One Heroine’s Journey through the Dissertation

Abstract: This conceptual essay applies selected elements from Maureen Murdock’s concept of the Heroine’s Journey (Murdock 1) to characterize the doctoral program experience, focusing specifically on the dissertation process. This conceptual essay grounds a heroine’s journey in feminist pedagogy (Heinrich et al. 352-353) and highlights the often-overlooked role-negotiation process women endure as part of this cerebral undertaking. However, because little research documents the multifaceted transformations of female graduate students, this conceptual essay draws from relevant literature around women’s personal and professional development in graduate studies. Finally, this conceptual essay employs the author’s own experiences as running metaphors to highlight the personal and professional journey women experience throughout the dissertation process.

An Appeal to the [Dissertation] Adventure

My journey toward dissertation completion exemplifies an act of academic and emotional resilience many women before me have undergone in their graduate work. This sense of self-reliance and academic achievement is worth celebrating, especially in light of the negotiation processes required to sustain the extensive responsibilities that come with being a woman in a graduate program. As Cabrera notes, organizational structures continue to work against women who choose to integrate work and family. Instead, we view this integration as a lack of commitment to either career or family (232). This perceived lack of engagement can manifest as a lack of respect for and skepticism of the woman who makes every attempt to negotiate these roles and responsibilities (227).

It is important to note that despite choosing a career in education after working as a teacher’s aide in Mexico, I do not come from a family of educators. Moreover, although I pursued a doctoral degree, I do not come from a family of academics. I am unsure if I knew anyone with a doctoral degree until I entered college. Many of the women in my family opted to start families early, instead of pursuing undergraduate degrees or professional careers, a choice I could not understand, I admit. Although I possessed a career and a Master’s degree in education, a pathway into the academic world, especially for women, seemed unnatural for me to consider. My dream of becoming an “expert” at something, broadly defined, was a secret one, until I connected with other women, who humanized this dream. These women put a face to my goal and made it seem real and accessible. However, I had no figures I could turn to when I applied to my Master’s program, let alone anyone to turn to when I applied to my doctoral program. In this way, I began these cerebral journeys on my own, initially along what seemed like an uncharted path. Moreover, I would learn that the dissertation research journey was unlike any other I would ever experience, one that would raise more questions than answers, both professional ones, and personal ones. Although I felt I could manage the professional obstacles that may emerge through an extensive commitment to the research, the personal barriers that emerged highlighted my inability to rationalize work and intuition, productivity, and joy, exemplifying the taxing experience of being a female graduate student.

Without much insight into how long this journey might take, and the idea of a dissertation—let alone finishing one—far off in the distance, I embarked on a quest toward career advancement (and to pursue my dream) in late 2013 with the beginning of my doctoral program. I wrestled with the following questions throughout my dissertation research, specifically, which began in late 2016. I still find these questions to be worth addressing: how do we prepare female graduate students to maintain their research agendas at a consistent pace, and to continue full-time work potentially? Should this even be the outcome, or can we make this journey a little more flexible for the roles women must work through as they embark on this journey? Can we minimize this desire to seek control over our lives continually, and arguably masculine and desired quality (Murdock 2)? Additionally, as women, how do we relish in choices to advance our knowledge and careers, including pursuing advanced degrees and putting other life markers (i.e., children) on the backburners?  How do we begin to more positively frame these choices, whether in our minds or publicly?

Unfortunately, I am unsure whether my testimony and the questions it raised for me expose any easy answers. However, my experience highlights similar trends of transformation experienced by women graduate students. Mehta et al. (47) suggest that women must find ways to “manage” their gender in graduate programs while balancing other life obligations. This management may occur in light of persistent gender hierarchies that make it more challenging to integrate the responsibilities and roles women take on, as well as in light of the “leaking pipeline” (Moyer et al. 608; Rosli et al. 2) that exposes the lack of female representation in top-tier academic positions. The lack of female representation in academic positions may illustrate the very difficulty of managing life’s obligations in addition to scholarly research. It is integral to devote more time to examining female students’ experiences in graduate research. Moreover, it becomes particularly important to explore how academia can better support women’s “cognitive leaps” toward practitioner-researcher during this time (Ellison et al. 2; Heinrich et al. 359), in addition to supporting women’s emerging professional voices and identities.

