A Brief Dispatch from My 4th Year

Foto 264
Me, reading Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” circa 2009

This past summer went by entirely too fast, and now autumn is nearing its end. The nippy cool breezes hint at the cold to come, and I’m just not sure that I’m ready.

On the other hand, I am so ready.

I am now in my 4th year of the PhD program (5th year as a student here, if you want to count my ‘lost’ year), and I am wrapping up my dissertation and submitting job applications. No one warned me that everything comes due all at once- applications, dissertation drafts, conference abstracts, professional membership renewals… all of it, all at once. Nonetheless, all is well.

On Writing… and Re-writing

Being in my 4th year as a PhD student (candidate as of September 2018) is sort of strange. I wake up, eat breakfast, and write. I write like it’s my job (it is). It’s become such a habit that I now write 6 days a week- in spurts or protracted periods of hyperfocus- and the result can range from 1500 words a day, or a net total of (500) words, after a few brutal (nay, strategic) cuts and re-writes to meet my target journal word limits.

For a minute, I got into the bad habit of hopping between projects. It’s fine enough in the early stages of the project development and analysis, but it makes for choppy prose when it’s time to make meaning of the findings. So, I started blocking out days for particular projects, and the quality of my work improved.

At the end of the Spring semester, I started a new collaborative project on rural hospital closures. After the painful experience of writing 3 dissertation chapters without a clear roadmap, I finally wised up and structured my annotated bibliography as an argument. Something like this:

Topic sentence 1

  • Key finding (Reference 1)
  • Key finding (Reference 2; Reference 3)

Topic sentence 2

  • Key finding (Reference 4; Reference 5)
  • Key finding (Reference 6)
  • Counter-intuitive finding (Reference 7)
    • Consistent with (Reference 8; Reference 9)

Topic sentence 3

  • Key finding (Reference 10)

The process begins with a series of literature searches and shallow reads of relevant articles, followed by deeper reads and note-taking (full reference, copy of abstract, key findings, and pull quotes). After reading the bulk of the accessible literature in the area/topic of interest, I then consider how the studies are in conversation (or not) with one another. Only after that point do I begin constructing the argument. I try my best not to go in with preconceived notions, and begin by understanding what work has been done, and what the underlying assumptions of those studies/their methods are. That helps clarify what my work contributes to the body of work on the topic of interest.

I know this sounds terribly technical. Maybe because it is.

On Letting Go

Yesterday was my self-imposed deadline to submit my full dissertation draft to my advisor. I set this deadline back in May, with the optimism of someone who doesn’t realize that 6 weeks of travel during the summer makes writing very difficult. In the process, I began- and abandoned- a qualitative study that took nearly 6 months to get through IRB. I just didn’t have the time to actively recruit participants and conduct interviews on a regular basis.

To replace that study, I added an exploratory chapter that forwards a conceptual model of health care help-seeking and service use for the management of chronic conditions. It intersects scale, context, and temporality to understand health care access as an iterative process shaped by the relative severity of symptoms (which is contextualized by growing mismatch between environments and health states, in the case of aging or acquired disability), as well as the barriers to (or facilitators of) care coordination and continuity within health systems, as bounded by health care policies. Needless to say, I’m very excited about developing this conceptual model over the coming years.

The main thing is- I sent my dissertation draft to my advisor yesterday. And I felt lighter than I have in years. Without this self-imposed deadline, I could well have given into my perfectionist tendencies and delayed the inevitable. But, as the saying goes, “Done is better than perfect.”



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