On the face of it, graduate studies can seem a simple process. Somewhere on your school’s online student suite, there will be a helpful list of requirements to fulfill:
- Enroll in 12 units per semester for full time status
- submit master’s essay
- Apply for co-terminal masters degree upon completion of 48 units of coursework
- Submit written comprehensive exams
- Pass oral comprehensive exam
- Submit dissertation to committee
- Oral defense of dissertation
- Upload dissertation
- Apply for Ph.D upon completion of 120 units or more
Sure, there are a few more steps, but these are the main outlines. Seems simple enough, right? A nice, straight path all lined out. If only.
The first 5 steps were simple enough – if an exhausting amount of work. But it is that step 6, that “submit dissertation to committee” that is when the path becomes remarkably twisty and often hidden by a seemingly impenetrable fog. After all, I must write the dissertation before I can submit it.
When I first submitted my dissertation prospectus proposing to study presidential memorial services between 1799 and 1865, I knew I could not possibly cover all the presidents and materials in that period. Absolutely no way. But I couldn’t find a thread, a theme, an explanation that would narrow my proposal. The first people to read my prospectus reacted in an entirely predictable way – by making suggestions of everything else that could also be included in my book. I wasn’t upset (okay, too upset). I sometimes do the same thing, intentionally or by accident. We all have ideas about how we would write someone else’s book. Fortunately, my advisor saved me and made a suggestion that turned my dissertation, which had previously resembled something akin to hiking every mountain in the Himalayas, into a climb up Pike’s Peak. Difficult and challenging, yes, potentially still deadly, yes. But also possible.
Instead of examining the memorials for the first sixteen or so United States presidents, my dissertation will be examining just four presidents, all of whom were also the most famous military generals of the United States’ earliest martial conflicts: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and Ulysses S. Grant. Taking off several presidents but including Grant had the additional benefit of extending my temporal frame to encompass almost a full century of historical development, from George Washington’s first memorial services in 1799 to Grant’s in 1885. These changes made such a huge difference in my morale, and I am now excited at the prospect of fourth year.
Having now tackled the first step of writing a dissertation- what are the subjects about which you will write – I’m now well on my way through the second step: collecting the materials. During two months of travel this summer, I spent three weeks at the wonderful Ulysses S Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University in Starkville. (A huge shoutout to their archivist Ryan Semmes and their graduate assistants for finding material and keeping up with me!) Although I didn’t have time to catalog, read, and write about the material, I left with over five hundred sources to use for my chapter on U.S. Grant. With this much material already, I’ll probably write a whole book on him in the future. Next up is six months in residence at George Washington’s Mt. Vernon and then a month in New York City. I also plan to swing through archives in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C. over the next year. Onwards through dissertation step two!