What Did You Learn? That Time I Failed at Introspection

During my oral defense for my dissertation, I was asked a ton of questions. The hardest one was a curve ball:

“Reach down deep inside. What did you learn? I’m looking for introspection here.”

I was prepared to connect to the literature, talk about how my work would be impacted by my research, and explain what I learned from my participants.

I wasn’t prepared to think about myself through this nearly 4 year process.

I answered about what surprised me from the research. What themes came up that I didn’t anticipate.

Cop out.

My final exam for my undergraduate senior seminar in English was one question: which question asked during your senior presentation did you not answer well, and how would you answer it differently if you could?

So, I’m going to try that introspection question again.

1. Everyone need deadlines.

For me, it was really important for someone to impose a deadline on me. I had my own goals (such as being “free” from Chapter 4 by Independence Day, July 4th which was catchy) but meeting that goal wasn’t all that important for me–because it didn’t appear important to anyone else. This was my first major shortcoming. I enjoy completing projects and having deadlines, but the self-imposed deadline was a new concept to me because the completion didn’t affect anyone other than me. If I failed to meet a deadline, no one was saying “ut oh..” In fact, no one really knew at all.

Please don’t get me wrong: I work well under pressure. My work is always quality and is always early, if not on-time. But, there was something unique about dissertation writing that no one quite understands unless having gone through it themselves. Self-imposed work deadlines are easy to manage–it’s related to a tangible outcome (a paycheck, a project, other staff, etc.). Writing, over and over, has no other outcome other than being “done” (yes, there’s a diploma and graduation involved, too).

In order to start meeting self-imposed deadlines, I started needing others to ask me to be accountable. So, I told my boss, “I want to be done with X by Y.” So, then he’d start asking me about my progress. What then began as being accountable to others slowly transformed into being accountable to myself.

Tip: Find an accountability team. Set up a timeline and ask others to help you stay accountable. It’s much harder to come up with an excuse to someone other than yourself.

2. Growth is good.

At times, when I was writing an interview protocol or interviewing my participants, I felt like an impostor. I felt like so many others were “better” than me at this process. I felt uncomfortable and a like a novice.

But, the truth is, I wasn’t an expert and I definitely was out of my comfort zone. And, that’s okay too. I learned at the end of this process that I accomplished something great–and, it wasn’t that the study was great or that the study will have a national impact (one can hope, though). No, what was great then? The process itself. I learned to be uncomfortable, to check my self and be critical with my own work. And, of course academically, I learned how to investigate and write about research.

Tip: If you haven’t done something before, push beyond the fear to try. It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s practice. You’re practicing to get better. If you let fear get in the way of early learning, you’ll never master it.

3. Done is good.

I heard, many times, the phrase “a good dissertation is a done dissertation.” I didn’t quite understand that phrase (“shouldn’t we all strive for our best?”) until December 16th–3 days after I had defended my work. There were tough questions in the defense which I believe I answered adequately(-ish) but, as I re-read my paper one last time before uploading for publication, I found a sentence that was worded oddly, or a concept earlier in the paper (“credibility”) that I wish I had explored more deeply in Chapter 5. I started to write notes feverishly in the margins. Then I looked up and said those 7 words:

“A good dissertation is a done dissertation. “

Then, I uploaded the paper.

Step one: I acknowledged what could have been improved. But, I’m going to save those improvements for the next project. I’m going to learn from any shortcoming this time around and make the next project all the better . Sometimes, the perfect is the enemy of the good. And, I think my work was good–and I can always improve.

Step two: I recognized that what was my “best” a few months or weeks ago, might only be “good” now. That means I’m constantly learning. My “best” work for my master’s thesis looks like a silly short essay when I re-read it now. And, that’s okay. We should constantly be learning and striving for improving.

Tip: Do your best in the “now” and then be future-oriented with what you’ve learned once the “now” is over. Your now should have a specific timeline. How meta that sounds.


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© 2020 by Dr. Brandon Barile

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