“It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a…thesis?” Guest blog post by doctoral student Christina Healy

I’ve said many times that the best advice I’ve received so far as I head towards my dissertation is to remember that it is the *first* step of my research life, not the capstone.  To keep that in mind, keep it small, and keep it simple.  I’m working on that.

The other piece of advice that has stuck at the forefront of my mind is, “Pick a topic you love enough to stick with for several years…but don’t get attached!”  The rationale being explained that as soon as you get your committee together, your whole vision of your dissertation will change, so don’t be too wedded to your first idea.

I got a taste of that a few weeks ago as I met with and confirmed my first committee member (other than the chair of the committee, my advisor).  He had read over my concept paper, and we had a grand discussion about what the big picture of my research is and where it will head…and I left with my head spinning and a little at a loss.  ”So…what’s my dissertation about, again?”

At a recent meeting with my advisor, I asked her how true it is that your end dissertation is barely reminiscent of your first idea.  She laughed appreciatively, but then took some time to truly consider the quandary.  I don’t remember what her actual answer was, because as I mulled it over, I’ve created my own little analogy of the process.

It’s like this.  I began my dissertation back in the day, and my topic was this very large dog.  So I was researching this big dog, that also happened to have a very long nose, and two very long teeth.  And as I was investigating the nose, a committee member pointed out that no dog is as large as the dimensions I had reported.  So I reconsidered, and realized, oh!  That’s no dog!  That’s a horse!

So, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work reanalyzing from the beginning again.  Recognizing the animal as a horse completely reframed my whole paper.  I set to work discussing this very large horse with a long nose and two very long teeth, that had gray, wrinkly skin, and sparse hair.  And then a committee member pointed out that horses are covered in hair and do not have gray wrinkly skin.  And also, horses are not as big as the dimensions I reported.  I looked again, and oh!  It’s not a horse, how could I have thought that??  It’s a rhinoceros!!

So, I wiped my brow and set back to work reanalyzing the data through the clarified lens of seeing the rhinoceros.  This explained its skin and hair, and almost accounted for its weight, though not its height.  Dang.  And this darn nose and teeth…so I took a week off from analyzing and writing.  I focused on the other parts of my life: teaching, interpreting, biking, reading, hiking, movies, sleeping.  And I let the dissertation marinate in the back of my mind.  Somewhere along the way I saw or heard or read or dreamt the word, “Trunk.”  A little searching in the literature after some guidance from committee members brought the word, “Tusks.”

And so, with a sigh and a prayer, and many more hours of work, blood, sweat, and tears…I finally defended my dissertation about this elephant that I set out to study.

My original topic was a dog.  Was it?  No, of course not.  All along, I was investigating an elephant, but from my perspective from within the process the dissertation morphed from one mammal to the next.  At each step of the way I grew closer to what I had actually originally meant, even though I couldn’t have expressed it at the time; it’s part of the learning process.  Each step closer demanded more time and repeated “retracing” of my previous steps, which was sometimes an emotional and psychological challenge to push through.  But it was worth it, and my committee was with me all along the way — well anyway, when our trails crossed paths periodically and they with a fresh eye on my process would point out issues I had overlooked, or not yet learned.  This is awesome!

My research question “changed” last week.  Now I’m writing about a horse?  Or rhino?  Or…I’ll let you know in a few years where I was now.

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