What I learned about Grad Life from Defending my Prospectus

This Spring, I successfully defended my dissertation prospectus. For those of you in the academic world, this milestone is familiar–but for those who are not, it means I presented a written plan detailing what I’m going to do for my dissertation research, how I’m going to do it, and why anyone should care. Defending a prospectus was surprisingly challenging for me, and managing this work alongside of coursework and my job made it even more difficult.. Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 8.44.45 AM

Hopefully some of you remember this struggle. It’s difficult, it turns out, to be clear about your own research: where you fit in the literature and why your project will matter. Throughout the semester, I read and re-read, questioned my project and career path, I even worried so much that I came down with the flu–twice. I contemplated pursuing alternative career paths, narrowing in on two skill-sets I could potentially capitalize on: dishwashing and tree climbing. But, I digress.

Weeks later, after finishing the semester, immediately driving cross country solo, climbing a bunch of mountains, and finally reaching my summer research destination (Cape Cod), I’ve been able to reflect. The semester is over and I’d like to think I’ve learned something from the challenges. I’d like to share what I’ve learned in case it might someday help someone get through similar challenges. I hope this post compliments my 5 things I learned about grad life in 2014 piece. Here goes:

  1. There’s always more to read… but at some point you’ve got to start writing. This seems obvious, but it became especially clear to me as I broadened my project from a single story to a larger narrative that compared three case studies. I could have spent months reading the literature on my new cases–but instead, I had to get moving. Reading can easily become a form of procrastination, so I worked to balance reading with actually writing in order to move forward.  Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 8.46.20 AM
  2. Take care of your wrists.This is a silly point but for me it was crucial. Ignoring my body in order to work backfired this semester and set me back multiple times. Typing and scrolling for hours laptop reeked havoc on my wrists. Sometimes it would hurt so badly that I’d have to walk away  from the computer for hours, losing valuable time. This could have been prevented by building in breaks in my work day, as well as having a better awareness of my body’s needs. A good mouse also helped this issue tremendously.
  3. Your research is not your entire world, (therefore, when your research isn’t going well, it’s not the end of the world). Many of you have been in similar situations, so you might remember the consuming feeling these projects can give you. Although I’d like to think I know better, I became so wrapped up in my project that let the project take over my entire world. If I received negative feedback, I felt completely crushed. In the future, I hope to remember that even if my writing skills are failing that day, I have other things going on. For example, I’m still a great tree climber!

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 8.50.40 AMMoving forward from that semester, I hope that writing out these tips helps me further internalize them and apply them in the future. Additionally, I hope that this helps other grads get through similar rough patches. Patience and perseverance have never been my strengths, but I’ll continue to work on those skills! I’ll leave you with an upbeat thought: throughout the semester I frequently asked myself what I was doing and why I was doing it. The work was hard and I constantly checked in with myself, asking if it was worth it. Fortunately, the answer was quite clear: I’m doing this because fossils are awesome. Thanks for reading!

One thought on “What I learned about Grad Life from Defending my Prospectus

  1. I definitely agree with your first point–while doing your research before you write is obviously important, there is a possibility of over-researching. Many of my ABD friends use research as a way to avoid working on their dissertations. At some point, you’ve got to leave the library and get to work.

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