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11 Apr 2011

The beginning of the end – It is finally time to break the silence. For the longest time here at Liminality, I have avoided talking about something that has been consuming much of my time these past few months: my dissertation. It’s not that it has been a secret, of course—family, friends, colleagues, and even my students know that I am in the midst of it. So who exactly was I keeping it secret from? Well, no one really. It’s a bit difficult to explain why I didn’t talk about it here—when I previously announced that I was going to be finishing my diss, the eventual failure to do so hurt all the more because I had made a big deal of it here. In retrospect, I think I was trying to convince myself that I was going to finish, but I had no confidence that I really would.

“...this is the first of many hurdles I will have to cross before I can remove this albatross from around my neck.”

I had hoped to finish the diss last semester as well, but as time wore on, it became more and more clear that I just was not ready. This semester, though, somehow things were different. I just knew. It wasn’t a hope or a desire, but the certainty that this was it. I had had enough, and it was time to end this thing.

Before I met my wife, I had been with girls and thought, “Yeah, I could see myself marrying this person.” But I didn’t really know what I was talking about. It was a possibility, sure, but nothing more than that. When I met my wife, though, I realized that all those times I had thought about the possibility of marrying someone were nothing more than idle daydreams. It was not a possibility, nor was it some idle fancy. I was certain that I was going to marry her. There was no doubt in my mind anywhere. That’s what it felt like with my dissertation this semester in terms of certainty.

Which isn’t to say that I have finished the dissertation—far from it—but I have reached a major milestone. This morning I submitted a draft of the diss to the school office. This is the first official hurdle in the evaluation process, and just reaching this point is quite a feat. Still, whenever people congratulate me, I grimace and tell them the time for congratulations has yet to come. Like I said, this is the first of many hurdles I will have to cross before I can remove this albatross from around my neck.

The second hurdle is on Wednesday, but I will have nothing to do with that. The professors will meet and, based on the dissertation drafts submitted, decide who may present and who may not. I have not been told the exact criteria that determine whether the candidate has the right to present, but judging by what my advisor has told me, they are looking for something that is complete in form and shows potential. My dissertation is indeed complete in form. That is, it has all the right components: a table of contents, an introduction, various chapters, a conclusion, and a bibliography. Now, this doesn’t mean that all of these components are perfect. In fact, I know without a doubt that they are not perfect, and I can name shortcomings that I just didn’t have the time to fully rectify. My dissertation could best be compared to Frankenstein’s monster at this point: it has all the right pieces in all the right places, but it is an abomination that curdles the blood of all who see it. (I could go on to say that it is intelligent and kind-hearted, yet terribly misunderstood—causing it to go on a murderous rampage—but I think that might be stretching the analogy a bit.)

Still, for all its shortcomings, I think I have a pretty solid foundation to work with. I have seen some very bad theses and dissertations presented, which leads me to believe that it’s not so much the content as it is proper form and potential that are the deciding factors. We’ll find out on Wednesday evening, at any rate. Assuming that I am given the green light to present (and I will honestly be shocked if I am not), that presentation will happen sometime on Friday. Now, a word of clarification is in order here, because a lot of people not familiar with the Korean system are confused by what exactly this presentation is. It is not a defense or a viva like in the West. That is, this is not the final step in the evaluation process, but the first. Once I give my presentation, the committee will decide whether or not to begin the evaluation process. If the consensus is negative, then it’s back to the drawing board, followed by another presentation next semester.

Imagine that my dissertation is a piece of software currently in alpha testing. Most software goes into beta testing when the developers think they are ready, but in this case there is a board of directors that decides whether or not the software is ready for beta. These directors also happen to be the beta testers themselves. I don’t know if that makes it any clearer, but the idea occurred to me on the train this morning as I traveled down to SNU to submit the draft, and it makes sense to me.

One of my colleagues here (at HUFS, that is), when she heard about the way the system works, said, “So they make you go through all of that and give a presentation, and they might not even agree to evaluate you? That’s so cruel!” This colleague of mine, by the way, is Korean, but she’s spent a lot of time in the States and did her graduate work there as well. I can certainly see where she’s coming from, but this is the system I’ve seen in action—I have no familiarity with the Western system, and wasn’t even sure how the Korean-style presentation compared with a defense until I did a little research on the subject recently. As best as I can determine, the defense is largely a formality. This of course does not mean that you can just breeze through it—it can still be very grueling. But, from what I understand, by the time you reach the defense you should have everything down pat. A failure at the defense reflects just as poorly (if not more poorly) on the advisor as it does on the candidate.

