I’ve been spending the summer trying to get my dissertation proposal together, and I have some things to say about this process which some people may find interesting. I think that on this blog we talk a lot about theology, a bit about being in the professional academy, a smidgeon about going to the dentist, and not very much at all about being in graduate school (which we all are). So here goes.

After finishing my comprehensive exams in the spring, I thought that this summer, the summer of dissertation-proposal-ing, would be one of those rarefied, glorious times in which all of my ideas connect in my head in some beautiful, deeply edifying bundle of satisfaction and sweetness and light. My intellectual coming-of-age. I imagined this would be the case because I have had a dissertation topic for a long time now, proper Christian love of self from a systematic theology angle, so why wouldn’t things work?

Well, if you’re at the stage of this kind of advanced research and have only a kind of vague yet passionate and decently informed vision of your project, it turns out that the creative process can be merciless.

This is not everybody’s problem at the embryonic stages of dissertating, but in my case, I did not know how to concretize my argument and select the appropriate people with whom to have a theological dialogue (and in my defense, not very many Catholic theologians roughly contemporaneous to me have talked at great lengths about love of self). So I spent a good deal of time early in the summer kind of reading around and postulating excitedly about a new angle/idea each day. And I was going to tackle ALL the angles. I went on a book-checking-out binge from the library and now have hundreds of books scattered in my study and carrel.  (It also doesn’t help that, now at Notre Dame, graduate students can request books that some poor undergraduates working at the library then get to retrieve and place on the first floor for your leisurely pick-up.) And I was going to read ALL the books.

My extremely patient and wise advisor Cathy Hilkert (Hi Cathy!) let me spin out for awhile but about halfway through the summer told me that I would not be having 12 different major thinkers in my dissertation. (But doesn’t it sound like a really good idea to have a dissertation which includes figures ranging from Augustine to Aquinas to Rahner to Derrida to Catherine Keller and maybe a bunch of other feminist theorists and theologians?!) She was then relatively relieved when I got the number down to five figures, but I still had a long way to go.

I then started talking to the rest of my committee and had to answer a bunch of difficult questions about the organization and structural integrity of my dissertation. This part of the process revealed to me that even my five-figure configuration was still too heterogeneous to work as a coherent piece of writing over the long haul. I was not particularly smiley in coming to this realization, especially with the dissertation proposal deadline looming. In fact, I think it was when I felt I had gotten about as focused as I was capable of getting for the proposal and then realized I still didn’t know what I was talking about, and that my argument had holes you could drive a truck through, that I hit the nadir of this process. I then spent about a month feeling totally aimless and unmotivated and like I had somehow irreparably damaged my chances of writing a good dissertation. I woke up every day knowing that I needed to be doing work, some work, any work, but I didn’t know what I was looking for, why I should be doing anything, or how things would ever come together. Suddenly I felt that cleaning the apartment and doing the laundry deserved massive amounts of my time, and, when I finally would crack a book, I would read a few pages and then for an indeterminate amount of time stare out the window. Or at the wall. I did this for many days, and many nights I went to bed feeling deeply uneasy.

But ultimately, with a lot of help, formal and informal, from my advisor, committee, husband, mother, and friends, I’ve finally come up with a three-figure dissertation that everybody is happy about (Augustine of Hippo, Teresa of Avila, and Sarah Coakley), and the proposal-writing/organizing is happening now. Most importantly, I am happy about this structure. I don’t know why or how I turned this little conceptual corner, but I suppose I maxed out on my despair quotient and just sat down one day and was able to think more clearly about what I wanted to say, in the simplest form possible. And something emerged. Is emerging.

I suppose it’s easier for me to make the following claim now that things are coming together in my head, but I think that this intellectual meandering, detouring, and doubling-back was important for me to go through this summer. I actually really always loved writing papers, and I have always had a lot of ideas and nascent arguments floating around in my head, but trying to think about what it takes to construct a 300-page project has really stretched me in ways I didn’t know I could or needed to be stretched. I think I’ve learned a lot about setting up a large-scale problem (for example, if I am talking about the problem of self-hatred in the introduction, how to do that in a theologically rich way that doesn’t ignore the sharpest intuitions of psychology but also doesn’t just become psychology-speak), the rhetorical and discursive techniques necessary to connect the figures in my dissertation in the right way (namely, deciding what each figure in my dissertation gives me in a necessary way, for my own account of love of self, while not turning a blind eye to their respective problems), and how to articulate my own position which is deeply informed by, but cannot be subsumed into, the perspectives of the figures in my dissertation.

