“So how’s that dissertation coming along?” The question most dreaded by those making their way through the long and tortuous PhD process. Seeing as how I am nearing (fingers crossed) the end of my own journey in this regard, I thought it would be and appropriate time for a short status update and reflection.
First, the background. I finished all my PhD requirements except the dissertation in May of 2011 and started my research in June. I have been studying the socio-political dynamics of community development in a diverse, but predominantly low-income, urban area on the outskirts of Guatemala City. From July through December I did a lot of interviews with key actors, and some with randomly selected residents, surveys of those who participate in community organizations and those who do not, and participant observation of community group meetings. My research design evolved considerably during the first couple of months as I was learning more about the community and what would be the most productive avenues of investigation. Oh, if I had only known what I know now when I began my research! But I adapted as new opportunities and challenges presented themselves.
I analyzed my data as I went (using Nvivo software to organize my qualitative data) and starting with the new year in 2012, I began to put pen to paper. So I have been in the writing phase for 10 months (and counting). Of course this did not mean that I was done analyzing my data, or even collecting data for that matter. I continued as a participant observer and also carrying out interviews when I came across a new actor who might be able to provide some additional insights. Thus, these past months have been a back-and-forth process of writing some, looking back at the data to see if they support my hunches, writing some more, rewriting, looking at the data one more time, and rewriting again. I have framed my writing in 4 essays (plus an essay bringing together conclusions, policy recommendations and suggestions for further research). Each essay stands on its own, but together they present a more integrated analysis of the community dynamics that I have been studying. The essay themes are the following:
- An ethnographic exploration of spaces for citizen participation
- An analysis of community development, focusing on actors and approaches
- An investigation of citizen participation and empowerment
- A study of politics at the community level and its interaction with community organization and community development
Some clear lessons learned have come out of this research, which have direct policy implications. I’ll discuss these in a future post, because they directly pertain to a new NGO I’m helping to found that will hopefully be able to take some action on the key issues I have identified using the strategies that have emerged as most successful in this context. I am also integrating the ideas and lessons from my research in my work at USAID, bringing a critical perspective on community dynamics to our projects here in Guatemala (well, at least those that I have a chance to work on).
So what is the plan? Well, I expect to have a completed first draft of my dissertation by the end of this year. Actually, as noted above, it will already have gone through a couple rounds of revisions. My advisor has provided helpful feedback on the first 2 essays and has the 3rd on his desk for his review. I’m putting the last touches on the final essay (which has been the most complicated and lead to the most head scratching on my part). Once I have a working draft, I will circulate it to my entire committee and hope for feedback during the Christmas break. Then I will go into another intensive round of revisions to come up with a final, defensible product. Logistics will be the primary determinant of when I defend my dissertation, but ideally sometime in the late spring.
Finally, as with most freshly-minted PhDs, I will be seeking publication venues for my work. That will likely be another long and tortuous process (one I’ve already been through a couple times, with mixed results), which I’m not particularly looking forward to. But I do think that I have generated some valuable new(ish) knowledge and I’d like to get it “out there”. Ideally I would publish in academic journals geared towards development practitioners (such as Development in Practice or Environment and Urbanization). I’ll be on the lookout for other venues as well. And no doubt some tidbits will make their way into this blog as well. I’m sure you are all waiting with bated breath!
That that is my dissertation process in a nutshell. Wish me luck as I continue in the final stages, believe me that my level of emotional (and probably intellectual) energy dedicated to my dissertation have been steadily eroding over time, but I think I have one last push left in me. We shall see.