This element is not completely absent from the Korean system, but everyone pretty much expects to take a beating at the presentation. I’ve seen a number of them, and it’s not so much a “defense” as it is “hunker down, cover up and hope you don’t get kicked in the nuts.” This is from the candidate’s perspective, of course. A few weeks ago my advisor was talking to me about the system, and he explained it as a system of consensus. That is, rather than the candidate working largely solo (with the aid of the advisor, of course), as is the case in the West, candidates here get input from a number of sources, and the goal is to reach a consensus. I guess you could say the attitude is less combative than the West, although that applies more to the attitude of the candidate toward the committee than vice versa (which also ties into the strict academic hierarchy, but that’s another story).

All that being said, though, I think the processes are very similar. Even though the committee does get involved earlier than in the West (where the committee doesn’t really get involved at all in terms of influencing the direction of the research), there is still a large period of time when the candidate works alone with the advisor. On the one hand, I’m not really looking forward to getting clobbered on Friday, but on the other hand I like the idea of having the input of more than one person. I went through a very similar process with my MA thesis, and having a committee giving me suggestions was very helpful.

So we’ll see what happens. Like I said, the second hurdle is the meeting on Wednesday, and then the “board meeting” on Friday to decide if we go beta. If the committee does decide to begin the evaluation process, I will have a period of time in which I can make revisions and additions (based on the feedback I receive) before submission for a private session with the committee. This is probably the closest equivalent to the Western defense or viva, but it happens behind closed doors. And, from what my advisor has told me, it is not uncommon for candidates to have three or four of these closed-door evaluations. If too much time passes, the evaluation can even be deferred to the following semester. And this is no idle threat—a friend of mine just finished his dissertation last semester after two or three deferrals. I’m really hoping that doesn’t happen to me, but I’m not worrying about that quite yet.

It’s eight o’clock in the evening now and it feels like... well, I don’t know what it feels like. I have been waking up at five o’clock in the morning for some time now, but last night I never actually got to sleep. I miscalculated the amount of time I would need to get all my footnotes in order—it ended up taking six hours total, and I was finishing up the footnotes at just about the time I normally wake up. I had other things to finish, such as the table of contents and title page, so I figured there was no point in trying to get any sleep.

This is the first all-nighter I have pulled in a long time. I honestly don’t remember the last time I did this. It is, after all, something I try to avoid if at all possible. But I kind of knew it was going to come down to this, even though I made some gross miscalculations yesterday and thought I might be able to finish and get a few hours of sleep before today. All-nighters are never fun. Even back when I was an undergrad and I pulled at least one all-nighter a week, I would definitely not describe it as fun. I’m a lot older now than I was then, and I have to admit I was a bit worried that I might not be able to hack it. But I did manage to stay up and get everything done, and the way I felt in the morning (or now, for that matter) doesn’t really feel too different from how it felt as an undergrad. Except for that time I stayed awake for five straight days, keeping myself wired on Dr. Pepper and Mountain Dew. Now that sucked. On the last day my body was so far beyond the point of exhaustion that my second wind was nothing more than a hazy memory, but I was so hopped up on caffeine that not only could I not sleep, it was actually painful to sit still. Don’t let anyone tell you that sleep deprivation is not torture. There were moments where I thought I would rather be dead.

So, compared to that, last night wasn’t too bad. I’m still fairly functional—I managed to type about two thousand words here, more or less coherently—and while it is somewhat annoying to be this tired, I also know that I only feel this way because I am sitting still. Were I moving around I would probably feel a lot better (confession: I’ve been taking breaks to go do jumping jacks in the living room). It’s nice to have horrific experiences like staying awake for five days, because things like a single all-nighter end up paling in comparison. Which is not to say, of course, that I will not be happy to hit the sack shortly.

Anyway, it feels good to be writing something here again. The diss is something I’ve wanted to talk about for a while now, and something that I will most likely continue to talk about as the process (hopefully) continues. Now that the cat is out of the bag, don’t be surprised if I end up focusing on the diss a lot in future notes and Journal entries. I haven’t even touched the subject of writing dissertations in general and writing this diss in specific, and I have a lot to say in both of those areas. For now, though, I will content myself with this.

In closing, I would also like to say that I have a pretty bad backlog of email that has piled up in my inbox, but one of my priorities after the presentation will be to whittle that backlog down until it’s eventually gone. So if you’ve sent me an email and are waiting for a reply, rest assured that one will be coming soon.

(I’m too tired to proof this, by the way. Proofreaders, get to work!)

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