I’m back! And my Dissertation got its Groove back!

 *note: this post was originally published at: http://www.queensu.ca/connect/grad/2014/09/01/guest-post-rana-pishva-on-dissertation-on-the-lake-or-how-my-dissertation-got-its-groove-back/Logo2

The day was not off to a good start. My car-mates and I left before the convoy, and what was supposed to be a 30-minute drive north of Kingston turned into a 90-minute tour of South Frontenac – one that included a pit stop at the home of an elderly couple, who offered us coffee. Eventually, the GPS stars aligned and we made it to the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Center (ELEEC). A large “Dissertation on the Lake” sign along with two smiling organizers from SGS waited for us. The ELEEC is a 400-acre biological field station (read: “natural research lab”) that offers graduate and undergraduate students in biology, geology, and environmental studies opportunities to get their hands dirty. For the next four days, the site of Elbow Lake was to be a space of productivity and recreation for 30 graduate students.

We made it!

We made it!

 

Let’s be honest – doctoral studies are one of the few situations where “number of years of experience” in the program is not a positive thing. Starting my 5th year, I jumped on this opportunity to focus on my project, away from all the distractions of the real world (read: walking the dog, laundry, Netflix, re-organizing my sock drawer). I can shamelessly admit that I had reached a point where my dissertation felt like a chore – not a contribution to science or an accomplishment. Simply put, my dissertation and I needed to rekindle our love, and we had a week by the lake to do just that.

 

Given our group’s tardiness, most of the students were already working when we arrived at Elbow Lake. Some were set up in the central lodge that doubled as our gathering space and kitchen. In between meals, the space was quiet and comfortable. Others chose to venture out into the wilderness. Walking to our cabin, I saw people working on their personal patios. I took a stroll down by the lake: someone had snatched a spot inside the gazebo and another typed away on an Adirondack chair. Two others had already gone on a canoe ride – no laptops in sight. The possibilities were endless.

 

Lake

I chose to set up shop outside the central lodge and started my first Tomato. You see, in the late 1980s, Francesco Cirillo was having a hard time focusing on his studies. After some experimentation, he developed the Pomodoro Technique – named after the tomato shaped kitchen timer he used to time the 25-minute work intervals that were separated by short 5-minute breaks. I swear by this time management method, because knowing that a break is coming leaves me less tempted to check out what my friends have been up to, whether by checking my phone, or Facebook, etc. I also record what I accomplished in 25 minutes, which leaves me a rewarding list to review at the end of the day.

 

Three Tomatoes (and 15 pages of coding!) later, it was time for the first communal lunch. It was quiet and people stuck with those they already knew or else kept working. Over time, curiosity about each other’s work, discussions of animal sightings, and the desire for a quick swim after lunch took over the quiet space. To some of us, meal times were a permission to take a break, re-group, and maybe play a short round of “Dutch Blitz.” Everyone eventually returned to their respective work stations, whether in the main lounge or under the shade of a tall tree.

 

I started subsequent days with a yoga practice by the lake, quick swim, and breakfast. Despite this routine, I started my work day nearly 90 minutes earlier than I would have at home. Finding our individual paths toward a common goal was the theme of the week. Each participant brought their own work habits and goals, and used the beautiful site and bottomless coffee to their advantage. There was a mutual – and natural – understanding and respect for space. Looking up from my screen, I was motivated by the focused looks and felt empathy for the occasional sigh of frustration. But all work and no play does not make a dissertation retreat! In between Tomatoes and after dinner, we gathered by the fire for s’mores, played board games, or enjoyed the many amenities at Elbow Lake.

 

Rana-Yoga

 

I had to overcome my guilt about not doing work all day and into the evening. Like many graduate students, I try to squeeze work into every corner of my day: I read articles while food is in the oven and make edits in between episodes of Downton Abbey. There is an odd sense of satisfaction when I unexpectedly accomplish a small, yet important task in a forgotten time slot of the day. But that couldn’t happen while at Elbow Lake, because there was nothing else. Dissertation was my focus and I had the time to gain the momentum I needed to push it to the next stage. I realized that after a productive day – 10 to 12 Tomatoes – I could give myself permission to let go and enjoy the sights.

 

I left Elbow Lake having accomplished more than I expected. Most importantly, having been immersed in my project instead of moving through disjointed half-days peppered with meetings and laundry, I was excited about it again! I drove back from the site believing that I can actually make a contribution to my field of study. To me, this renewed enjoyment in my dissertation – and the 34 Tomatoes it took me to get there – are the most important outcomes of this writing retreat.

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Plot Twist

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Plot Twist!

Earlier this summer I received a text message from my close friend, on the morning she was supposed to leave for a road trip in New York State. She wrote to me saying that her partner lost his passport, and they decided to drive up to Newfoundland instead.

I could imagine the scene: Andrea and Louis looking through every drawer, on every shelf, and under every piece of furniture in the apartment looking for the single item that would allow them to leave on their much anticipated and well deserved vacation. Their car was already packed with tents, sleeping bags, and many overpriced, miniature versions of household items found in outdoorsy stores. They had unplugged their electronics and set up an “away from my mail” response to their emails. They had a plan.

