Monday, April 28, 2014

Stepping back from the dissertation

Back in December, I sent a panicked email to my supervisor. I had returned from my maternity leave in September, and I was not making the progress that I needed to make. I had arranged for more (free, family) childcare, and needed to know whether I had time to finish. You see, I was on borrowed time: I was on extension (complete with higher, extension tuition), and the terms of my extension made it clear that I needed to finish during that year, or not at all. I needed to know whether that year ended in April or August.

Dr. Supervisor got back to me, telling me that I just needed to defend by the first week of September, and that I should get the whole draft to him by mid-May. We agreed that it was time for one, final effort with the dissertation: I would write or edit a chapter per month, and see whether it was possible to finish.

That first chapter, post-mat leave, took a little longer than expected, but it went well. Dr. Supervisor was thrilled with it. The next chapter was less straightforward than I expected. I kept hitting walls, wishing I had more research, and questioning whether I was really saying anything new. I finished a chapter, and was happy with a few parts of it, but knew it still needed work. While I awaited feedback on that chapter, I started my last chapter (which was actually chapter one), and hit a wall. I was still trying to figure out how to write this thing, when I heard back from Dr. Supervisor about the previous chapter, and he said it needed a lot of work.

I responded and confessed that I was having the same problems, and worse, with Chapter One. I outlined all the questions I was having trouble answering, which caused Dr. Supervisor to review the dissertation as a whole, and find those same structural issues. While the middle three chapters hold together as individual essays, or as one fanatic MA thesis, my whole question is too broad for the research I did. I either need to conduct months and months of full-time newspaper research (much of which is only in archives in Germany), or I need to reframe the dissertation, which would involve rewriting everything.

The problem is that my deadline is two and a half weeks from now. Last week consisted of a flurry of phone calls between my supervisor and me. There was the possibility that I could throw myself at the mercy of the faculty, and beg for another extension. However, that would mean having to find (and pay for) full-time childcare for Li'l E (and part-time childcare was stressful enough for us). The cost is a huge issue as well: we would end up going into severe debt, if I tried to finish in the next year, and considering that I am incredibly unemployable on the tenure-track job market, there's no financial benefit to finishing (and, let's be honest: unwilling to move my family away from our home town, especially now that Chris has his dream job, and really unwilling to work 70-hour weeks while I have a toddler). I have my ABD status, and that's enough to get teaching work. (Long term, I'd like to find some kind of stable, university-adjacent work, but none of that will require a PhD.)

There's another possibility, which I've chosen to pursue (on the advice of my department): I've asked the Dean of Grad Studies for permission to withdraw from my program, with the option to re-register, when I'm in the place where I can finish. If that goes through, and I find myself regretting not finishing in a few years, if be able to come back and finish. Apparently, there is precedent for this option, within my department. My supervisor and my grad chair have written letters of support for me. So, we'll see what happens.

This may not happen. I might be finished for good. It's a strange feeling: I'm simultaneously feeling giddy what freedom and like I'm grieving a loss. It's like I'm going through a breakup. For the past nine years, this has been my singular goal, and while it's not a complete loss (and while I long ago gave up the expectation that I'd become a professor - - basically, ever since I learned the realities of the job market), I always presumed that is finish. That I would have the right to have "Dr." in front of my name.

So, now I wait. And, in the short term, my plan is the same: we're moving in a few weeks, and I'm happy that I now have time to pack. I signed up Li'l E for a nursery rhyme program at the library, because I now have time to spend with my kid. I'm submitting an application for sessional teaching work (just one class, at first) to my alma mater, and the deadline is on Wednesday. I'm figuring out how to take care of myself again.

I imagine I'll have a lot to write on this blog again, now that I'm not exhausting myself, trying to draw blood from a stone with that dissertation.

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