Thursday, April 20, 2017

The End of an Era: Defending the Dissertation

After I ran my first Boston Marathon in 2010, I mused in my blogWhat is pure joy? Can it be bottled and preserved forever? Maybe not. But pure joy can be found at the Boston Marathon.

That question encapsulated an important moment in my life, one based on achievement, that would take on new meaning as I earned my doctorate.

In the six marathons I've run so far, the marathon itself always manifested itself as a victory lap: a multi-hour celebration/endurance challenge after months of hard work. My advisor, and many other professors and Ph.D. recipients who had gone before me, framed the defense as another victory lap. They described the defense (a two-hour oral examination with six professors) as an opportunity for a great discussion and conversation, and to enjoy the fact that six people had carefully read my 315 page dissertation. I never quite believed them when they said it would be enjoyable - how is a two-hour exam enjoyable? Maybe they didn't remember how their own defenses panned out - surely they had forgotten the difficult questions and the gradual tightening of the screws throughout the exam.

In the week leading up to the defense (the taper, as it were), while there were the occasional small bouts of nervousness, but I felt pretty relaxed. I had worked on my talk, and prepared responses to many questions I thought were fair game, but overall, I felt really good. The day before the exam, time moved so slow, but again, still felt really relaxed. I went on a sunset run, listening to Katy Perry's Rise.

Oh, ye of so little faith
Don't doubt it, don't doubt it
Victory is in my veins
I know it, I know it
And I will not negotiate
I'll fight it, I'll fight it
I will transform


It was 75 degrees out - but I got chills (literally - it's a very strange sensation to get goosebumps while sweating) listening to the lyrics. And in moments like that, you can tell something special is about to happen.

Until about 10PM. It was as if someone flipped a switch, and the reality of the situation set in. Adrenaline started to flow, and it made for a rough night with not enough sleep. The morning of, I set out for a 5 mile run, hoping that as usual, it would disperse pent-up nerves. Usually, I can shake out those worries a few minutes into a run, but not on Defense Day. It was a 45 minute run, and it wasn't until about 42 minutes in, with just a few blocks to go, that knot in my stomach and shortness of breath finally disappeared, thankfully. And with the worry gone, I set off to get cleaned up and ready for the big day.

I love my campus, and because my defense was at 9AM, getting to campus early meant some quiet time to myself, including at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (whom I've called upon throughout all of graduate school) within the National Basilica. After a few final moments of prayer and quiet, I headed to the conference room for my exam, arriving at the same time as my advisor.

"Breathe. Relax," my professor said. I smiled and tried to not say to much that would betray any sense of confidence I was trying to display. The professors filtered in, and as I suspected, once the curtain went up and it was showtime, I would be ready to go. The defense began with me opening with a 20 minute overview of my project, which I had practiced every day for the past week. As I was laying out the parameters of my project, it felt as routine and rhythmic as a regular run - the muscle memory was there. While I was talking, I tried to look around and make eye contact with each professor, and as I caught the eye of my advisor, I realized she was smiling.

I nearly melted.  Oh, this is going to be okay. I realized at that moment, this wasn't a smile of encouragement, but one of pride. My advisor has known me since I was 22 and a brand-new student, who arrived to CUA with a lot to learn. I still have ways to go, but this was a moment that reflected positively on her as much as it did about me - this was our journey. So I tucked that feeling in my pocket and continued on until I got my cue to wrap up my opening statement.

The second part of the defense consists of each professor getting a short segment for questions, beginning with the advisor, and then going around the room. Before she launched into her first question, my advisor opened by saying, "First of all, Vanessa, I want to commend you on this project. In your exploration of Mary's voice, you introduced us to this fascinating topic..."

Okay, this is going to be okay. Everyone is on board. This is actually going to happen.

And then the Q&A session ensued. I went up to "the buzzer" with each question, meaning that I gave substantive answers (I was really worried about being too short with responses), and as a result, it went by really fast. It was an exercise in mental gymnastics, and the faculty were offering different questions to see how I could respond. After the last professor got his question in, I was sent in the hall for them to deliberate. "Go for a walk - it'll be a few minutes. We have some paperwork to fill out."

Ok, the rational side of me knew that everything was fine. The committee wouldn't have scheduled the defense if they thought I would fail - failure would be a reflection on the department. I knew that there was a reception scheduled in my honor in about 20 minutes - they wouldn't have ordered cake and champagne if they thought it would be a bust. But until the door opened, I wouldn't actually believe it. Tick tock. Tick tock.

