One of the things that’s crossed my mind many times in the past five years is the idea that you better really love your dissertation topic. I think we get told this many times – or maybe I read it in one of the many “how to survive graduate school” books over the years, but it’s one of those truisms that really matter. Although I’ve been working on the dissertation for about three years now – counting from my prospectus in 2007-2008 – I’ve been working on the general theme of women’s relationship to the military/warfare for nearly a decade (off and on).
Really, though, things got most interesting in the past three years. I worried for a long time that I might get tired of the topic. After all, once I finish the dissertation, there’s still the book to work on and all that. And I won’t lie: there are days when it feels like it’s the same old, same old.
Dissertation subjects make tricky bedfellows. You have to love them enough to be passionate about digging into the topic over and over and over again. And you have to love it enough to give yourself the drive to press through revisions and the headaches and successes that go with the entire process. At some point in the dissertation process, it’ll feel like you’ve gone round and round with no end in sight. (Happily, however, I’m told there is a way out, and I’m nearly there.) It can feel like you’re in a never-ending saga of you versus the dissertation, and some days, you’re just not winning.
Yes, there are days, and they’ve happened more often than not to me lately. Maybe winter doesn’t help, since we’re mired in single-degree temperatures and below-zero wind chill factors right now. Maybe it’s the added factor of the job market and the quickly-approaching AHA next month. Maybe it’s been the fact that my chapters have gotten longer with revisions, which means I’ll need to spend some time slicing and dicing them, a process which has its own rewards and satisfactions. (It’s a process that makes me feel a little more like I’m winning the battles, at least!)
Progress with these revisions feels slow, which doesn’t help the matter. There’s been a lot of reading involved, and a lot of playing with things and thinking about things and rethinking things, and – as mentioned -stressing over chapter lengths. Yesterday, though, I started to feel like I was getting somewhere.
Yesterday, I threw myself into reading, with some excellent results. I recently came across two primary sources that I’d never seen before. The first is a 1962 book on servicewomen and what they do, a broad overview of careers for women in the military, which offers me some interesting tidbits and perspectives (my favorite: the military as “sorority” for women). Then there’s a 1972 Army training manual, which includes – among other things – instructions on how to be a woman. I’m dying to see the film they referenced on the topic, and I’m told I can probably find it at the National Archives (will have to check it out one of these days).
I think the break from writing and editing helped me refocus. It felt like arming myself again – and yes, I realize I’m using far too many military terms in referring to the dissertation. All the reading yesterday helped me gather more evidence and ideas that I can use to better corral the dissertation and get it where it needs to be.
Today, I feel optimistic and hopeful. I feel like the progress is coming, even if it doesn’t feel that way so much of the time. Just for today, at least, the dissertation and I can be BFFs again. (Tomorrow, of course, the dissertation may be more tempermental, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.)