This is the fourth in a series of posts on selecting a finishing exams and finding a doctoral dissertation topic. All of our five participants have participated in Mormon Studies in the past, but not all of them chose to pursue a Mormon Studies topic for their dissertation. If you’d like to contribute a post that addresses this topic in future, please send me an email at joseph [dot] stuart [at] utah [dot] e dee ewe.
We are grateful for this post from Cassandra Clark, a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Utah.
Let me start by saying, choosing a dissertation topic is not for the weak of heart. On top of the pressure to come up with an original idea, there are always those people who complicate to the process by sharing clichés like, “Choose a topic that you love because you are going to get sick of it after studying it for a decade” or “you will hate your topic before the end.” There is even the one that goes something like, “be prepared to gain the dissertation fifteen.” Well, maybe that isn’t a cliché? Is it just me?
Those platitudes don’t apply to everyone. I have worked on my topic for several years and have yet to grow weary of it. While I am eager to complete my graduate degree, I am still enthusiastic about my topic, the time period, and the people I study. I can’t necessarily say that I like all of the people–mainly because many of them were raving racists–but I can say that they are intriguing.
I decided on my dissertation topic during my first year as a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah. One afternoon while digitizing sources at the Church History Library for the Utah American Digital Archive (UAIDA) I stumbled upon the transcript of an oral interview that referenced the DNA testing of Native Americans orchestrated by the LDS Church during the twentieth century. I have always loved to learn about medicine, genetics, and other science-history related subjects which is why this particular interview caught my eye. I consulted with Matt Basso who suggested that I look into eugenics in Utah. Mainly, I needed to establish a foundation before I dove into the DNA aspect of this particular issue. Little did I know that at the time several scholars were also interested in eugenics and Mormonism and I found myself struggling to stay ahead of the topic. Frustrated, I decided to broaden my research scope to consider how people living in the intermountain west incorporated scientific race theories into their society and culture.
I rarely settle upon a topic before I do a preliminary scan of the available primary sources. Mainly, I want the sources to speak to me and provide me with direction. I consulted with archivists in Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado and to locate materials. My efforts paid off as I discovered that many individuals living in the intermountain west were obsessed with heredity, nature and their relation to brain function. I questioned how perceptions of the natural world influenced their definition of the “normal” and “abnormal” brain and how these ideas influenced whiteness.
The answer to this question became my dissertation topic. Instead of being the central focus, Mormons are a part of a broader conversation about race science and its tie to the environment. I find that including members of the LDS Church in a larger exchange of ideas is more rewarding and an essential component of the history of the LDS Church, the intermountain west, and the nation. I am looking forward to continuing my research on DNA testing and the LDS Church once my dissertation is complete.
My decision to expand my topic was not without stumbling blocks. I have two daughters who I provide for, and I want them to have the best opportunities possible while avoiding debt. At any given time, I am working two to three-part time jobs that prevent me from scheduling extended archival visits. My research trips are typically limited to five-day stints two to three times a year where I sit scanning documents like a fiend while streaming The Office with the occasional chat with an archivist. Researching on a tight schedule has slowed my progress, but none-the-less, I am inching closer to the finish line!
My advice to the graduate student wrestling with a dissertation topic is to listen to the sources. Write for yourself. Be confident in your identity and your ability. Do not compare yourself to others. Never listen to anyone who judges your talent or your journey. Trust your instinct. And finally, discuss your research with anyone who will listen. Some of the best ideas come from sharing your research with others.