Finally, the door opens, and my advisor walks out with a big smile, uttering the words I'd been longing to hear and working towards all of these years:

"Congratulations, Dr. Corcoran."

The smile says it all: me and my advisor
And just like that, it was all over. All of those years of classes, reading, writing, exams, studying, crying, praying, going back to the drawing board, wondering, worrying, hoping that it would happen - a whirlwind of experiences and emotions manifested in a dream come true. 

There was a small reception, and the rest of the day was spent with friends and family, on the phone and in person: just exchanges of pure joy. It's hard to believe that one era is coming to a close, and another one (TBD) is about to begin.

It's been just over a week since I finished, and I'm still in a state of disbelief/relief/overjoyed. It's hard to put it into words. Although so many people made the comparison of the dissertation to a marathon, the build-up to any marathon was 4-5 months. If you've lost track of the timeline:

2008 - Graduated college, moved to DC to start master's program in medieval history
2009 - First marathon
2010 - First Boston Marathon, Finished master's degree, started Ph.D. program
2011 - Finished coursework, Passed doctoral comprehensive exams
2012 - Reached ABD status (all but dissertation - you have 5 years to finish), started dating my husband, started teaching and researching my topic
2013 - Teaching, my dissertation proposal was approved, and we got engaged
2014 - Research/writing, got married
2015-2016 - Writing, revising, teaching
2017 - Defended

And throughout, I had these lyrics from Smash "They Just Keep Moving the Line:"
So I made friends with rejection
I've straightened up my spine! 
I'll change each imperfection 
Till it's time to drink the wine! 
I'd toast to resurrection 
But they just keep moving the line! 
Please give me some direction, 
'Cause they just keep moving the line!

It took a long time, but I finished right on time. A few statistics were always weighing on my mind:

  • The average student takes 8.2 years to slog through a PhD program and is 33 years old before earning that top diploma.
  • Only about 57 percent of doctoral students will get their PhD within 10 years of starting.
I've never worked so long or so hard for something. My mentor from Holy Cross sent me a congratulatory e-mail, which included the following:

You have worked so hard for this and overcome challenges and obstacles, that I know were tough at the time but which have made you stronger and more able.


And she's right. This was an uphill battle, but to stand at the top, to look back and to see how I've gotten here, had been a wonderful feeling. It's the end of an era, and I'd also be remiss if I didn't thank all those involved. As I shared in a Facebook post last week:

I'm so incredibly thankful and grateful to all of my family, friends, classmates, and professors who supported me professionally and personally throughout this marathon endeavor. It was truly a joy today to discuss my project after years of research, writing, and revising. This was a labor of love, and while my name is on the front page, it was a project supported by so many people near and dear to my heart. Thank you. 

And once more, for the cheap seats in the back - thank you.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The hay is in the barn: standing at the .2 of graduate school

When I used to run marathons, reaching the taper meant "the hay is in the barn:" all of the intense training was done, and it was just a couple of weeks of maintenance before the big day. It was always so exciting to get through the "monster month" of training: a time of high mileage and intensity. The monster month was the point when everything came together, and getting through it meant slamming the door on the hard part. When they ha was in the barn, it meant recovering from the intensity and trying to get the body geared up so that on race day, you felt fresh and ready to go.

The hay is in the barn. I am defending my dissertation on April 12th, and have submitted the written dissertation to my committee. No more edits. I've written, edited, revised, thrown out the bad parts, cleaned up the prose, and had it vetted by four professors. The only thing standing in front of me graduating in May is a two-hour oral defense, in which my committee and two outside examiners will ask me to discuss my research. I'm pinching myself, mainly because the dream of getting a Ph.D.,  one that I've had since 2004, during the first semester of my freshman year at the College of the Holy Cross, is about to become a reality.

Decades of a life-long education is coming to a conclusion before my eyes. Yes, I know, those who love to learn never stop learning. But the daily rigors of school: of writing, studying, meeting with professors, all of that is almost over. And I'm keenly aware of of the "lasts" that have been coming up.

On Tuesday, I had my last meeting with my advisor - the last time I'd seek her out as my professor. We met in 2008, when I was 22 and bright-eyed, both optimistic and terrified. We chatted yesterday about the parameters of the defense: what to prepare for and things to think about in the coming weeks. She asked how I was feeling, now that I had submitted the written product. "To be honest," I said, "It may not be polite to say, but I feel pretty good." I don't say that out of arrogance, but rather, the department only lets you defend when they are truly convinced that you're ready. They put all of these hurdles up, and if you can get through them without knocking them down, it's game time. So, yes, I have a lot of work to do to prepare, but it's game time. The two hours of the defense will certainly be challenging (and yes, there are lots of butterflies), but I'm also excited for the big day. I have a countdown on my calendar, and as the days slip by, the anticipation builds. 