So I guess this summer was a bit of redemptive suffering, the growing pains of transitioning from student to scholar. I don’t take it back, I don’t think.

And yet, I do regret one thing about this process. I highlight this thing for students, especially female students, who will be embarking on their own advanced research at some point. (I don’t think that women in graduate school necessarily and essentially have to deal with this problem more than their male counterparts, but empirically, I’ve noticed that women, at least at Notre Dame, do tend to struggle more, statistically, with the following issue.)

Maybe in some respects, when things were at their worst this summer, I just needed to feel as though there was no way to move forward, and keep going anyway. It’s character-building I suppose. At the same time, what made the creative process so bitter for me at certain points was that I stopped trusting my own intuitions about the matters at hand. I think certain (valid and helpful) critiques from some of my committee members got in my head in a debilitating way, and their voices eclipsed my own voice. So then any time I would make a provisional claim as part of my argument, I would immediately see the various problems with the claim and shoot it down before I even had a chance to develop it. This is a bad space to inhabit. I eventually convinced myself that I actually had no dissertation idea, and that everything I had thought was important to discuss/critique was actually fine the way it was, and that all the problems I saw with our contemporary discourse on love of self were not actually there, and that I was making a fuss over nothing.

So I’d like to say this, especially to women in graduate school: when your research stretches you beyond what you think you can handle and all you see are problems and weaknesses in your own argument, never ever, for one second, doubt the fundamental validity of your perspective. Even if you know your argument needs work, and you see the million complications that arise with any argument that is actually worth making, go with your gut and work it out from there, boldly. And go with what brings you joy, even if others, including the faculty helping you, don’t understand exactly what you’re doing. There will be a place for self-critique and the critiques of others, subsequently. But give yourself the space to think about what makes sense to you. Listen to others, but don’t ever let the voice of anybody else replace your own.

I say this probably also for myself, as I am sure I will hit rough patches in the next two years as I write my dissertation. Ah well. Let’s go forth and sin boldly.

15 thoughts

  1. This is great, Elizabeth. Very inspiring for me as I look ahead to the (oh-so-distant) future in which I put together a dissertation proposal, both in terms of talking about some of the problems that might arise and in terms of emphasizing their solubility. Your statement about advisors whose voice overpowers your own especially stuck out for me. Both my primary and secondary advisors (both of whom I expect to sit on my committee) are people whom I really care for, whose work I love, and whose perspectives and expectations are…fairly dominating. Finding my own voice within that is going to be tough, I think.

  2. Thank you so much for this. I’m a few years behind you in studies, minus the husband but with a teenager and a professional career of twelve years in a largely unrelated field, but I’m already being asked gently about a thesis and hear the inner voices questioning – “Is this right?” I’m far more confident in my professional arena, and was struck by the incongruity of the two just last week.

    I don’t know if being at a Jesuit institution will be different than it would’ve been at Notre Dame (which I briefly considered as well), or whether those voices are ones we’re taught as women to hear, even today, when we enter certain realms of work or of discourse. Good luck as you begin to write – boldly – this fall.

  3. This is simply beautiful, Liz. And so encouraging, especially since I am now facing the year when I do my exams and offer up a prospectus. I’m sending this around.

  4. Yes to all this.

    As you know, because we talk and have dinner and have coffee and panic together and try to support one another, the proposal-writing process keeps getting me into the rut of being so conscious of the potential flaws in my argument that I literally lose my own voice–the thought of saying out loud what I am trying to argue overwhelms me with nausea. And it is so. ineffably. hard. to push through and get the words out and try to have the confidence in my own voice that it even takes to ask for help in refining it.

    Actually, as you don’t know — so maybe this is weird to say on the blog — even during exams, I got so tangled up in whether my readings and critiques were right that eventually I just put a sticky note on top of my computer, with “TRUST YOUR THEOLOGICAL VOICE” written on it in marker, which I would force myself to look at it before I started work.

