Dissertation Jenga or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Prospectus Defense

wooden block

One of the many purposes of this blog which I haven’t really taken advantage of much is its role as a place for the discussion/reflection/description of being in graduate school working on a doctoral degree. I think I’ve mentioned my comprehensive exams a couple of times and reflected on some of the books on that list, but that’s been pretty much it. I’ve just never felt the urge to write about my actual personal experiences.

Until now.

For those less familiar with the doctoral degree timeline, I’m at the stage where I need to write up a dissertation proposal – also called a prospectus – which I need to defend in front of my committee and which they must approve before I can officially move on to writing my dissertation. My (first) proposal defense took place recently and I did not pass, for which I’m incredibly grateful. The experience was kind of crazy and I can’t stop thinking about it. I don’t usually think of things very visually or metaphorically, but even as I was sitting in that room trying to pick up the pieces of my proposal, I was already thinking about the whole experience in an oddly metaphorical way. Since a couple of days have passed, the metaphor keeps getting more and more elaborate in my head. I felt like I needed to write it down.

Here’s where it’s at so far:

I saw myself walking into that room with my proposal represented by a tower made out of blocks, like Jenga. I thought it was a pretty cool tower. I knew it had some weaknesses: a small crack here, a block hanging perilously low with no support there, and some risky choices at the tower’s base. The tower had a little bit of everything: a hotel, some residences, a school, and maybe even a hospital. Walking into that room, I think my implicit expectations were more along the lines of figuring out how to best repair those little weaknesses with the help of my master architects and come up with a plan of action so I could move on from the scale model of the Jenga blocks to its life-size construction. But what actually happened was very different, and I can’t emphasize how glad I am for this.

I walk in and my tower’s merits are complimented. I point out some additional things I’m thinking of adding: maybe a swimming pool or a daycare. But then it starts being taken apart. I’m told it’s got an ok hotel, an average residential area, a not-so-great school, and a really shady hospital. In trying to be too many things, it’s not really being great at any one of them. That small crack? Turns out it was hiding a massive chasm behind it that could topple the whole tower. The low-hanging block? Turns out if you remove it, it would start a chain reaction that destroys half of the thing. And that base? Turns out you built it on a molehill.

As each block gets removed and the blueprint is further inspected, more and more problems are revealed, many of which I was not even aware existed: the HVAC is wired all wrong, there are cracks in the insulation, termites are chewing through the 8th floor, and the paint turns out to have too much lead in it. (I should make a note that as these problems are exposed, possible solutions are also presented, but these are a bit hard to fully process in the moment.) Finally the whole thing falls apart and I’m standing in a pile of blocks, with no idea how to rebuild it.

That was probably my lowest point in the defense: being asked a question and not knowing how to answer because all I had in my hands were a bunch of random blocks, and I didn’t even know where or in which way they needed to fit anymore. It became pretty clear at that point that I would need to retool and rebuild the whole tower, and after some all-important debriefing, where all of the suggestions could be pooled together and discussed in terms of their application, the new tower started to take shape, albeit vaguely, in my head.

A new blueprint will have to be drawn up. Some location scouting will have to take place to avoid another molehill. I’ll need to read up on proper HVAC wiring, insulation installation, termite protection, and paint safety. And I’ll ultimately need to make the decision on what I really want it to be: a hotel, a school, a home, or a hospital?

In tearing it all down, I know it will be rebuilt stronger.

/End of extended metaphor.

All in all, it was an amazing/crazy/awesome/terrifying/insanely helpful experience.

Best of luck to everyone who goes through it.


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