For the remainder of this piece, in honoring the heroic achievement of completing the dissertation, I apply elements of Maureen Murdock’s concept of the Heroine’s Journey to the dissertation writing process for a female graduate student (Murdock 1). I specifically focus on the role-shaping and negotiation process of embracing both the masculine and feminine perspectives, in addition to the assistance of allies amid the proverbial “slaying” of academic demons during this cerebral journey. Much of my journey involves negotiating the efficiency and productivity valued in “patriarchal systems” that became necessary in completing my research, amid my desires, intuitions, and those parts of my life that brought me joy before beginning my dissertation (Murdock 4). That said, the villains that emerge do not just involve the completion of the dissertation, but also the process of overcoming the self-inflicting doubts and questions of value and validation that arose during this scholarly experience.  However, it is this very process of negotiation that transcends an individual experience: negotiating multiple responsibilities, roles, and lived worlds that female graduate students and women of all disciplines have and continue to endure.

First and foremost, the completion of a doctoral degree should be considered a feat in itself. It is, as Heinrich et al. argue, a heroic journey, ushering in female empowerment and emancipation amidst the figurative dragons that serve as obstacles on the route to completion of the program and the dissertation, a choice to upend the status quo of one’s lived world (352-353). These figurative dragons not only appear as programmatic obstacles but also as internal demons, manifesting as a challenged sense of self. I endeavor to highlight the significance of this journey by exposing my own internal and external dragons and demons to celebrate the heroic journey of graduate work and demonstrating the extensive personal and professional growth that women experience during this time.

Research on women graduate students continues to develop. Little research exists on this particular population from a “non-academic standpoint” (Rosli et al. 3). My uneven attempts at balancing my roles as a student/ professional/ wife and maintaining some semblance of a healthy and happy lifestyle and interacting with other humankind could not be a solitary endeavor. Therefore, I began researching the topic of women pursuing graduate degrees amid formative professional and personal journeys. To my reassurance—much like the research for my dissertation literature review—I found myself not alone in this awkward state of limbo. Women in graduate programs have and still face the difficulty of maintaining multiple roles amid their pursuit of graduate degrees. However, our enrollment and completion rate of these degrees is declining due to several factors, where the largest pool of finishers of doctoral programs exists in the education field (Bower et al. 253; Morris 146).

Moreover, little research exists around how women doctoral students come to experience their programs, while negotiating both obligations and joys of life (Heinrich et al. 353). First and foremost, we still hold onto this conception of a woman who balances a full-time position, with family, remaining independent and authentic to herself, and yet has time for some semblance of a social life or sanity-preserving physical exercise as the epitome of a woman. This conception neglects the “invisible work” mentally and emotionally required sustaining these responsibilities, not to mention with the additional graduate work (Ellison et al. 2). Our former first lady even criticized this myth, declaring: “I tell women, that whole ‘you can have it all’—nope, not at the same time; that’s a lie” (Obama). Thus, I wondered if working full-time, conducting research and recruitment, and not burning out even remained a possibility. 

As many women in graduate programs have experienced, I had a difficult time negotiating the multiple roles I incurred during this time (Rosli et al. 1). I felt guilty if I chose to spend time in the real world away from research but also felt guilt for at times shunning the world outside in favor of my dissertation (Rosli et al. 26). I attempted to negotiate my role as a woman/researcher/wife/human, trying to take my identity shifts in stride (Bower et al. 262; Webber 153). How did I get to a point where instead of celebrating my ability (or at least, my attempts) to balance my roles as woman/researcher/wife/human, I chastised my inability to push myself to exhaustive limits as a woman/researcher/wife/human/professional?

Like other early-career graduate students, I desire more than marriage and children and tend to devote a significant portion of time to my work (Rosli et al. 19). However, there exists a notion that women with children are the only women who must incur significant balancing of work, research, and family. This assumption negates the negotiation process that women without children suffer (Maher et al. 388). During this time, I also felt guilt for my latent “queen bee syndrome” that fueled my earlier presumptions of other women in my program (Mehta et al. 48). I assumed that I could finish my research much more quickly if I were not working full-time, thereby attempting to be the woman who could balance everything: full-time study, full-time work, and the rest of life. I realized that the endeavor of balancing multiple roles occurred for the majority of women graduate students and that to complete my dissertation, I would incur a period of similar personal and professional soul-searching. However, I would come to find and appreciate the allies that appeared by my side throughout this particular journey, assisting in my professional and personal growth as an emerging academic.

