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phase three of doctoral student life (or how waiting makes you realize some unfortunate things)

February 4, 2018

lisa hammershaimb

storm
And now…its officially five weeks since I sent off my dissertation to the committee for review. I remember shortly after sending it out a cohort member told me she heard one should plan at least six weeks for a review cycle. I told her my dissertation was just over one hundred pages, my committee was fast and I was confident it’d all be wrapped up in maybe three weeks tops. The Lisa of five weeks ago now feels very very far away.

A doctorate begins by realizing how big the world is–the depth and diversity of ideas and the endless vantages. You come into a program with an idea that is the most interesting idea in the world. Then in the process of coursework you realize there are a million more ideas out there that may indeed be just as or even more interesting. So you roam and explore and discover and then eventually root into something that may or may not resemble what you originally planned. You settle in and commit. This settling has a humbling aspect as you come to terms with the fact that even though you see the vast complexity of a given issue…you can only address a tiny sliver. Your research will not eradicate poverty. Your research will not bring world peace. Though the exploration phase expanded your mind and your thinking—near the end of the first phase you realize your own smallness and learn to be okay with tending to the small parcel of land that is what one can, manageably, handle in a research project.

Dune

Though it sounds quite glamorous to be officially engaged in ethics-board sanctioned research–taking in abstract information and forming it into something more codified–the second phase of a doctorate is actually lots of hard work. Forming knowledge from raw information is digging and planting, bringing yourself to the work each day with faith that at some point new growth will appear. If wandering in the vastness during the first phase of the doctoral journey makes you small, homesteading new information during the second phase of the doctoral journey makes you strong. For me learning to code felt like learning a new language–the effort of identifying patterns amongst an abundance of data had an intensity not unlike intense physical labor. And then at some point in the process, growth appears and the ideas you have worked so hard to cultivate break open and flourish. Realizing the process actually worked brings an intense satisfaction that is indeed one of the best feelings ever. Realizing you have the strength and discipline to show up each day and eventually make something meaningful is empowering.

I think I am in the third phase of things. I’ve wandered far and wide, returned home and worked hard cultivating my own ideas from seed to shoot to full grown plant. I am proud of myself for sticking with it and proud of what my hard work has produced. In the flow of things, it seems phase three should be where one sits back and enjoys the fruits of ones labors—gets some much needed rest and plenty of accolades for having arrived as an actualized independent academic.

But here is what I am increasingly learning from my now five weeks of waiting…phase three is where you realize your own total self sufficiency is an illusion and though your newfound strength is something to take pride in, this new stage is one where you will realize your strength and determination alone isn’t enough. After spending the better part of nine months doing it all myself, working on my own time schedule, and moving at my own pace I now must wait on my committee members, trusting that they will get to my work at some point and being okay with the silence…being okay with not being in control. This is humbling. I am good at showing up and working hard and making a plan and getting it done. I am not so good at letting go. I am not so good at trusting.

I’ve spent the past week living in a little house located about five hundred steps from the Atlantic ocean. I an the last stop on the continent…the next piece of solid ground is in Morocco. My plan was to have this trip coincide with implementing committee feedback–writing with the ocean like a true creative. Instead, I’ve spent a lot of time staring at the waves and the sky first feeling resentment that my committee so blatantly disregarded my well conceived plans, then feeling fearful that maybe it was actually that my work was so bad that they were avoiding all contact. I told the ocean these things. She proved to be a very good listener.

Here’s what I am learning in the midst of this phase…while watching the tides come in and out, watching the pelicans float along and the sand pipers scurry around like Ruby. The ocean world is a dance of mutual dependence and it is very good. Perhaps for me too this phase where I am learning dependence can be good (or at least have some good in it). Perhaps it is providing a good balance to the previous phase of self sufficiency and strength (which in turn was a good balance to the first phase of smallness.) Being self sufficient is good. Being strong is very good. But if this strength and power is not balanced with humility and tempered with connection it is way too easy to get grandiose…too easy to become delusional that my world is The World and my way is The Way. These are all ideas that sound great in theory…yet in practice more often than not I still have fantasies of the ease of Lisa-world where I am at the center.

And so back to waiting and watching…letting go little by little of my tight grip on all the things that must be my way and the bitterness of my own unmet expectations and opening myself little by little to the beauty of a dance of mutual dependence.

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