“I don’t know what to focus on [for my dissertation]. When I talk to one person, they tell me I should study this. And when I talk to another person, they tell me I should focus on something different.” – doctoral colleague
These are words spoken by another doctoral student during a conversation we were having in one of my classes. In small groups, we were asked to discuss our areas of study and the research topics we are choosing for our dissertation. As I listened to her discuss struggling with deciding on a specific subject for her research, I felt a connection to her story. In my personal journal, a few weeks ago, I wrote about the multiple opinions I hear from others about my research topic and the internal conflicts I feel with hearing my voice. I could relate to her struggle and felt comfortable sharing my experience.
Having this conversation with her compelled me to reflect on my progress in my doctoral program. Currently, I am defining my research questions, figuring out my methodologies, and finalizing my theoretical frameworks. In the midst of working on these details, the perspectives of colleagues, peers, advisors, and mentors that have shared their thoughts about my research play continuously in my mind. While I appreciate having these perspectives running through my head, it can create mental clutter. Yes, their input prevents me from overlooking details or important points that I didn’t consider. However, at the same time, their input can be overwhelming, particularly when their interests and perspectives aren’t aligned with mine. So, how do I maintain the balance between listening to my own voice and receiving ideas and feedback from others?
Though I don’t have all the answers to this, there are few things that I am learning that work for me. I have found that this semester, I am spending a lot more alone time with articles and books that are related to my area of interest. To keep track of my ponderings, ideas, epiphanies, and questions, I have a “dissertation journal”. Because I have been journaling since I was very young, writing by hand is how I connect with my whole being. Having this dissertation journal allows me to process and reflect in the way that is the most authentic to me. By maintaining this connection and authenticity to myself, it easier for me to listen to my voice and stay aligned with my purpose. Also, when I receive constructive tips and feedback from other people, I write them in the journal for further consideration. Writing the input in my journal gives me the mental space and the time to reflect and process other people’s input.
Along with writing in my dissertation journal, I honor my desire for space. There are times when I have impromptu conversations with people. During these dialogues, oftentimes the people end up telling me what I should do for my dissertation and the reason behind their ideas. After the conversation has ended, I feel a bit fatigued, like I just experienced a mental and emotional intrusion. It’s not that people don’t mean well or that valuable points aren’t addressed. It’s just that so much of the conversation becomes about what that other people want rather than what I want and my research purpose. I leave the conversation focusing more on the other people’s agenda rather than on my own. When those moments of post-conversation fatigue and confusion happen, the phrase, “I need some alone time” pops into my mind. When I hear that phrase replaying, I know I need to take a step back, remember that everyone has their own perspective and expectations, and ask if there are parts of this conversation that I want to include in my journal for further reflection at a later time. After that, I spend some time with alone usually doing some enjoyable activity until I have regained my energy.
Writing and honoring my desire for space keep me sane and moving forward. It’s my own way of establishing boundaries while receiving and processing the perspectives presented from others. This balancing of my voice and the voices of others is still a bit messy. At times, I completely shut myself in my room when I feel like I can’t hear myself and emerge once I feel centered. Sometimes those are my favorite moments — being alone in my room, playing short video clips of conducting my research detail by detail, and appreciating the opportunity to able to do my work.