    I would be really interested in concrete disciplines anyone has succeeded in keeping that help her or him to counteract these debilitating voices…

  5. Lo, three creative ways to work with your theological intuition!

    When I was stuck with 1001 thesis ideas, and unwilling to let any of them go (they’re all too important!), my supervisor recommended taking a big sheet of paper and writing all my concerns all over it. Not just conceptual concerns, but my worries for the church, my struggles with academia, my theological intuitions, the lot. By doing this, I was able to discern a whole emerging from this mass of disparate concerns. Not a whole dissertation proposal, but a picture of myself as a whole person. It then became much easier to pick a few core issues to explore, through which I could express all my other concerns without letting them clutter the dissertation.

    Now I do the big paper every time I get stuck when writing. I just ask, ‘What is bothering me here? What is my concern?’ Or, ‘If this was a simple sermon, what would I say?’ These are good ways of getting back in touch with your theological intuition. It can also be helpful to keep a field diary, separate from your notes on your reading, with reflections, worries, stream-of-consciousness rubbish, questions, pictures and any quotations that grab you, whether or not they seem relevant to your topic. Reading back through this can help you see patterns in your concerns and the emergence of a ‘hunch’ about what you want to say, critically and constructively. This really works.

    And if you ever get really, really stuck… try collage or painting. Seriously. Your creative instincts as a theologian aren’t just visible when you write – they can take aesthetic shape, too. It sounds odd, but often I will have an aesthetic sense of a problem before I have a conceptual sense of it! (Plus, when my brain is tired it likes cutting and sticking.)

  6. Dear Elizabeth,

    I think that we may have had remarkably similar summers, separated by several hundred miles filled with people who are doing substantially less crazy things. This was the line I most needed to read: “[W]hen your research stretches you beyond what you think you can handle and all you see are problems and weaknesses in your own argument, never ever, for one second, doubt the fundamental validity of your perspective.” I have been doubting precisely this at several key moments over the course of the summer for extended periods of time. And how funny is it that I also turned to laundry and other such tasks in order to, avoid thinking about what was sure to be an impending disaster? Everyone would finally know that I wasn’t “cut out” for the program I’m in; the little man hiding behind the bush waiting to say, “Aha!” would finally get his chance; I would be dismissed for not managing to submit even a mediocre proposal by the looming deadline; my advisor would lose his respect for me; etc. So just know that my mind plays games with me too. One might call it the sneaky spiral of self-doubt (to paraphrase Allie Brosh).

    I suppose this is all to say, Thank You. But I must confess I am still determined to read All The Books.


  7. So grateful to read this as I am a month away from my qualifying exams and have spent the past two days struggling… feeling I’ve never had a worthy insight… unclear about what to argue in my dissertation area paper… sure that these outlines i’m preparing for the exams are crap, etc. I love the comment about a big post it note that reads “TRUST YOUR THEOLOGICAL VOICE.” And the idea about writing all the rambling ideas on a big piece of paper is also great… I’ve also found side journalling to be helpful and hope to do it more and more.

    I’ve recently realized some of the root sources of my voice issues in academic theological writing and I’m grateful to realize that, but one does not heal over night (and every night my exams get closer and proposal writing will be on its heels…) Hearing your reflections helps immensely in this process. We’re gathering women in theology at my institution this Friday at my house. I’ll be sure to share this post with everyone!

    I think that it is going to be important for me to take some time to write creative, imaginative conversations with my scholarly conversation partners. I trust my conversational voice, but I somehow lose it when dealing with scholars (or so it seems! I yield it…) I tried this for the first time yesterday- free writing an imaginary conversation between young Karl Barth, mature Karl Barth, and me over morning tea… and this morning I wrote a thesis for my dissertation area paper without too much angst. Must keep this up…

    1. Hey Sarah,

      Sounds like you’re actually doing a great job. I went through comps this past year, and I can just say that, when it comes down to it, you’ll be able to make only a few finite points, and that’s it. There’s actually a great freedom in that. So just say what you want; just go for it. I will try to keep this advice in mind for myself since you’re right that healing isn’t exactly presto chango…

      Good luck!

  8. I do the same thing! Especially because academic culture leans towards a confounding pretense of mastery. Thanks for your words, which offer solidarity and encouragement. I will bookmark this and return next time I hit the wall!

  9. What a beautiful post, Elizabeth. Not that I’ve ever been in a similar situation, but even the small challenges–a paper due, a statement of intent looming–have seemed much like the situation you describe. Thank you for sharing your insights.

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