I'm at the .2 of graduate school, but really, I'm about to toe the line of the big race and trading in my racing flats for heels.

Less than 2 weeks to go, and lots of fluttering.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

When there is a bigger race ahead: Race for Equal Justice 10k

Every year for the past few years, my New Year's resolutions have largely been tied to something with graduate school: finish master's program, pass Ph.D. comps, get proposal approved, write X amount of chapters, etc. This year, the resolution is to finish the dissertation and graduate. There were no running goals, frankly, no other life goals: just eyes on the prize. Running has been a coping mechanism: a way to clear my head after writing and rewriting, staring at the computer and trying to figure out the best way to articulate my argument. Getting some fresh air and the chance to let my brain wander is not just a reward for getting some good work done earlier in the day, but a necessity to ensure that more productive hours will follow.

I'm really close to defending. My advisor has read my entire draft, and after those revisions, I've submitted the revised version to my committee. I can count on one hand the number of steps left until the defense. Once I receive feedback from the rest of the committee and make those changes, I'll be ready to defend. Stating that unequivocally or without hesitation feels a bit strange, because so often (despite my mom's insistence), the finish line has felt unattainable. But at this point, unless I implode in the next six weeks, the dream will become a reality. And to be honest, the past few months, everything leading up to the finish, have been some of the happiest moments of graduate school. Instead of confusion and doubt, there's been clarity and encouragement.

But because I'm competitive in nearly all aspects of life, it's hard for me to put any sort of racing completely on the back burner. After all, I did get my half marathon PR in September amid a lot of writing. So, I signed up for the GWU Law School Race for Equal Justice 10k. Very low stakes race on Haines Point: a course I've ran on at least 15 times. I've finally gotten my mileage over 30 miles per week consistently, with long runs going up from 10 miles to 15 miles last weekend. I hadn't really done much speed prep beyond trying to push hard in the last few miles of a long run. But I hoped that muscle memory would kick in, and that shooting for about 45 minutes was a reasonable goal (maybe even faster than that).

To say I was humbled and brought back down to earth is putting it mildly. My first mile was 7:15, and the way it felt seemed closer to 6:15 pace. It was a race in which every mile felt tougher than the next. For comparison, I ran my half PR in September at 7:02 pace, in which the first 10 miles where at 7:00 pace consistently, and then I slowed down by about 10 seconds per mile. During that race, I felt so in control. During this race, I watched people pass me effortlessly, while my legs failed to respond. I finished in 50:08 - my second slowest 10k ever (second only to my 10k debut in 2008). And I was spent - not like finishing a marathon or PR, but clearly just not at the level I'm used to performing at.

But as I was running, for nearly the entirety of the race, as my pace continued to slow down with each subsequent mile, I had the following thoughts running through my head: This doesn't matter, what matters is that you've been throwing all of your energy into finishing. The race you're chasing after is much bigger than anything you'd encounter on the roads. Your time is well-spent writing. And yes, you're competitive and your running friends are out there running faster, but you're seeking a different kind of PR (a Dr.)

So, while the stubborn and competitive person in me finished feeling a bit stubborn and dejected, I had already found perspective and had my eyes turned on the bigger race (race date TBD - stay tuned).

Saturday, January 14, 2017

When The Boss Says to Put Work on Pause: Pushing Aside the Cloud

When a boss, or in my case, my advisor gives a recommendation, I'm usually quick to take it. Usually this has to do with working on my prose, consulting additional sources, or other pieces of advice designed to further the progress of my project. But a week before I turned in my draft last month, I received a suggestion that was counter to her usually recommendations:
Once you submit this, do not look at it for several weeks. Do not be tempted to go through it, but give yourself permission to set this aside. At this point, you're so close to the project that you now need to create some distance between you and it. Don't think about it over the holidays, and that way, when I give you feedback in January, you're looking at your writing with fresh eyes.
For the past few years, if we've chatted, most likely you've seen me look like this. Bright-eyed, with at least some attempt of looking put-together, and usually with a smile. And usually, in my daily life, that was at least a partially-accurate interpretation. But my interior reaction to the writing process has often felt more like this:

