Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Fear of Complacency/Something to Be Proud of

I haven’t written a blog post in many months. There are a few explanations for this, but after some careful reflection, I think there are some deeper reasons for the lack in writing.

I started a full-time job in August at my alma mater. While I worked throughout my graduate education, I never had a full-time job year round. It’s been an adjustment getting used to the new schedule. I’m not running and exercising as much. If I manage to squeeze that in after work, by the time I get dinner on the table, and the laundry is put away, there isn’t much time or energy left to do anything else, especially writing.

I had an accident in September: I wiped out 2 blocks from home after a 5 mile run and lacerated the skin above my lip, needing 5 stitches. It was pretty painful. While I had a bloody nose and bruised knees (and ego), I didn’t hit my head or break anything. But it has definitely spooked me a bit, and while I managed to eke out a 10 mile run yesterday, that was enough of a struggle at a moderate pace.

But if I’m really honest, I think my silence can be explained by an underpinning desire.

I want to write about something I’m proud of.

I think my 3:27 marathon PR at Boston and my Ph.D. have a lot in common. They represent achievements that took place after years of hard work. I was beyond thrilled when both of them happened, as they represented the culmination of so much time and effort. But I used to think that achieving each of these goals, would cause unceasing satisfaction.

I used to not understand why elite athletes, who, after medaling in the Olympics, would commit to another four years of training, in hopes of winning another medal. Didn’t they already have the crown jewel? What else could they be searching for? Why would they spend so much time, blood, sweat, and tears, working to vanquish another seemingly-insurmountable conquest?

The fear of complacency is real, I’ve learned. I’m just 6 months out from earning my doctorate, and while it represented the culmination of so much work, I’ve come to realize in the past couple of months, that I don’t want it to be the end all for me. My work is not done yet.

For right now, I need to let running be on the back burner. I need it regularly to keep me sane (and to combat the effects of sitting at a desk all day), but it’s not reasonable for me to dream of races and PRs in the near future. My work there isn’t done yet, but it’s on pause for now.

But I have a couple of other big goals that I need to put out there, at least for a sense of accountability. But, like the Ph.D., they are not going to be achieved overnight. They require going back to the drawing board, and recommitting to spending downtime in front of a laptop.

 I want to write 2 books.

Whoa, 2?! Why not just aim for 1? That seems hard enough as it is.

I have two books I want to write, both of which already exist in their early stages.

1 is my dissertation. I received my bound version of it over the summer, and seeing it presented “like a book” furthered my desire to take the academic project I worked on for years, and turn it into an accessible book that more people, beyond those on my committee (and my mom – who has already read it) could want to read. I need to do more research, as there are a couple of (unwritten) chapters that would really help round out the project. I even met with a few of my old professors this week and received both advice and encouragement on tackling this project yet again. That’s Book 1.

Book 2 is going to come out of this blog. Since I started it in 2008, I’ve written a lot about running and writing, and how my journey into marathon running ultimately made me a better student. With hundreds of posts written, there is already a narrative in place about these twin journeys. For the past year, I’ve been combing through the blog, reviewing and editing old posts, as well as adding in some transitions to fill in some of the gaps where I put writing on hold. I already know that people read the blog with some regularity, so surely some of the same people would read my story in book form. I have to admit, part of this inspiration came from seeing my friend, Elizabeth Clor, experience such success in her book, Boston Bound. She utilized a similar approach, writing from her blog, and transformed it into a fascinating and popular book. If I could achieve half of her success, I’d be thrilled beyond belief. That’s Book 2.

Frankly, I think working on both projects can benefit each other. One of the things I really liked about writing the dissertation was that there were enough parts to it, that if I got tired of working on one section, I could move to another. I’m starting to feel the itch to tackle both projects in earnest. I need to reactivate my writing skills and retrain my brain to get back in the habit of writing regularly, both in formally and informally.

I was going back through the journal I kept in college, and found the following statement my freshmen year at Holy Cross, dated November 23, 2004:

I think I’m going to get my doctorate in history and become a history professor.