External supports became my warrior-allies throughout the dissertation process, assisting in combating the internal and external demons that threatened my dissertation completion. These external supports proved significant in female doctoral completion (Rosli et al. 2). They assisted in my attempts to negotiate the multifaceted personal and professional responsibilities (Moyer et al. 609). We often conceive of the research process as an utterly solitary experience, and at times, it felt that way: both lonely and isolating. However, part of recognizing the demons standing in the way of progress involved “taking others on the journey” with me, in an effort for them—and me—to better understand and combat the personal and professional obstacles I was experiencing (Ellison et al. 16). My dissertation advisor emerged not only as an ally but also as the singular female figure that helped to chart a path toward completion that initially seemed impossible.

My advisor served as an ally (and mentor) throughout the program and dissertation processes. Research documents the significant emphasis placed on the advisor-advisee relationship (Cook 20; Ruud et al. 289; Webber 161). Advisors are warrior-allies working alongside graduate students during their dissertation journey, offering “pastoral care” amidst uncharted terrain (Ellison et al. 4). Arguably, my advisor served as an external warrior through her capacity to give me enough freedom to figure issues out on my own. This freedom sometimes proved frustrating, as I initially often wanted answers right away and definitive answers on how to do something. However, my advisor also coached me through unfamiliar territories, like the coding process, where I had a minimal roadmap at best. However, the advisor-advisee relationship is only one piece of the puzzle as part of the dissertation expedition.

In some cases, the relationship women graduate students have with their advisors leaves little room for the emergence of personal issues the students experience throughout their programs or dissertations (Webber 154). This lack of dialogue can sometimes hinder the student’s capacity to tackle personal and professional demons. At times, I felt a sense of shame for letting anything deter my research trajectory, and rarely shared these personal obstacles with my advisor. My female advisor served as an example of what existed on the other side of the dissertation: my dream realized. From here, as someone combating increased guilt and self-doubt, I had to find productive ways to allow my allies to guide me through the professional and personal obstacles I faced throughout this journey.

In addition to my advisor, my spouse emerged as another warrior-ally as I navigated the demons that encroached on my scholarly journey. Despite knowing very little about the dissertation process, my spouse assisted in rationalizing and giving into the joys, intuitions, and breaks away from research (Murdock 7). Despite his position as a male ally, his role encouraged me to embrace balancing productivity and joy. However, I found that I was not earning a stable income, and financial dependence on my spouse was unsettling, where my spouse could emerge as the male in control, and my research devalued (Murdock 14). Rationalizing my cerebral work as sufficient and enough compared to my spouse’s income-earning occupation became a pervasive struggle. From here, my spouse—both emotionally and financially—served as the primary support throughout my quest to complete my dissertation, as is the case for other married women in graduate programs (Rosli et al. 27). His motivation rarely wavered while experiencing the journey alongside me, despite possessing minimal knowledge of the dissertation process, particularly from a female perspective. Again, although my mentors proved integral mainly in light of the external obstacles I encountered, the personal journey against my internal demons felt solitary and beckoned a sense of self-reliance I continuously visited and revisited in the hopes of finishing my research.

As I began my studies, I vowed to finish by my 30th birthday (this did not happen—but I was close), so as not to delay the reaping of financial fruits a doctorate would hopefully bestow on me upon completion. I was able to keep a full-time job and other side jobs when I began my dissertation research. However, as my research took shape, my career began to fade increasingly into the background, diminishing my ability to maintain full-time work. My assumption that a doctoral degree would serve as a sure way to ensure increased earning potential in education inspired my pursuit (Maher et al. 386). However, I was unprepared for the possibility of what seemed like sacrificing my financial self-reliance in abandoning my full-time career to embrace my research. Although my doctoral program reflected the increase of women in graduate work, the rise in representation neglected another underlying, harrowing reality: the significant amount of time it takes for women to earn a graduate degree (Maher et al. 386; Rosli et al. 2). From here, maintaining full-time work and financial independence might not be possible.

