From Wikipedia:

“In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word limen, meaning ‘a threshold’) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.”

Liminality will define my summer. After successfully defending my prospectus last week, I have a new task ahead of me and must master a new set of skills. I have to read an immense volume of historical records, find a story to tell, synthesize a lot of context, and then effectively communicate it to an academic audience. I have practiced these skills at earlier points in my short research career, but never to this extent. The scope of the dissertation is overwhelmingly large.

In truth, I’m quite exhausted by liminality and feel that I’ve spent more than sufficient time in this state over the past year. I finished my coursework last May, and began the ritual of preparing for my doctoral exams. I had no idea what I was doing. I knew that I had to read the 150 books and articles on my lists, and to figure out how they were all in dialogue with each other. I knew that my exams would pose a question for me to answer, using the readings as support. I had no sense of what these questions would be, however, and it made me very insecure about whether I understood the arguments in these texts or whether I was taking notes “correctly.” It was only after two and a half months that I woke up one day and realized that the disorientation had lifted and that I truly understood what the heck I was doing.

Immediately after finishing exams, the liminality set in once more. In early February I wrote this in my journal:

“The transition from exams to prospectus has been rough. Just as I got used to reading everyday and nailed the historiography, I have to get back into the swing of writing.”

I worked really hard to develop a daily ritual of dedicated, focused writing—with your help, dear readers—and again the liminality ebbed as the process of prospectus writing became routine. I lived with the prospectus for four months, and now it’s done. There’s nothing to do, no tweaks or revisions to make. My job is now to go and start the research, to fulfill the ceremony of writing a dissertation. Three transitions in one year is quite a lot, and I’m tired of the insecurity that arrives with the “ambiguity and disorientation.” That’s why I’m relieved that it’s also summer, that I can take a break without getting too behind, and to focus on other activities for a little while.

Victory Strut

I greet you this week as a newly minted Doctoral Candidate! Until you begin writing your dissertation, you are merely a doctoral student. Once your dissertation prospectus is approved, you’re finally considered a candidate for the Ph.D. degree.

My defense was truly a pleasure. I have such a supportive committee of advisors, and although they spent quite a bit of the hour-long defense critiquing my work and pushing me to consider the weaknesses of the project, they also expressed optimism that the dissertation will make a significant contribution to the historical literature. The unanimous critique made by my three advisors was that the scope of the project—particularly the chronology—is too large. They encouraged me to focus on the 1960s and 1970s, and to pack the 1940s and 1950s into an initial, introductory chapter. I see their point. I tend to think very concretely, and in chronological order, and it’s reflected in my chapter outline. I begin at the end of WWII and slowly scaffold the narrative into the ‘60s and ‘70s. My committee pointed out that this scaffolding is not necessary, that much of the earlier story can be folded into the later narrative as historical context. So the defense was very productive and I feel better prepared to begin my archival research.

My plan for the rest of the summer, however, is to focus on reading rather than researching. I have several important texts to read that will help me contextualize my case studies. The additional benefit of reading and not researching/writing is that I will sneak a little break from the stress of constantly producing deep thoughts. I’m looking forward to a refreshing summer.

Almost ABD

If I succeed in keeping my foot out of my mouth, by this time tomorrow I will be ABD (All But Dissertation). After countless revisions--I estimate about 10 rounds, eight based on faculty feedback and two resulting from my own attempts at "tightening" the argument--my committee finalized the prospectus on Monday morning and gave me the thumbs-up to defend. In my department, the defense is a formality. No doubt it is a useful exercise, giving you a chance to explain your research and practice answering questions. No one in institutional memory has failed the defense, though, and I doubt I will be the first. I'm anxious about saying something stupid, but I think my committee has decided that I'm ready to move on to the dissertation.

For those who have never attended the defense of a dissertation prospectus, it's a pretty standard format across humanities and social science doctoral programs. The student presents their project, and then your committee takes turns asking tough, penetrating questions. Sometimes these questions address shortcomings in the proposal, other times they attempt to ascertain the feasibility of the research (for example: how will you find records that convey the thoughts of the actors/subjects you will research?). After the committee is satisfied, they allow the grad students in the audience to ask questions. Finally, the committee dismisses the student and the audience and confers. If they agree that you successfully defended, they sign a form stating that you have been advanced to candidacy for the degree of Ph.D. and are now ABD!

Wish me luck!

Perspectives on the Prospectus

Last week, my mother commented to me that she felt lost when she listened to me describe my current daily work--not only were the content and the argument and the history unfamiliar to her, but also the basic mechanics of what it means to write a dissertation prospectus. 

The dissertation prospectus is a requirement in all doctoral programs, not just in history, but the format and process varies between disciplines and departments. After passing your comprehensive exams, you are given a certain amount of time to write, revise, and defend the prospectus to your committee. In my department, your third year of the program is divided into exams and prospectus--the former must be completed in the fall semester, and the latter in the spring.

A dissertation prospectus in the field of history usually consists of the following sections: an introduction of the project; an overview of how the study will make a historiographical contribution (more on that later); an explanation of what sources and methodology you will use; a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the argument and contents of the study; and finally a bibliography detailing the archives, documents, primary and secondary sources on which the project will be based. After writing a draft of these sections, your committee reads the proposal and returns it to you with comments and feedback--hopefully nothing too brutal. Usually by this point you've worked through most of the kinks, so what you mainly worry about is disagreement among the committee members.

Most doctoral candidates have three or four faculty members on their committee, usually two or three internal advisors plus one or two experts from another institution. The chair of the committee is your main advisor, who in my department is the faculty member you applied to work with. In addition to my advisor, a historian of medicine, I have two other committee members. One is an esteemed expert in urban history, and is a senior faculty member in my department. The other is an assistant professor in religious studies at a nearby university, whose specialty is postwar American Jewish history. As you will see in later posts, the expertise of my committee members reflects the three areas of scholarship in which I work.

After revising the prospectus, a defense is scheduled--this is perhaps the most difficult part! Getting four very busy people in a room at the same time is a trying task, and thankfully one that is the responsibility of our department's Graduate Coordinator. I have attended two defenses over the past two years, to support two dear colleagues. The defendant and their committee sit around a table, while fellow graduate students in attendance take a seat around the edge of the room. After spending about twenty minutes introducing the project--its major questions and proposed contributions--the committee begins asking its own questions, usually about methodology or tricky problems with sources or how you will respond to controversies in the literature you are addressing. When they finish, the graduate students have a chance to ask their own questions--some critical, some softballs to make you look good. The defense concludes with the committee taking a brief leave to decide whether you have passed, and if your defense was successful you and your committee then sign a document acknowledging that you may proceed to the dissertation stage.

The accepted wisdom among graduate students in my program is that if you are allowed to schedule your defense, it is assumed you will pass it. While prospectus defenses are more stringent than a mere formality, it's understood that the prospectus is tentative and the project is liable to change. My advisor's adage is to think of the document as a hunting license rather than a contract--it's meant to provide an opportunity, not bind you to fulfilling a commitment.

My defense will likely take place in late April or early May. While I spent the eight months preparing for exams absolutely convinced I would fail, I feel no stress about the prospectus defense and assume I will be advanced to candidacy. I look forward to being ABD (All But Dissertation) and to changing the line under my signature from "Doctoral Student" to "Doctoral Candidate".