This post is by Dr Vanessa Corcoran, who 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.
At the beginning of 2015, I flew to Dayton, Ohio for a two-week research trip at the International Marian Research Institution at the University of Dayton. This research center housed some sixteenth-century prayers guides I hoped would factor into my dissertation. I excitedly viewed the research stint as an opportunity to jumpstart my writing.
While I waited for my flight home, I emailed my mom and aunts. I wanted to ride the momentum I had created during the trip into a productive semester. I hoped they, some of the most positive role models in my life, would play a part in this,
I’ve always tried to hold myself accountable and to uphold certain standards. However, I’ve come to realize I need a little more help to make sure I do this consistently. It’s easy for me to say, “I am going to work on my dissertation today” – a fairly vague statement. While I accomplish things each day, I need more of a strategic approach to getting this thing done. It is a new, so why not use this time to really resolve to change my habits so I can finally finish? You all such go-getters – some regular accountability will do me some good!
It was time to bring in the big guns: my mom and aunts, all of whom are go-getters and have played such an influential role in my life. I asked them to be my “professional naggers.” Apparently, you can pay someone to call you to make sure you’re staying on track. But in all seriousness, I asked these three women if I could keep them informed about my writing goals, as well the regular obstacles I faced. I even created my own writing contract:
- On the weekend, I will commit to at least one hour-long writing session
- Each week, I will plan out concrete goals and e-mail them out to you
- I cannot read more than 3 books or articles without a short (30 minute) writing session
- I will update my bibliography on a semi-weekly basis
- I will identify obstacles to productivity as they occur and work to eliminate them
- I need loving support, but I also need some tough love. There are going to be days when I’m not motivated and am just having a “blah” day. I need to not wimp out.
Now that I’ve finished my dissertation, those were reasonable and achievable goals. There was certainly room for flexibility, nor was I bound to a particular word count.
With that support network in place, I set to work, optimistic about the road ahead. I took that writing contract and used it to guide my daily routine. Each morning, I’d send off a quick email to my mom and aunts, detailing my goals for the day. For example, on January 27, 2015:
- 4 good pages written yesterday – wahoo! Things were slow for a good chunk of the day (also went downtown for a meeting mid-day), but then picked up tonight after dinner.
- readSpeaking in the Medieval World by Jean E. Godsall-Myers
- outline and write 3 pages for historiography section of introduction
- start outlining speech section for Chapter 1 (and try to write 2 pages if there’s time)
If I didn’t have those distinct goals, the days would’ve blurred together, and likely been less productive. I primarily worked from home, and I was grateful that my husband Pat was able to support me while I focused on my dissertation. Each morning, Pat would get ready for work; I’d feed and walk our English bulldog Heshie, and then settle down with my laptop for a few hours. If my energy was flagging, I’d occasionally call my mom or aunts for a quick phone call. They’d offer a pleasant distraction as they talked about their days, and I’d talk about what I was working on, and what I intended to accomplish for the rest of the day. I’d get off the phone, feeling refreshed and intent on making the rest of the day a productive one.
A few months later, I received some negative feedback from my advisor that left me feeling completely dejected. I worried that this feedback was proof that I could not write a passable dissertation. I feared this was a tipping point and a clear indication that I might wash out of graduate school.
I called my parents in tears, “What if I don’t finish? Will you still support me if I drop out?” Without a moment of hesitation, they replied, “Honey, you know we love you no matter what. But we also know that you can finish – we have every confidence in you. You’ve always managed to pull yourself out of these tough spots, and we know you’ll do it again.”
I wrote to my aunts, feeling crushed. They responded offering similar support, noting, “I honestly do not know how you do it. If I had to have my writing scrutinized, I would probably go mad. But chin up. You have done it before and will know what to do!”
Although it was certainly nice to have this supportive group cheer me on during moments of victory, such as getting approval to submit my dissertation for defense, it was equally as important to have them by my side while I worked through these difficult moments. In the weeks that followed, I sought to regroup and make the necessary tweaks to my writing. My team regularly checked in with me, to make sure that I wasn’t wallowing, and that I taking real steps to gain momentum again.
I was grateful that I had amassed a group of loved ones whose encouragement helped get me through a successful dissertation defense. While it was only my name that was listed on the cover of my dissertation, it was my personal squad who offered me the assurance that I had the capability of crossing that very important finish line.
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