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on coming back from outer space (or what happens during dissertation radio silence)

January 7, 2018

lisa hammershaimb

And just like that…over 4 months have passed since the last entry (ironically the entry that was going to get me “back to blogging” in a rhythm that would allow me to record how the dissertation was unfolding as it was unfolding.) When I was going through coursework I was intentionally cobbling together a personal learning network on social media of others who were a bit ahead of me in the process so that I could look to and learn from them as they navigated the very uncharted waters of what one actually does when one enters the intensive research/writing phase of a dissertation. It seemed like what happened almost universally was radio silence—the once continuous stream of communication and information on social media disappeared.

And then after a time they’d come back telling the world they’d survived and all the champagne emojis would flow as we’d celebrate their accomplishment and the new consonants that could now be in front of their name. Though it was fun to see and celebrate, I always kind of wondered just what happened during their silence. Was this more secret initiation that you couldn’t talk about to the non-doctoral? Was there some kind of vow involved that conscripted you to forsake social media updates?

After being largely radio silent the last four months as I’ve been through the intensive research/writing phase, I now realize it’s noting as exciting and mysterious as either of my imaginings (or else…I just totally missed the telegram inviting me to the club!) Rather, like pretty much every other part of this process it’s a time of showing up every day for the work. There’s occasional moments of excitement and wonder but it’s mostly mundane and largely quiet work.

What do you do? You generate ideas from the information your research has grown. Then you transform those ideas into words in a way that shapes and gives voice but here’s the kicker…once you begin shaping and giving voice you realize the ideas themselves change so you have to go back to the research and begin the process once more, comparing, contrasting, assessing, and surrendering. It’s beautifully creative work when you’re having good days and heartbreak on days you realize you have to say goodbye to most of the first draft….and the second…when you realize the ideas aren’t what you thought they would be.

It is work that has a physical intensity to it completely disproportionate to the actual amount of physical work involved. When I would hear people describe this time as “creative work” I was admittedly a bit smug because hey! I’m a creative professionally! Turns out…it’s not quite the same. Though it is no doubt creative work, it is creative work that drained me mentally in ways that I haven’t felt before. When I am designing I may subconsciously create from the other inspirations that are always in my memory however, I rarely create in a way that shows how I am part of another designer’s lineage or heritage. My piece is fully mine, based on its context, audience, etc.

In writing a dissertation, you don’t so much create a piece that is fully yours as you weave your ideas into a knowledge tapestry that has existed for so long I’m pretty sure no one knows where it began. The ideas may be interesting on their own but they only truly have importance as they connect through to things that have predated them and also as they leave enough empty length in themselves to be picked up by other people and (at some point) become the fabric through which they can begin weaving their ideas. Again it’s beautifully creative work on the good days as you get to enter streams so much larger and deeper than you’ve thought possible. It’s also deeply inconvenient for the same reasons. The larger and deeper streams are rough to navigate and making connections requires tenacity.

So what did I actually do in my almost four months of radio silence? I wrote lots of post-it notes and tried to find the optimal flow of ideas. I wrote a first draft that was painfully long but I needed to write it all because for me it was in the writing that I actually made sense of things. It felt perfect and I thought I might be the first doctoral student ever who nailed it the first time around.

Then I cut the majority of that draft.

More post-it notes ensued. I burned a lot of incense, began distance running again, drank a lot of sparkling water. I was still working the day job but otherwise during November and most of December I said no to everyone who asked me out for movies or coffees or dinners ostensibly because I had too much writing to do but even more so because I didn’t have enough emotional bandwidth to be present to another human.

A second draft emerged with significantly less words and significantly more open-ended ideas. I began meeting with the supervisor more frequently. He began using phrases like “almost there” and “these are good ideas” and also “yeah….not so much.” On one momentous meeting he reminded me that with grounded theory one traditionally develops a theory and yet all I’d seemed to do was skirt around what I thought was emerging from the research but he wasn’t actually sure what I’d found. I tried to play it cool and breadth through the panic (another helpful skill one acquires through the doctoral process) as I realized he was 100% correct. This gave birth to a third draft where I learned to stop hedging my bets and write with clarity and confidence (even though inside I will confess most of the time I feel little of either.)

Christmas came and went. Then just over a week ago, my supervisor and I met once more and the magic words “well done” were proclaimed along with “let’s send it out to the committee.” After a flurry of final checks on citations, page numbers, and formatting, on New Years Eve….we did just that.

140 pages.

9 months and 10 days after my candidacy.

I know my committee will have edits which will most likely lead to version four (or five or six…) and I most likely will spend a bit more time in radio silence but for now its good to be back and (oddly enough because I am a bit of a control freak) have the situation be out of my hands.

Hello world. Don’t cue the champagne emojis quite yet but…it’s good to be back from the silence.

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