Grad School Reflections: The Dissertation Support Group

For the last three year, I’ve taken my students each term to the Library of Congress for a research seminar and tour. I lucked out when I was first assigned to a wonderful librarian; I’ve been able to schedule him for almost every visit since then. He spends about 45 minutes with us discussing the history of the Library and how it works, and my students get their Reader Identification Cards so they can use the Library for their research. After a brief look at some of the smaller rooms in the library — like the Children’s Literature Center where the smallest book in the world is displayed, and the Microform Room where my students look at me with their “The what?” expressions — he takes us into the Main Reading Room. The audible gasp from my class when they walk through the door is my favorite part of the trip. The grandeur is overwhelming and is not lost on them. I love hearing them remark that they feel smarter just for walking across the threshold; I have the same feeling every time. Another regular part of the visit has become a joy for me, although it wasn’t initially! During the seminar portion, as an example of how to search online databases, the librarian includes one for dissertations. And he pulls mine up every time. It’s a very nice gesture and method for engaging my class, but it was startling for me at first! I have two copies of my thesis in my home office, but haven’t opened them for years. It’s been a long time since I defended, an obvious point when he scrolls past the publication date of 1995 and the students do the math. No one is more shocked than me to realize that over 20 years has passed and the thesis is older than every one of them.

Yet it feels much more recent than that and the memory makes me happy. I liked grad school — mostly — but my favorite part was writing my dissertation. Well, maybe not the actual writing, which was a bit dry and formulaic as academic writing often is. It was the research that I enjoyed, designing a study of my own. I wasn’t sure that I’d like it or that I’d be any good at it. But I loved having the time to think bigger thoughts and to be creative. Unlike course work, this was fun!

It was also a challenge, every bit of it. And stressful. Unlike many of my classmates, I didn’t feel the need to be the best, to write a masterpiece (as if). I wanted to do good, solid work. And I wanted to finish. It helped that I took “the best dissertation is a done dissertation” advice to heart.

More important, though, was the Dissertation Support Group. We were four, from the same cohort, with different intellectual and personal experiences and histories, different substantive interests, and different professional goals, who bonded through the “boot camp” years and worked together at the end to get it done.

Initially, I wasn’t so sure about a group. I preferred working alone and at my own pace; I was disciplined and knew how to structure my time. I resisted competing with others and found it difficult to be around the hyper-competitiveness that’s so prevalent in grad school. For some, that environment was stimulating and productive. Not for me. It made me anxious and increased my self-doubt. School was hard enough; I didn’t need the extra pressure of everyone else’s crazy.

But our group worked. Although we had different work habits and varying levels of intensity, we were able to put them aside to support each other. We’d work at the library, get coffee to start the day, meet for beers at the end of a long week. We’d touch base on our progress, work through individual challenges, and set goals for the next time. And we’d vent. A lot. This and other social aspects of the group was much more important than I’d anticipated. When course work ends and dissertating begins, the time spent alone increases exponentially. Even for someone like me, who valued solitary work space, loneliness was a challenge. I’m sure there was friction at times, but I don’t remember it. In the end, we withstood the inevitable tensions of writing and defending our dissertations with our friendship — and (most of) our sanity — intact.

I’m now reminded of this remarkable camaraderie every term when we visit the Library. As my students calculate my age from the publication date, I smile to myself while the librarian continues to scroll through the pages of the dissertation to the acknowledgements. There — with the dedication to my family and my closest friends — is my tribute to the members of the Dissertation Support Group. Truly, the best of times.