I feel like I owe it to that wide-eyed, hopeful 18 year-old student, to see these projects to the finish. The Ph.D. was not just an end: it also marked the beginning to the next great adventure.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

On Patience in Running and Graduate School

Confession: I'm not a patient person. When I was about 7, my Girl Scout Troop made Christmas presents around the first week of December, and I could not wait to give my tiny little tree to my mom, and pleaded with her to let me give it to her early (I think, after much convincing, she got me to change my mind and hold off on giving her this little homemade craft). If any sort of notification of a job or application is due to arrive on a particular day, I repeatedly refresh my e-mail. I remember when AP exam scores were due to arrive by July 1 at the earliest, I'd listen for the mail truck to come around the block, and then hustle out the door each day until the scores finally arrived.

Patience is a virtue, but it is also quite difficult to maintain. People are praised for responding quickly to things and being go-getters: those who know how to hustle and follow up. But the flip side to that ambitious drive ought to be some patience, which is easier said than done. And a lack of patience can be quite detrimental. In a distance race, if you're not patient and go out too fast at the beginning of a marathon, you'll inevitably hit the wall and all of that hard work will go up in a cloud of smoke. Many of the speed workouts I used to do on the track were designed to teach me patience. By doing mile repeats at ascending pace (i.e. Mile 1 7:00 Mile 2 6:53 Mile 3 6:45 Mile 4 6:37 Mile 5 6:30), patience was paramount to a successful workout. If I went out too fast at the beginning, it could wreck the rest of the workout. I'd have to regroup and try again. But because I consistently was assigned workouts like this, that rewarded patience, I learned from the exercise and became a smarter runner as a result.

Facebook's "On This Day" feature reminded me of two opposite experiences that happened on this day: four years apart.

For a little context, particularly on the 1st note. I remember this so vividly. It was my goal during Summer 2012 to hone in on a dissertation topic so I could develop and successfully pass my dissertation proposal. I had been circling around a topic and started to feel excited about it when the semester ended. I had a few books and sources that I knew were valuable, and I set to work. I was so stoked to actually begin the process in earnest: I had already produced about 10 pages of free-writing while I was at home visiting my family.

Then, I remembered that my advisor and other professors suggested keeping tabs on recent scholarship by searching a particular database that published information about history dissertations. And then, I discovered an old dissertation that discussed similar ideas that I had, using similar sources, and employing a similar methodology. I immediately burst into tears. I was at home, all alone, and I picked up the phone and called my dad. I felt so defeated and disappointed. This is so hard! How am I ever going to come up with a unique topic? This is medieval history - people have been writing about this for so long - what will I ever have to say about it that is new and interesting? Why am I doing this? 

I probably wasn't that articulate in the moment, and beyond assuring words of love and constant support, there wasn't going to be anything my dad said that would change my gut reaction.

Disappointed, after a day or so of pouting/mourning/venting, I e-mailed my advisor that the first bout of progress had been derailed, and that I hoped to report back later in the summer with some progress. She wrote back with some words of assurance, signing off, "Vanessa, your reading will not be in vain."

Not in vain. I held onto that phrase and repeated it like a mantra for months. Not in vain as I went to the library for new books. Not in vain as I re-read sources, looking for a new angle. Not in vain as I sat down at the computer, trying to get in a page of writing. I needed patience at this moment, to realize that there would be payoff down the road for this labor, and that the setback was really a set-up for the next phrase of my graduate career.

It took months of work to finally hone in on the topic that would ultimately provide the framework for my dissertation. It didn't appear out of nowhere in an instant: it was a long time of working through ideas.

The mantra not in vain  has also come into play as I've sought to improve my running and return to running after time off. No comeback of any kind is every easy or instantaneous, but requires both patience and persistence.

A lot can happen in four years, as those two Facebook posts reminded me. And just a year after the second, I've finished grad school and am again learning patience as I work towards the next goal.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Post Ph.D. Race - Capitol Hill Classic 10k

To say the least, all of my eggs have been in the Ph.D. basket, particularly since last fall, when it became evident that I could definitely finish and defend my dissertation during the Spring 2017 semester. With that in mind, virtually everything else has been put on hold or just received lower priority. All eyes were on Operation Endgame, and the majority of my time and energy went toward achieving that goal. This meant things like diet and training received less priority. While I was finishing my dissertation, I tapped into running to find sanctuary and sanity, but nothing more. 
 And now that I'm done (yes, it's official - I graduated last Saturday and the School of Arts and Sciences conferred my degree), it's time to start looking ahead in many different ways. Most specific to the blog, I’d like to get back into race-shape, and down the road (maybe in 2018?), consider a return to the marathon. But that takes time and requires a long, concerted effort to get there.

