This is the third 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 Katherine Kitterman, a Ph.D. Candidate in History at American University.
There’s already too much advice for grad students floating around the internet, so I’ve tried to pull a few things from my experience moving through a PhD that might be more generally helpful. The dissertation topic I eventually landed on isn’t the only question I could imagine myself working on for years, but it’s one I really enjoy thinking about, one my committee members are excited about, and one that raises and helps to answer some important questions. Most importantly, it’s a doable project for me.
Like most PhD students, I began my program assuming I was the only one in my cohort who hadn’t yet figured out exactly what I wanted to research. My path from coursework to candidacy was probably a little bit backward, but it was also much less time-consuming and stressful than I’d anticipated. It didn’t have to be a year of living like a hermit and typing past midnight. What works best for any given person will of course depend on several factors – what your relationship with your adviser is like, what’s interesting to the professors you may want on your committee, and of course, what else is going on in your life for the next few years.
My dissertation topic grew out of a need to come up with a research project that could justify one of my program’s summer research fellowships at the National Archives. Since my focus is women’s history and I had previously worked at the LDS Church History Library, I thought something relating to Mormon women would be low-hanging fruit, easy to re-contextualize and write up into a final report without much additional background research. In the Archives, however, I found that the faded signatures on long rolls of paper tied with ribbon raised more questions that I wanted to chew on.
Over the next year, my adviser encouraged me to use my research seminars to explore possible dissertation topics. I ended up settling on the one that seemed to work best—the one based on my first summer’s research in the National Archives. I kicked around a few other topics with my adviser as well, but I’d already learned that this one could leverage my knowledge and interests and the extant sources and that was good enough for me. Plus, I’d already completed a significant chunk of the primary research.
It might have been backward that my dissertation topic was set before I even started to think about comprehensive exams, but that ended up working to my advantage. Writing my prospectus while drawing up my exam reading lists made it much easier to outline the major fields of research relevant to my project, identify what questions were unanswered or missing, and find the work I really needed to read to move ahead with my dissertation.
Luckily for me, my program allows students to write their dissertation prospectus during one of the required research seminars. The professor who taught mine repeated his mantra at the beginning of every class meeting: don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Like all writing, a dissertation prospectus isn’t finished when you’ve tracked down every strand of possibly relevant research and polished the draft five times. I finished mine when I had to stop because it was due. I didn’t touch it for almost a semester while I prepared for exams, but I did update it with a few new thoughts just before my defense.
Writing the prospectus and preparing for exams were valuable experiences that helped me think my way through my dissertation topic. Still, they helped me even more by helping me remember that crafting a well-supported argument is possible even when you don’t know absolutely everything you’d like to know. That’s given me more confidence in beginning to draft dissertation chapters than anything else. Enough is enough, and sometimes it’s okay to just be done when time runs out.