Autobiographical Dissertation Study

If you are on this page, you have probably agreed to engage with me in an autobiographical examination of the dissertation process. While we may get together for some focus-group-type discussions of the subject at some point in the future, I would love to also have participants write about their dissertation experiences. The prompt for that writing is simply to write as much or as little as you like about any memorable moment from your own dissertation development, writing, and defense process. While I really hope that people will simply think back and be able to grab onto those high- or low-lights of their own experiences and write about those, should that not really get the writing juices flowing, you could also consider telling your story around any or all of the following:

  • How you chose your topic, method, research site, etc.
  • What your writing process was like, especially moments during that process that were difficult, challenging, heartening, fulfilling, etc.
  • How the process impacted you (physically and emotionally, as well as intellectually)
  • What your defense and/or committee interactions were like
  • How you chose/worked with your dissertation director
  • If/how your dissertation process impacted who you became during or since
  • If/how your dissertation process may be seen as potentially impacting your future

I have written a few samples of memories from my own dissertation process below. The three samples are on differing topics and of differing lengths to give you an idea of what I have in mind. Feel free, though, to work from any perspective and in any length. I’m really just interested in how you will answer the general question: What was your dissertation process like? What do you remember most about it? And maybe even—What, if anything, do you think those memories mean?

Responses can be written in word processing software or just as the body of an email and sent to me at When sending, do also please let me know if you would like for your anonymity to be preserved, should your stories be used in the final draft. If so, I will make sure that names are changed to protect the innocent.

I will be happy to answer any questions you may have about the project, so just let me know. I would like to have as many responses as I could get by the end of March 2018 so that I may get a clearer idea of how this project will take shape. I had a much bigger response to the initial query than I expected, so we’ll just have to see how it continues to progress.

Many thanks for getting this far with me and considering lending your experiences to this work.


Sample #1 – Committee Antics

I remember a scene with my committee. I believe it was during my proposal defense. One of the committee members said that he didn’t agree with me that the curriculum I had written for my students (and on which my dissertation was focused) was actually service-learning, although I had used that literature to create it and situate it. Another committee member said something along the lines of, “Well, if you don’t consider this service-learning, what do you think service-learning is?” He responded with a very narrow, old-school definition. Before I could respond that the definition had been broadening over recent years, etc., the other committee member said something like, “So, if her curriculum isn’t service-learning, what is it?” They continued to debate with each other for some time, with the others of us in the room watching it like a tennis match. It was a perfectly congenial and intelligent debate, on which I took copious notes. They finally agreed that, perhaps, moral imagination was a better fit for what I was doing. In the end, I took their advice and used moral imagination, rather than service-learning, as a lens for my analysis. In the moment, though, as they were debating, I remember feeling very satisfied with the exchange. Getting a PhD is, in my opinion, about becoming capable of engaging in that kind of academic debate. In that instance, I had successfully pulled two smart, learned, well-considered academics into a discussion on my topic of choice. There was something about it that made me feel as if I had arrived, and that gave me confidence as I moved through the rest of the process.


Sample #2 – The Emotional Weight of the Work

I prepared for writing my dissertation for about 3.5 years. I gathered data over three years, during which time I also collected sources, wrote literature review sections, and laid out my methodology and methods. I spent six months organizing and analyzing data, and then, I set to writing the final draft. By that point, I felt very ready to write, and for the most part, the writing came quickly and without too much difficulty. Sure, there were days when I hated my dissertation, and there were days where it flowed better than others, but overall, the writing didn’t feel extremely onerous. To the contrary, there were many days when I would sit down to write early in the morning with a cup of coffee and still in my pjs and get so engrossed in what I was doing that, before I knew it, it was 3 or 4 in the afternoon, and I had not moved from my desk chair, let alone eaten or bathed or any of that important life stuff.

