So you’re writing a dissertation, Part 1

In early 2010 I began interviewing a graduate student in the Religion Department about her PhD dissertation. I thought it would be interesting to listen to a graduate student as she navigated the dissertation process – which demands autonomy, originality, and a strong work ethic – from beginning to end. The dissertation is like a ritual initiation in which the student is dropped deep into an unfamiliar wilderness area with nothing but a compass and asked to find her way out. Though graduate departments, writing centers, colleagues, and friends lend whatever support they can, it is still an individual process and different from anything the emerging scholar has ever done before: produce an original contribution to her area of study and thus demonstrate that she is qualified to enter the academic profession. Likewise, the many hundreds of how-to books on completing the dissertation can only go so far. It is not surprising that many graduate students never make it all the way through. Perhaps interest in their topic wanes, or anxiety induces writer’s block, financial support vanishes, or other life opportunities arise.

In this first interview with my Religion Graduate Student (a.k.a. RGS), about two months have passed since she passed her preliminary exams. She is preparing herself emotionally, intellectually, and financially for the challenge ahead and has set herself an ambitious goal of completing her dissertation within one to one and a half years. She is working on a group of feminists from the American Friends Services Committee (AFSC) in Philadelphia in the 1970s that developed transnational networks to resist what later came to be known as globalization. She has to figure out how to tell this story, why it is important, how it relates to religion, and what it means.

I spoke with RGS for this interview on February 19, 2010.

—Fred Rowland

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