Therefore, financial stability served as a significant motivator in the pursuit and completion of my doctorate and as something valuable to me as an independent female graduate student. Therefore, I could not fathom becoming a graduate student living on my spouse’s salary, which felt like playing right into the patriarchal structure of a woman’s dependence on a man (Murdock 14). Accepting financial support became one of the principal tests of will throughout my dissertation research. I found it unsettling that I had relinquished full-time (paid) work for full-time (unpaid) research, continually wondering whether this was an esteemed choice. I could not negotiate to accept financial support to eventually—hopefully—gain future financial stability. Like other female graduate students, financial support, and employability top the list of concerns during postgraduate studies (Moyer et al. 611; Ruud et al. 301).

On the one hand, I felt I was holding myself financially dependent upon my spouse’s salary to conduct research; no longer was I the independent, self-sufficient teacher-researcher from year’s past. Instead, I felt like I was riding on the earnings and allegedly more challenging work that my spouse exhibited each day so that I could complete an advanced degree. I wondered if an advanced degree was worth it, as there was a chance that this scholarly advancement might not pay off in my career in the long run (Cabrera 220).

Thus, this disruption to my career in favor of full-time research illustrated another demon to negotiate. Because I chose full-time research, without negotiating a full-time job besides, I realized I was unprepared for this negotiation process. I rationalized that graduate work signified an intellectual challenge and was thus worth my time. Without acknowledging the balance and subsequent authenticity, I would eventually crave my professional work (Cabrera 221). Career disruptions in pursuit of work that created both balance and authenticity illustrate a documented career progression for women my age—however, progress toward these elements that graduate work might interrupt.

In this way, I had become the woman I spent years despising: the full-time graduate student who—in my inexperienced mind—was not really “working.” These were the women I chastised at the beginning of my doctoral studies for not having full-time jobs: why are they not working outside the program? I would be able to finish my research in a second if I didn’t have a real job, I considered, without knowing or acknowledging neither the personal stories of these women nor the often disjointed nature of women’s careers (Cabrera 219). The tides had since turned. As Moyer et al. note, women tend to experience more career disruptions than men in light of having to integrate and maintain multiple obligations within and outside of work (609). Because I had transitioned into a full-time graduate student, in my mind, I took the seemingly effortless way out. I spent the last nine months in front of a computer, or book, just with my thoughts in the clouds. Additionally, because I was not working full-time while completing my dissertation, my research—to me—seemed not rightfully earned. Wrestling with a career disruption—and whether this had been the best choice—gave way to the most towering demon I had to overcome: self-doubt.

Self-doubt served as the most significant and most insurmountable demon throughout my research process. I doubted my choice of research over my career, my ability to finish the dissertation, and whether I belonged among the ranks of academia. These doubts had been bubbling below the surface for some time but took hold during the dissertation process, especially. This doubt of ability and belonging emerged irrespective of the lack of representation of women in higher academic posts (Mehta et al. 38-41; Moyer et al. 608; Rosli et al. 2). Like other women, I found self- doubt over my ability to earn the degree as one of the primary obstacles toward completion (Maher et al. 391). Even though I spent most of my waking moments on my research, it felt like there were times I questioned whether the research would ever finish. Not only did I feel anxious at the possibility of entering academia—the very path that inspired my decision to pursue this work in the first place.  I also felt anxious and out-of-place in social situations as a result of spending large amounts of time alone as part of my research (Bower et al. 261; Moyer et al. 609).

From here, as I spent much of my time engulfed in research, I spent significant time alone, creating prime breeding grounds for increased levels of self-doubt and anxiousness amidst what felt like a solitary endeavor (Webber 154). When I would meet people out in the real world, and I could feel the uncomfortable question surfacing, the “so what do you do?” question. I would scan the room for an escape route before succumbing with a sigh to the inevitable response: “I’m a graduate student,” awaiting the other human’s subsequent look of pity and reluctance to further engage in conversation. I perceived my nebulous role in academia (sort of, but not quite in academia) as less-than and unapproachable, invariably separating myself from the kind of work I could effortlessly discuss at dinner parties. To some, I spend most of my time in front of a computer, a book, or with my head floating in the clouds. This assertion, it turned out, was relatively accurate. I began only to fabricate a sense of comfort when forced to interact with actual humans. Some women find graduate work as affirming, while others experience a loss of self while negotiating the internal and external dragons along the way (Heinrich et al. 353). I could not yet decide whether my pursuit of a doctorate was affirming, or whether what I lost in professional experience and human interaction outweighed this achievement.