Even though the writing generally seemed to go well, and even though I never really doubted I would finish, pass my defense, and graduate, the day that I completed the draft was a very emotional day. I wrote the entire final chapter in one sitting, very much in that way of binge writing described above. I remember feeling as if I were rushing to the end, and the closer I got, the larger that final paragraph loomed. When I began what became the last sentence of the draft, I was very aware that they were the final words of the work. Upon placing that last period on the page, I began to weep uncontrollably. I don’t really consider myself an emotionally demonstrative person, and I don’t get into a full on blubber very often, but in that moment, the emotions were so many (happiness, sadness, relief, anxiety, etc.) and so overwhelming that I couldn’t even try to hold them back. I cried for a solid hour.


Sample #3 – How I Chose My Topic, or Rather, How It Chose Me

One of the first classes I was required to take in my doctoral program was called an “Introduction to Doctoral Studies.” A running theme through that course was to attempt, as early as possible, to fix on potential topic areas for our dissertations. The idea, which was totally logical, was that, once we had at least narrowed our focus down to general topic areas, we could aim our course work and the writing and research assignments in those courses toward our topics, which would make the dissertation proposal, literature review, and other parts of the dissertation writing process easier. Having written my masters thesis using feminist theory, I figured I would generally stay in that area, and so I began to look for something that might be a suitable topic for a doctoral dissertation having to do with issues of gender. I settled on researching gender silo-ing in universities, which is the phenomenon of people sorting themselves into particular majors according to gender—where, regardless of the fact that female students out-perform male students in math and science in high school, over 80% of undergrad engineering, math, and hard science degree graduates are male. I conducted a literature review, and there seemed to be some interesting possibilities, especially when the subject was viewed through Judith Butler’s lens of performativity, as I would have done.

For some reason, it never occurred to me to aim my studies at my real reason for exploring a doctoral program in education in the first place, which was a desire to find some new ways to think about writing curricula so that I could get better at my job, which was teaching business writing. I was, though, rather excited about my first curriculum theory class, and it lived up to my expectations. I came to realize that my writing curriculum was difficult in part because it did not honor my ontological and epistemological leanings. Although I have an affinity for and most easily see the world through the lens performativity (very short and uncomplicated version of which is that we are what we do and we do what we are), my class was a case-based class that constantly put students in the position of pretending to be someone other than who they actually were, the person they identified as being, in order to complete assignments. I realized that I needed to align my curriculum with performativity, which would mean allowing students always to write as themselves. This would require creating a curriculum through which students would find a real, legitimate need to engage in business writing. I began to play with ideas of ways to rearrange my course to fit that philosophical commitment.

Over the summer, I hashed out a new curriculum. The center of it was having students work in groups to develop ideas for non-profit organizations that could be started at the university. They would write memos to each other proposing ideas, create reports from research conducted to support those ideas, draft letters and emails to university representatives and outside support for determining feasibility, give presentations to the class about their progress, etc. As the fall semester was approaching, I set a meeting with the director of the business writing program, who was my immediate superior, to run the new curriculum by her and get her approval and input. While the department gave us a curriculum to work with, they were very supportive and open to the instructors modifying the curriculum to meet their needs, which we had all done. However, to my knowledge, I would be the first requesting to basically throw out the curriculum altogether and start from scratch with my own ideas. As the meeting progressed and I explained my ideas to my boss, she was obviously on board and saying all kinds of nice things about my ideas and how she loved what I was doing. Toward the end of the meeting, I asked her, just to be clear, if I had her permission to run with my new curriculum. Her response was not only that I had her permission, but that I should apply to IRB to capture data from the course so that I could write about what I had done in the future. She looked at me and said, “You don’t seem to realize it, but I think this is your dissertation.” It was the first time I considered writing my dissertation about my work as a teacher of writing. My boss was right, though. It did become my dissertation, which totally made sense and was also in line with my theoretical leanings. What could someone espousing performativity possibly write about other than that which forms her identity, what she does, who she is, how she sees herself. First and foremost, to this day, I am a writing teacher, and my dissertation topic allowed me to lean into that identity and has shaped who I have continued to become.