Sunday, August 20, 2006

Final Dissertation Push

Via profgrrrrl

First, I can't believe it's been 13 years this summer since my final dissertation push. I had earned my MA in History prior to taking my first teaching job. I was going to student teach in the fall and the History Dept. chair asked me if I would be interested in being a graduate assistant the next spring. They had a g.a. that would be leaving in December. Because I did not go the thesis route (which I would not advise given that most doctoral programs in this field no longer accept you without a thesis), I took overloads during two summers and a spring while teaching a survey course and graduated with my MA before I took my first teaching job at a nearby junior high school.

At that point, I had no intention of ever going back. I was going to become a high school teacher and that was it. After two years teaching junior high and then volunteering to co-sponsor cheerleading (that's a book in and of itself) in order to move to the high school for two years, I returned to graduate school. I didn't know that you picked a grad school based on their specialty areas but I did know that I wanted to head south and that my plan was to get in and get out. I'd had my own classroom for 4 years and lived in my own apartment. I made a deal with my parents that I would work as fast as I could if they could help with the rest of the expenses that I could not forecast. Most of you in the profession know that most graduate catalogs do not provide much structured guidance about what to expect and since I had graduated from an MA program that was not at a school with a doctoral program, I had no clue. But, in the end, it all worked out. My teaching background - esp. with the 4 years of actual middle school and high school experience required by the national teacher education accrediting agency, along with my more recent participation in Teaching American History grants, has long wiped out any less than perfect decisions about which grad school to attend. (I wasn't there long before I was told I should have gone somewhere else.) However, I've never been a fan of the pedigree club - I'm much more a member of the "what have you done with what you've learned?" organization as well as branching out from my major professors and graduate school cohort (which was virtually non-existent given the low completion rate - I do miss that camaraderie).

The short version of part of the story is that I found both my dissertation topic and my first TT job by participating in regional and national conferences. Because I had heard the horror stories of the "cattle call" each year at the AHA, I decided that since I would be taking my written and oral comps in the spring, I would attend the AHA in Chicago and check it out. I had seen the job ad for the position I eventually accepted on the bulletin board at my school but had dismissed it because I didn't want to go to a place like Miami - this was before I realized that not all of Florida was like Miami. Again - believe it or not, the short version, I interviewed for 3 positions - the other two were in PN. I was given the impression I had at least one of the PN jobs but the folks in Florida showed up in my mailbox first wanting to schedule an on-campus visit (all app materials had to be in before the AHA so that was already done). I really wasn't sure but I went with it. The only complication was that they made it clear that no offer would be forthcoming until I was ABD. The glitch in that was that that VERY semester, the dept. had started enforcing the requirement that you pass both languages (there's only one now) before you took comps. There's another book about my getting caught in departmental politics.

So, I took the job in Florida and moved there ABD having spent a great deal of time at the Truman Library doing as much primary research as possible before I left the Midwest (my parents lived just a few hours from there). I took the position and was given no committee assignments so that I could finish the dissertation. Despite the distractions of living in an apartment complex and city full of navy and marine pilots, I finished most of the writing by early spring. Spring was more productive on that front because my teaching load was reduced because of student teacher visits - while time intensive, they required much less actual dedicated time in comparison to preparing to teach new courses.

In the middle of the final push - about a month before I was to go defend the dissertation and was busy doing rewrites based on committee feedback (since this was before email, I lived at the post office and discovered that USPS Priority Mail _might_ get there in two days and that UPS was a much safer bet), I received a call about a position at my undergrad alma mater that the professor who taught 20th century US had died and that the man who did the social studies methods class had developed a terminal disease and would I consider coming there to teach. While I had not intention of leaving Florida yet, I examined the situation carefully. While I had not had time to maximize the social possibilities in Florida, the job situation was not quite as promised, including the classic complaints from fellow department members that I was "spending too much time in the education building." When all was said and done, alma mater was the better job. The first phone call was a Saturday at noon from someone I didn't normally keep in touch with but was acting dept. chair. I was out walking the dog so had to wait for him to call back on Monday. I had not idea what he wanted. When he told me I was smart enough to say let me think on it a few days - I'm right in the middle of final dissertation rewrites.

Then, the next day, the former history department chair who had become the academic vice-president called and asked if I would seriously consider coming there. I thought, ok, I really have to think this through. I just ran across the "pros" and "cons" sheet on yellow legal pad I wrote up. I ended up taking the new job primarily because the Florida legislature was really late appropriating funding (another issue - no raises in the last several years with no signs of change - lesson learned: don't ever work for a state institution in a state without a state income tax) and we didn't have contracts yet. (Now in my current state, we receive contracts with the money to be reconfigured later.)

So, needless to say, the pressure was really on to finish the dissertation rewrites. The original deadline was so that I could teach a July class in Florida. And, given that they had hired me ABD, it was hard to tell them I was leaving. But, when all was said and done, they would have made the same decision had they been me. Anyway, I was smart enough not to tell my doctoral committee I was changing jobs until after they congratulated me on a successful defense.

I'm tired just reliving that. It also underscores why more people do NOT finish doctorates in the humanities. In the past (it has definitely changed in the last 13 years), you were expected to have no life if you went the PhD route. Now, women doctoral candidates especially, are making their voices heard that these same work challenges (dissertations, TT job requirements) come during the prime child-bearing years for women. While progerss is slow, things are getting better. But, the bottom line is that dissertations are still difficult and there is a big sense of satisfaction once they are done - on one can take that away from you.

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