So, without any special training, and with my mileage hovering around 30 miles per week, including a 10-11 mile long run on the weekend, I signed up for the Capitol Hill Classic 10k, a race I’ve always wanted to do, but for scheduling reasons, have never been able to. I knew it would be a hilly course, and I still had in my head my last race (another 10k that I ran in February, during which I felt so sluggish). So, what was I shooting for? At minimum, breaking 50 minutes and getting that shadow off my back, and ideally, running around 45 minutes (about 7:15 pace) would signal some progress. It’s my hope that this summer, I can spend more time running and training, so this race could be a great way to set me up for summer.

I have to recommend this race to anyone in the DC area. The Capitol Hill area is beautiful, and all of the proceeds benefit the Capitol Hill Cluster School, a DC public school with over 1,000 students. It is definitely a local race that runs through neighborhoods, and it was fun seeing families out on their front stoop, and people out enjoying their Sunday mornings. There were also a number of great political/DC signs, including “I just got off the phone with Russia – you won!” “You run better than the government!” and my personal favorite, “Run like you’re under investigation!” There was great music playing before the race, and despite all of the chaos on Pennsylvania Ave, everyone was out to have fun.

I realized running the first mile in about 7:00 flat that that pace was too fast, so I pulled back ever so slightly. And the course was so crowded (over 2,000 runners), that dialing back was probably the right decision – just let people run out and then, do what I like to do best, chase people later on. The second mile was about 7:35 and I started to feel much better. The weather was perfect (60 and overcast, with a slight breeze), and it was just great taking a beautiful day. We then ran past RFK stadium and through this paved trail. Then between miles 3 and 4, we ran past an all-female drum line, and few things can ramp me up during a race than live music, particularly with such a steady beat. I finally felt like I was at a good pace, and got to hone in on passing people, one runner at a time. For me, this turns a race into a game, and the ability to focus in on one person makes the time go by and adds extra incentive to push throughout. I hit the 5-mile mark at about 36-37 minutes, and knew that I had about 10 minutes left, and with that in mind, started to go harder and harder, and as we reached the mile 6 mark, the crowds picked up with their intensity. Making the last turn brought back an old and thrilling feeling, and I had a smile on my face as I crossed the line in 45:24 (7:18 pace). I was 189/1933 overall, 22/1014 women, and 12/451 in my age group.

Woo! This was great. I felt great throughout the race, and now feel so psyched to put some more races on the calendar, and get into some intentional, scheduled training.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Find Your Tribe

With the Ph.D. in the rearview mirror, I've been thinking about what I've learned along the way (beyond the specifics of medieval history). Yes, there are organizational skills I picked up, and certainly writing tips that I've accrued along the way, but there are other life hacks that, looking back, were absolutely instrumental to finishing school.

Find your tribe.

No one is an island and writing a dissertation can often be a very lonely, solitary endeavor. And while your name is at the top of the ticket, a support group or community of family and friends is absolutely important to navigating through the highs and lows of graduate school. There are different kinds of relationships that you'll need to tap into: each will bring something different to the table (and hopefully you'll, in turn, bring something different to support that relationship).

One of my best friends is a stay-at-home mom of 2 kids under age 3. On the surface, our lives look very different. My dissertation days are often very quiet, and the writing days were filled with limited opportunity for human conversation and interaction. Her days at home with the kids are often hectic, noisy, and are filled with limited opportunity for adult conversation and interaction. It used to feel counterintuitive to call her to vent about my writing struggles, when compared to hers, mine were minor and significant. But we were both looking to step outside of our small, isolated worlds, and while I couldn't understand the difficulties of children teething, and she couldn't quite relate to the headaches involved with revising a chapter, we could commiserate. These check-ins were often a lifeline, I think for both of us. Talking on the phone, even for just 20 minutes mid-afternoon, removed us from our lonely silos and gave each of us a breather.

