the dissertation without having completed the two paper requirements and then just using parts of the dissertation as I have coherent chunks to be those papers. That means I'll most likely not bother to apply for a masters unless I have two coherent papers in finished form before the end of 2006, since it would be funny to have a masters and a Ph.D. the same year from the same institution, and I may well have my Ph.D. in 2007.

Either way we'd be in Syracuse for two more academic years, and the only difference would be whether I have my Ph.D. in hand before the next academic year or after it. I'm shooting for the earlier schedule if possible, and the fact that I've been able to get so much done during the past week during the time I've been teaching gives me real hope for defending in about a year. It requires being able to keep up a rate of writing at least a few pages a day, at least few days a week. Given that the class I've been handed at the last minute to teach this fall is one I've done eight times in the past, with very little that I'll change this time around, I think that seems very reasonable.

Maybe in a year's time, or perhaps a little more, I'll be done with this program. If I do finish next year, I will have spent exactly a decade on my Ph.D. It's twice as long as officially expected, but it's extremely rare that anyone gets in done in the expected time. Usually it's more like 7-8 years. That's still shorter than I've already spent, but I've had several extenuating circumstances. Most importantly, however long it's going to take, it's just nice to see the finish line on the horizon after so long a time without any movement at all. I've written 80 pages in a month, with a very good plan for where I'm headed with this, Several people have looked at my proposal and are excited about working with me on it. It just feels good to be have this kind of momentum after several years with almost nothing.

2 Comments

Very good site...actually came across it as the #1 hit on a google search for "the top Christian blogs." I have yet to even begin working on a dissertation--but I do have at least three published papers and one sort self-published book in print. I remember about 12 years ago when I had been actually accepted at Sheffield University in England for a PhD in NT (my approved subject was Ephesians and the Sociology of knowledge framework for Eph 5:18) and had also been approved for an essay in Trinity Journal (The Two-Congregation Problem in the Rome Church, '93)...there were other reasons, but I felt relieved of my need to be separated from family to work on a doctrate (my daughter had just been born)...so the dissertation idea was put on the shelf...for a little while. I will return here...thanks for your comments and links...I have not kept up on mind (www.wordsntone.com)...peace, chip

Glad to hear of your recent progress. Godspeed, my friend! Also, I would be interested in reading about Isaiah's assessment. Anyways, keep it up...

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