For better or for worse, the dissertation has followed me quite closely for the past few years. I didn't think about it on our wedding day, and there have been a few other days over the years (my brother's wedding too) when it's been pushed aside, but typically for at least part of each day, the dissertation hovers like a cloud. Some of it is nagging guilt (You should be writing), other times it stems from well-meaning questions about my progress (So, how's your thesis? When do you think you'll finish? It sure takes a while, huh?).  I don't know if other people experience a similar feeling, or if people in different lines of work feel the same way, but that inner cloud followed me for a lot of the writing process.
It was only a few months ago that the cloud started to shrink. I think part of it had to do with watching it all come together, part of it was the positive feedback I was receiving, and another part was the realization that the dream was truly en route to becoming a reality.
I didn't touch the dissertation for 22 days. My husband and I went on a lovely vacation to St. Michaels, MD, where for a week, we relaxed, lounged, celebrated, and truly decompressed. No alarm clocks were set, no schedules were made, the only requirement was fun.
It was amazing. I remember even when we went on our honeymoon, there was a little bit of the dissertation cloud (just the tiniest bit), but the cloud finally abandoned its location over my head. If someone (I was at an academic conference during the final days of the 3 week break) asked about my dissertation, an internal knot did not form in my stomach. Nor were my words carefully couched, told with a forced smile and feigned optimism. I could feel the genuine optimism and sincere excitement as I updated any inquirers, "Yes, I turned in the full thing!" "It looks like if everything goes right, I'll defend in the spring!"
And when the first round of feedback came in this past Monday morning, I tackled it with excitement. To clarify, it's not like I was sitting there grinning as I waded through the necessary corrections - that would be slightly insane. But there was an enthusiastic intensity to my work, and yes, a degree of excitement as I pursued through some articles and book chapters, finally having the time to dive into some of the broader issues surrounding my project.
There will still be moments of doubt and anxiety in the coming months - I'm pretty sure about that. However, that larger cloud has been pushed aside, and I'm looking forward to taking on these final busy months like this.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Putting Operation Endgame into Action

I can point to one simple reason why my blogging fell by the wayside, yet again, in the final months of 2016. I had written a very exuberant blog post about how Operation Endgame was in motion, and then proceeded to focus on reaching the first milestone in that part of the dissertation marathon.
Then, I was in the middle of writing my final body chapter of the dissertation, and in an effort to relieve my brain from the single focus of that chapter (which felt so tedious to write – it was the chapter about which I was the least confident), I started to tackle the introduction and conclusion as well. To me, one benefit of the nature of the dissertation is that different components of it require different aspects of your brain. On the surface, it is a day-in, day-out grind, but truly, as one part overtaxes your mind, you can relieve some of the pressure by turning to a different section, until your brain has recovered enough to return to that previous roadblock.
Mid-November, I submitted that final chapter, and with just over a month to go, took to revising the old chapters and bringing together the big ideas into the project’s beginning and ending chapters. I had received enough encouraging feedback to feel galvanized and energized for this homestretch of 2016. All of the thoughts that had been swirling around in my head about the project as a whole, which previously were relegated to an ongoing Word document, finally had a proper place in the wrapping and packaging of the project. And with the exception of Thanksgiving break, during which I happily set my writing aside to be home with my family, I wrote, revised, and threw myself into getting the full draft ready for submission.
There have been times when the writing process has brought me to my knees. Sometimes in prayer, sometimes in tears, sometimes in frustration, but it has been an endeavor that I’ve participated in my whole body. There have been physical pains, emotional highs and lows, spiritual moments (almost a given as a Catholic writing about devotion to the Virgin Mary), mental anguish and intellectual triumphs, but it’s been a labor of love, full stop. But it was also my hope that as I raced toward the finish line, the memories I would carry with me of those final months would be filled with mental stimulation and motivation.
And during that monster month, that’s exactly what happened. I worked every weekend (save Thanksgiving), and many evenings were editing, and although it was exhausting, and sometimes filled with moments of uncertainty about reaching the deadline, it was also exciting too. For finally, as those questions swirled around, from classmates and professors, to well-meaning family and friends, the question “so, how are things with the dissertation?” was met with, “I’m getting close to submitting a complete version,” said not with a grimace, but with at least a modicum of optimism.
And on December 20th, I submitted a complete draft of my dissertation. To see the whole process come together, to print out and bind a full draft that could be read from cover to cover, brought back the feeling of satisfaction that came with doing the first (of what would become many) 20 mile run that was one of the final benchmarks of practice before the marathon. Yes, it was met with a familiar feeling of fatigue, but a tiredness that comes an intense, passionate effort.

I was under strict orders from my advisor to take a break and not think about it until the new semester. I was more than happy to oblige, and just as whole-heartily as I entered into the monster month, I stepped away, happy to step off the train until the conductor summoned me to board again.