Dr. McBrien or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dissertation*

Dr. McBrien or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dissertation*

Well, hey there! It’s been a hot minute since my last post, hasn’t it? The past few months have been quite the whirlwind of activity. The biggest news is that I recently graduated with my PhD in musicology from UC Santa Barbara. (Woohoo!! *Cue smattering of confetti*) As exciting as this achievement was, the first half of this year was insanely busy. One can correctly assume that keeping this blog active (at least marginally) was near the bottom of my “to-do” list as I put the finishing touches on my dissertation. Though I am still in “recovery” mode and not quite ready to launch back into blogging just yet, I wanted to take a bit of time to write some thoughts on the dissertation process while it is still relatively fresh in my mind.

My pride and joy. And by that, I mean the “PHinisheD” novelty mug.

The project was a ton of work, but honestly, I enjoyed it overall. My topic—the relationship between European émigrés and three Los Angeles orchestras in the 1930s and 40s—was fascinating and provided some great material to work with. The research process was smooth, and writing it was fairly manageable as a whole. Would I want to do it a second time? No, probably not, but I don’t regret it.

Below are five big “lessons” I learned during the twenty-two-month journey, with a few miscellaneous items thrown in for good measure. Whether you are prepping for or are in the midst of writing a dissertation, hopefully these will be of some help. And if you are not “dissertating,” some of these things could apply to other big projects or, hey, just life in general!

Before we begin, though, I should also mention that these past two years, I was privileged enough to be in a living situation where I wasn’t required to pay rent or work full-time to make ends meet. This is a huge part of why I was able to focus on the project, finish in a decent amount of time, and encounter relatively few obstacles along the way. I acknowledge that privilege and am well aware that not everyone may be in the same situation.

Without further ado, here are five things that helped me to “stop worrying and love the dissertation”:

(Oh, and if you’d like to read the thing, it will be open access on ProQuest in the coming months. You are also welcome to contact me; I am more than happy to send along a PDF.)

1. Don’t stress out about the proposal—it’s a roadmap, not a final product

One thing I initially struggled to come to terms with was the proposal. This 20-or-so-page document is something one writes at the beginning of the dissertation process that outlines your project’s thesis, methodologies, chapters, early bibliography, and other fun stuff (such as how long you think it’ll take to actually finish the thing). Typically, you’re supposed to complete the proposal before you begin the project in earnest. This means that everything in the document is hypothetical; details will more than likely change along the way.

Same goes for your proposal

At first, this seemed like an annoying task. I felt like I knew very little about where the project would end up, let alone where to start. (Any other Enneagram type Sixes out there who take comfort in plans and schedules?) However, once I began to write down what I did know—and the possible findings and conclusions that might arise from that—to my surprise, the document materialized fairly quickly. Obviously, certain aspects of the project absolutely did change along the way. In fact, my entire thesis and approach shifted barely two months later once I dove into the actual research, but the proposal was still a useful starting point and helped me gather my thoughts early on. So, don’t worry about this aspect too much. It’s a roadmap, not a final product.

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