I found myself in a similar situation last spring, when my dissertation committee decided that I would have to start my project from scratch. I originally had a “flawless” plan: apply for the pre-doctoral internship this fall, write-up in the spring, and graduate by summer 2015. Unfortunately, a 200-page document and five committee members stood firmly between my dream and I.

I instantly switched to problem-solving mode: reading articles, talking with colleagues, drafting research ideas, and writing new proposals. I was so preoccupied trying to salvage my project and clinging onto my original plan, that I ignored other responsibilities, such as sleep and maintaining whatever is left of my sanity.

Although a dissertation is slightly heavier than a Canadian passport, getting either involves an agonizing amount of time, paper work, and money. Both involve changes to the original plan.

Having known Andrea for almost a decade, I can imagine the turnaround when it became clear that Louis’ passport was nowhere to be found. She was likely looking feverishly through his messy desk before throwing her arms up in air and saying something along the lines of “Okay Louis, that’s enough. So we are not going to New York this year, but I am not wasting my 10 days vacation. Get in car, we are driving to Newfoundland.”

Bam! That was it. They drove on, had a wonderful trip, and ate delicious lobster.

I knew I had to do the same: accept the loss and the new direction I was facing. I had to accept that my plans changed and that I will be spending an additional year in graduate school.

Then I came across this piece of online wisdom:

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I have moved on. The new plan is to eat healthier so that I live an extra year and make up for the additional one I am spending in graduate school. I will also eat lobster.

Speaking with Andrea about this post, she informed me that Louis recently found his passport, tucked between the pages of a dictionary. It looks like they will make it to New York after all.

ImageAveragely yours,

the candidate

The End of a Love Story

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Two years ago, I was in love. The type of love that made me stroll through the hallways of the department with a absurd smile on my face, my heart overflowing with hope, my head swarming with dreams. I had a dissertation that would change the world. My project would single-handedly change the faith of anxious youth. It was beautiful. I loved what it represented and its simplicity. Anything was possible; the world was within my reach! My dissertation and I were gallivanting into an academic sunset.

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Our love story came to an end when my dissertation committee told me that the data I spent two years collecting was “not valid”. My entire being melted into the floor, taking my hopes and dreams with it. The past two years flashed before me: the hours I spent coding audiotapes, the Sunday mornings and Friday afternoons I spent at the hospital waiting for participants. All these efforts were as useful as sunscreen on a rainy day.

I am experiencing the loss of my dissertation much like a break-up. I cry, feel sorry for myself, eat chocolate ice cream, and listen to Adele songs on a loop. I talk about it to anyone who will listen. I watch Bachelor Pad re-runs while my colleagues have participants on weekends. I watch my friends do statistical analyses the same way single gals at a wedding watch the bouquet toss. Here I am, starting over while everyone else seems to be breezing through data collection, analysis, and write up.

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A little investigation has led me to believe that my story is not unique.  Others have experienced this dissertation love story and the devastating, inevitable heart break that often follows. Minor and major bumps in the dissertation process are the process. What is shocking is that no one talks about it. Many of us are struggling to get through, to get support from our supervisors, to develop ideas, and simply move forward – yet we are quiet about the process and assume that we are alone. We assume we are the problem: that there is something wrong with us because the process is supposedly easy for everyone else. That is wrong, and this false belief will continue to isolate us from each other if we do not open up about the difficulties we are having through our graduate process. How are we supposed to learn from each other, with each other, if we are quiet and stick our heads into the ground?

Like any heart ache, moving on is the hardest part. From one perspective, I get to start over with a new project: fresh and clean. It’s an opportunity to try something new and hopefully better. On the other hand, I have six months to do two years worth of work.  I am also limited by the topics my committee will accept and my resources.

Despite having written a new proposal (i.e., three new studies) in a month, I am not convinced that I am ready to move on. I’ll be honest: I don’t like my new project. It won’t change the world and it won’t even have a fancy title. There is nothing worse than working on something that is not interesting.

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This is where you – the reader – come in.

I have three options:

1. Go on with this uninteresting but practical project. The proposal is nearly finished, and part of it being revised as we speak. If all goes well, I should be able to collect data in the fall and be done by the winter. It is a boring topic, something that I will never want to look at again. Even my committee members are likely to deny any involvement with it. But it is a project; it is a scientific contribution, and a possible (uninteresting) dissertation.

2. Follow my heart and continue with a new project I love. I have this yoga study on the go – and I love it. The response to the project has been great, both in terms of participation, emotional support, and financial support. I feel like I’m contributing to society by doing this project. Unfortunately, if I were to take this route, I would have to find a new committee and supervisor. I might even have to take an extra year. Being more than half way through my PhD, that is not an easy task….

3. Drop out, move to California and become a wedding planner/baker. California is beautiful and I have friends there. I am a great host and event planner. I love baking. I just bought a car so I could drive there. Seems reasonable.

So what do you think?

What challenges have you faced?
Averagely yours,

the candidate.