Another of my dearest friends was my roommate for two years during grad school, and she finished her Ph.D. the year before I did. We had different research interests, different advisors, enough differences to separate us that we didn't have to compete with each other. Yet, we were able to push each other and challenge each other. On weekends and in the summer, we'd meet, laptops out, come up with a game plan for our writing session, and get to work. Watching her finish so successfully gave me the motivation to keep pushing. Moreover, she became a confidante towards the end - I needed support from someone who had reached the final benchmark and could truly understand and answer some of my questions about Operation Endgame.

Of course, I also relied extensively on my family: specifically, my husband and my parents. They all offered the day-to-day support I needed unconditionally. I can't put into words how important they were to this process. Again, all part of the tribe.

I had to learn a lot about myself and my writing habits and style along the way, but I also had to learn about creating a supportive environment, and that's where the tribe comes in.

I've found my tribe and they were absolutely instrumental in graduate school. Now, it's time to thank them and lend the ear that they were so willing to offer me.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

When to Ask for (Writing) Help in Graduate School

In grad school, reading for class, comprehensive exams, and for my dissertation was my favorite thing. I've been an avid reader since I was little, and the opportunity to sit down with interesting books was one of the major selling points of graduate school. Even when professors had assigned multiple books to read per week, or as my comps lists required 100+ books of reading, these were challenges I relished taking on.

Writing has been another story. I love to write - this blog is proof of that. And of course, I wouldn't have signed onto a Ph.D. program, knowing that 200+ pages of writing would be a necessary product of my education, if I wasn't passionate about writing. But writing can be difficult, and my early years of graduate school were spent slogging through writing assignments. It was hard to not take the comments personally - I remember one remarked that my writing was "baggy" and it took years to shake that. But, through returning to the keyboard again and again, I made progress, and made it successfully through the dissertation proposal.

But there was a moment during the dissertation writing process where it was clear that just because some sections of my dissertation were well-received, this was not universal, and I was urged to go back to the drawing board. This was excruciatingly painful: it was upsetting to see that I hadn't made as much progress as I had hoped. I feared this was a tipping point and a clear indication that I could wash out of graduate school without finishing the dissertation. But after a few days of wallowing (and yes, it was full-fledged wallowing: many tears while curled up in the fetal position), I knew I needed help. I couldn't just stubbornly push my way through this barrier alone. If I wanted to really achieve a break-through and ensure that I would eventually finish my dissertation, I needed to reach out to those who think about critical writing for a living.

I made an appointment to see Dr. Kevin Rulo, the director of our university's Writing Center. We worked through the main critiques of my chapter and together, brainstormed a plan for moving forward. This tipping point ultimately resulted in one of the great academic collaborations of my graduate education. Not knowing me that well, not knowing my subject matter all that well, but with a background that equipped him to effectively critique dissertations, Dr. Rulo would help me work on tweaking thesis statements and help me work through new ways to conceptualize the organization of a particular chapter. For an hour once a week (off and on - I think we met about 10 times), we'd talk and go back and forth on particular segments. I would only bring 3 pages to him at a time, but we would get a lot of mileage out of those 3 pages over the course of an hour. But more than that, we'd explore ideas for additional segments of each chapter and work carefully to tighten up my argument. These were rich, fascinating conversations that pushed my writing (and progress forward).

There is no shame in asking for help.

Let me repeat that it again, because I've had to assure myself of that many times.

There is no shame in asking for help.

A few years ago, I would've been embarrassed to admit that I was working with a professor in the Writing Center. Shouldn't I, as a Ph.D. candidate, be prepared to fly/write solo? No! Professors asks their colleagues to look over book chapters and article drafts. Writing is never an entirely solo endeavor. To expect good writing to emerge when written in a vacuum is futile: asking for criticism and feedback is a natural part of the process.

There is a popular saying: "a setback is a setup for a comeback," and I found this to be applicable in this instance. It's easier to say that in hindsight. But ultimately, by choosing to lean into the challenge, instead of running away from it, and working through the issues that had held my writing back, ultimately made my dissertation better. It loosened the knots that threatened to slow my progress, and instead, offered a sense of clarity that I longed for.

There is no shame in asking for help and that's clearer to me now. Asking for help and leaning into the challenges helped me earn those 3 precious letters: Ph.D.

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.