I am on the verge of finishing my dissertation. After 12 years of work on this monster, I think it’s fairly safe to say that This Will Be The Year. I mean, I’m not 100% certain. I’d say my certainty lies in the 98th percentile. That’s higher than I’ve ever scored on anything, so as we enter 2009, I’m feeling pretty confident.Two tell-tale signs that it’s time to defend. One is the fact that I no longer have many friends. Before I began this degree, I had lots of friends. I was fun to be with and a good listener. People would ask me to join them for coffee, for lunch, for dinner. Heck, they loved me! But before too long, my dissertation research began to take over and the people slowly slinked off. Let’s look back a year or two.“How are you? I haven’t seen you in so long!” a friend might say as we bumped into each other in Scarsdale village during the summer of 2007.
“Oh, I’m fine.” I would shrug. “I’m just a little worried these days, that’s all.”
“Worried about what?” They would ask. “The whole thing with Madoff hasn’t even happened yet.”“You know, about the state of middle school teacher education in the State of New York. There is a new 5-9 certification designed specifically for the training and induction of a new generation of middle school teachers, but my research shows that not many people are opting for this. It has a lot to do with the fact that the Board of Regents decided to keep all other options available, including the ‘competing’ 5-6 extension. I’m just distraught.”At this point, the glassy-eyed individual would stare off in the direction of the future home of Space NK. They would come to their senses just long enough to nod politely at me and then feign a wave at no one in particular in order to quickly make their escape. “And how are you?!?!” I would call out after them.
I miss my friends. I must defend this dissertation and win them back. In order to do this, I have already outlined a plan for a “dissertation disco” to which I will invite everyone I know and may have offended over the years with ramblings about state certification regulations. Nothing says “I’m sorry” like vintage George Michael and The Weathergirls. After I become a doctor, it’s gonna start raining men.
Hallelujah!The other sign that I am coming to the end is the note I received last spring from the Dean of Teachers College, where I have been a student since 1992 and from where I will eventually graduate. She and I go way back, to say the least. The designated years I had in which to complete this undertaking are long gone; I expired in 2002. Every year since then, as I see that I am once again Nowhere Near Finishing, I apply for an extension to my doctoral studies, begging for Just One More Year. Twice I sited having children as my excuse for not completing my studies. Twice I was able to site being the fulltime caregiver to these two children. Once I was able to say that a return to teaching had led me astray. As I looked over the official list of viable excuses for an extension in 2008, I realized that the only options left to me were “long-term illness” or “military service.”“Does ‘procrastinator extraodinare’ count as an illness? Maybe as a mental illness?” I queried my husband, Brett, as we scrutinized the list together. “What if I procrastinate overseas, donned in some sort of a uniform?”
He frowned and scratched his head.
No doubt about it, I was in trouble. So I wrote to the Dean with the truth: this undertaking was hard. The project was so big that it scared me sometimes. It took my committee members four months to get feedback to me, and when they did, their advice was somewhat contradictory and I had forgotten what my study was even about. I was now faced with 350 pages of my own typing with handwritten scratches all over it, telling me where I had gone wrong but not telling me how to make the writing and the research right. Couldn’t someone just tell me exactly what to say? Was that too much to ask, for $3,452 a semester? As I headed into this final revision, I just wasn’t sure I could handle it all. “Uhm…can you say all that in a letter to the Dean?” Brett asked. “You’re coming off a bit, well, hostile.”
“I don’t care! I am hostile! I hate this thing!” I screamed back at him. The doctorate was affecting my marital bliss.I lowered my voice and tried another tactic. “Do I sound crazy? Like, long-term illness type of crazy? We might be able to work that angle if I do.”
“Nope. Just regular crazy. Sorry.”
So we sent the letter off and waited.
Sometime every June, I get a friendly little letter from the Dean, saying something to the effect of “We know that you are working diligently on your studies and we look forward to reading your findings very soon. Continued success as you work on your dissertation.” It is signed with a flourish of Dean-ness. Not this year. This year, what appeared under the TC logo and Dean’s letterhead were simply three words, cut out from magazine letters and pasted on at odd angles, looking rather ominous: Get It Done. You don’t have to tell me twelve times. I’m on it.
January is a month of beginnings. It is a month in which people traditionally make promises to themselves about getting fit and trim or quitting smoking. For me, this January is about endings. It is about spending the last year of my 30’s in pursuit of something I’m not even sure I want anymore. I only know that I don’t want to have to think about it anymore. I want it gone. I want it done. The Dean of Teachers College, two professors who have known me since my mid 20’s, my family, my friends, Julia who serves me coffee at Borders Books and Music where I write – they all want it done. I am resolved on this matter.
That’s what a resolution is, after all, the outcome of decision-making, the solution to a problem. It is also the title of a Nick Lachey song from his second album, “What’s Left of Me,” about his break-up with Jessica Simpson.
On Christmas Eve morning, I spent $70.52 at FedEx/Kinko’s having two copies of this albatross printed and spiral bound. I then ran over to the post office to get them mailed to the professors on my committee, the whole time thinking, Nick knows what I’m feeling. He gets it. This dissertation is like Jessica Simpson and I want her out of my house. I was also thinking, why didn’t I just send this from FedEx/Kinko’s?
Like Nick and Jessica, at some point, I had to ask myself, are we done here? Do I have to take every little criticism you give me to heart? Yeah, this year, my dissertation and I are destined to go the way of a made-for-television Hollywood Romance. We’ve had our good years. Now it’s time for me to divorce myself from it. I want to stand up in front of some officials, argue my points, get some papers signed, change my name, and get the heck out of there.
Resolutions. Every year, the list gets longer. Eat fewer donuts. Pretend to like your brother-in-law. Get organized. Don’t write while driving. Blah, blah, blah. There are so many little things that I could do differently, but in the end, these don’t add up the way the biggies do. Last year, I resigned from my job teaching English because fifteen years of teaching middle schoolers to write hadn’t gotten me any closer to becoming a writer myself. I gave up health insurance, a great pension upon retirement, job stability, and a high salary in pursuit of my dream.
Boy, was I stupid.
No, no no…! What I mean is, as I get older, I realize that there are dreams that I’ve been holding onto for so long that I forgot I ever had them. I got so comfortable with The Way Things Are that I couldn’t see past that to view What Was Possible. And just look at me now, folks! Writing!
Next item on the list: dissertation. Get It Done.
Are you on the verge of accomplishing something big? Maybe this is your year too.