A Researcher Transformed

If it was not immediately apparent: I did finish my dissertation in 2019, thus highlighting my victory over the demons that threatened my progress. However, like most graduate students—women especially, who must integrate and balance multiple roles and obligations in addition to research—this proved no easy feat (Rosli et al. 3). As most graduate students understand, I would imagine, I felt unprepared for the possibility of maintaining a consistent progression in my research and working full-time, in this case, at a high-needs high school as the sole member of a foreign language department. I assumed I could not successfully adhere to both substantial obligations.

On a personal note, my emerging research aided my ability to understand the broader political and discursive local and federal policies that once angered me deeply as a practicing teacher in Chicago. Those that reduced and scrutinized my work as an educator, as well as systems that shaped a collective understanding of what it means to be a teacher. I felt increasingly at peace, knowing that it was not just me who had been experiencing efforts to minimize and narrow teachers’ work. Therefore, I felt my research was both critical and significant—despite its place within the “academic kitchen” of education (Morris 146). Not only for me, but also for current and former practitioners like me, who could recognize dubious deregulation efforts resulting in technical frameworks for teaching and learning, but could not name the sources from where these efforts or policies emerged (Lipman 4).

However, the dissertation process—and its subsequent demons—halted that little sense of peace. Although completing a dissertation illustrates a crucial scholarly achievement, I realized the journey toward its completion proved just as formative personally as professionally. As a young and fiercely independent woman who had been on her own since the age of eighteen, I was struck by the realization that I might have to choose between my research and paid full-time work as I wrapped up the IRB process—a series of surprising ebbs and flows in itself.

Moreover, I knew myself; and I knew the level of commitment I wanted to exhibit in my teaching practice (i.e., the level of commitment I knew my students deserved). Truthfully, I have always had trouble finding balance in my life. If I stayed in the classroom, my teaching duties would come first, always, thus allowing my research, recruitment, and writing to take back seats. One day away from my research might turn into two, and two might become four, where I would spend a week, a month, or a few months making minimal progress. Let me be frank: my teaching environment would demand a physically, mentally, and emotionally present individual for every moment of the school year, and then some, because what teacher’s work ends when the dismissal bell rings? Although I spent years in my program balancing full-time work, coursework, emerging research, and other side jobs, I was unsure how long I could attempt this kind of balancing act. In the end, I chose my research.

Although I should be profoundly grateful that I had the freedom to make this choice, I still felt that I had not rightfully earned my research accomplishment, because I did not negotiate work in the research world, and work in the “real” world. I operated under the premise that “one cannot be a good researcher unless one devotes all energy and time to [research] work…” (Moyer et al. 618), always “making use of” every bit of free time to write, transcribe, code, or research and feeling guilty if I chose not to occupy free minutes with research, writing, or dissertation-related work (Webber 157). As said, this sense of guilt emerged as a test of my will to complete the dissertation. It represented the “invisible work” that many graduate students must endure as part of the research process (Ellison et al. 2). It is this internal transformation that often goes unnoticed but is no less significant during this journey.

Finally, as Murdock notes, my journey through the doctoral program and the dissertation process, as well as the feelings of guilt and shame that emerged in light of these academic obstacles, reflect a journey toward “validation from patriarchal systems” of efficiency and productivity. My journey highlights the immense negotiation processes women endure not just in academia, but also in all sectors and walks of life (Murdock 4). Instead of chastising or self-criticizing our career interruptions or taking to heart the perceptions of women with graduate degrees, collectively, we must re-envision the female graduate experience as an enlightening transformation, both personally and professionally (Bower et al. 261). How do we balance the efficient and logical, with our health, dreams, and intuition?” (Murdock 7). Examining this process a year later, I have begun to reclaim writing – both for leisurely and academic purposes – as a source of joy, representing future scholarly and creative journeys.

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