The final months of writing up your dissertation are, needless to say, intense. Long hours writing, sacrificing weekends, a sleepless night here and there… It’s exhausting but for some, a necessary part of the process. Vanessa Corcoran called these months “Operation Endgame”. Read her story on this week’s PhD Life post…
In 2016 I was laser focused on finishing my dissertation. I was starting to learn how to manage my anxiety and regain some confidence in order to finish this endurance challenge. At the beginning of the Fall 2016 semester, my advisor said that we ought to meet to discuss my “endgame” – the final stages of my dissertation. Although I had been telling people that I planned to graduate in the Spring of 2017, I feared that my committee believed my dissertation would never come to fruition.
Needless to say, my nerves were frayed. But as we talked about my most recent chapter, it was clear that my advisor was on board. As we wrapped up, my advisor said, with a knowing smile, “by hook or by crook, we will get there, Vanessa.” She offered the validation I was looking for: that she firmly believed that I would finish.
The following day, my advisor emailed me with a concrete deadline of when to submit my first complete draft of the dissertation: December 20th. Although just over two months away, I wrote back that it would be a tight race to get there, but manageable. She replied, “Let’s do this!” It really felt like a team effort. Everything was finally coming together. Operation Endgame was fully in place, and I began to tackle the writing with eager anticipation, not dread.
After I submitted my last body chapter, I took to revising the old chapters and bringing together the big ideas into the project’s beginning and ending chapters. With comments like “I’m beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel,” I had received enough encouraging feedback to feel energized for this homestretch of 2016. I threw in everything I had to make sure that the full draft was ready for submission. Assembling the full draft resurfaced a particular memory from the early stages of the writing process.
In 2012, I was a few months into my research and discovered that someone already wrote a dissertation on the topic I was considering. My advisor told me that the initial research and writing that I had already done would “not be in vain.” I didn’t believe her until 2016, when I was trying to tie everything together in my introduction, that I returned to some of the free writing I had done in 2012. It needed polishing, but some of the old writing from nearly five years before found a home in the final version of the dissertation. “Not in vain” was right. Writing a dissertation required years of cumulative effort, and the work done on any given day was part of the bricklaying that enabled me to climb my way to victory.
During that monster month, I not only worked during the day, but also spent many of my evenings and weekends writing and revising. Although it was mentally exhausting, it was also exciting. This feeling reminded me of how Shonda Rhimes described the best moments of her writing process:
“A hum begins in my brain and it grows and it grows and that hum sounds like the open road and I could drive it forever…The hum is action and activity, the hum is a drug, the hum is music, the hum is light and air, the hum is God’s whisper right in my ear.”
I instantly understood this. When I was able to sit with my laptop for extended periods of time without getting distracted, I felt the hum. I rode that momentum as much as I could during those final weeks of revising.
On December 20th, I proudly submitted a complete draft of my dissertation. I was excited to print out and bind a draft of 310 pages that could be read from cover to cover. Turning it in gave me permission to exhale.
When my advisor gave me a recommendation, her advice usually had to do with working on my prose, consulting additional sources, or other stylistic suggestions. But when I turned in my full draft, she gave me a different recommendation: “Once you submit this, do not look at it for several weeks. 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.”
And just as quickly as I entered into the monster month, I stepped away, happy to get off the dissertation train until the conductor summoned me to board again.
Vanessa Corcoran earned her Ph.D. in medieval history in 2017 at The Catholic University of America. Her research interests include the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary, the intersection of gender and popular religious practices, and the textual representations of medieval women’s voices. Currently, Vanessa is an Academic Counselor in the Office of the College Dean at Georgetown University. She’s working on a forthcoming memoir of her experiences in graduate school, entitled “It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint: Lessons Learned on the Road to the Marathon and Ph.D.” Follow her on Twitter @VRCinDC and her website: VanessaRoseCorcoran.wordpress.com