My Dissertation Starts Today
Today I begin classes at Claremont Lincoln University for my doctorate. Most doctorates, including this one, require two years of coursework and several comprehensive exams before the candidate (“student” will no longer do) enters what is commonly known as ABD – All But Dissertation. Many doctoral careers end there, most, if some statistics are to be believed. A rather large number still manage to slog through the next year or five to produce that magic dissertation, a large written work of original thought and/or research on a particular topic. Among my classmates there are doubtless many who are now telling themselves “Today’s only the first day. I’ll worry about my dissertation later.” This is not to suggest that I know better, only that I choose to think differently. My dissertation starts today.
Today is not arbitrary. I’ve been thinking about my dissertation for a couple of years now and earnestly since I started applying to doctoral programs. I’ve wondered about topics, theses, research methods, sources, advisers, committees, and structure. But, aside from my admissions essays, I’ve not written about it. That is what makes today different. Today I start writing my dissertation.
Now how is that possible when I haven’t even decided my topic yet? When I don’t have a thesis or any sources or a committee? Well, mostly I’ve decided to write through the process of answering those very questions, and posing more questions, ad infinitum. I have never believed that writing is merely a recording of ideas we already fully understand. Writing is a process of thinking, of finding understanding that we might have lacked when we first sat down at the keyboard or picked up the pen. My dissertation is not a static thing already out there in the ether waiting for me to transcribe. My dissertation is a process I begin today.
This may very well be the last time I am a student in any official sense. I tell myself that I have this one last opportunity to get it right, to create the kind of habits and discipline necessary to carry me through that critical ABD stage. I know, I know, I’ve come this far already. Doesn’t that mean I’ve already mastered the art of study? Hardly. I’ve mastered a lot of tricks for passing. Here and there along the way, when I wanted to, and was in the right mood, and everything just so, I’ve truly studied. When I study, I learn. But no, I don’t always study, even though I always pass. Studying requires discipline, the character trait I struggle with most. I am not a truly disciplined person and I respect those who are. I am a responsible person and, sometimes, an anxious person self-conscious of what others think of me. That can masquerade as discipline. But left to my own devices, I am rather undisciplined. In fact, I am frequently just lazy. Which is why I find it so helpful to make a commitment to another person, like a professor in a class, which forces my sense of responsibility to step in where my discipline has failed. So I tell myself, “This is my last chance to learn discipline.” Because once I’m ABD, I’m only responsible to myself. And myself wants to watch another season of West Wing, thank you very much.
So my dissertation starts today and my topic is discipline. If I learn a little about Buddhist spiritual care or pastoral theology or Buddhist psychology or chaplaincy or scripture along the way, peachy. But right now that discipline takes a much simpler form: getting up on time, sticking to my schedule, finishing my to do list, and writing every day. I will write every day. I will write about my life, work, care-giving, and, hopefully, somewhere in all of that, my dissertation. Wish me luck.