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"He only is a well-made man who has a good determination. And the end of culture is not to destroy this, God forbid! but to train away all impediment and mixture, and leave nothing but pure power. Our student must have style and determination, and be a master in his own specialty. But, having this, he must put it behind him. He must have a catholicity, a power to see with a free and disengaged look every object."
The Conduct of Life by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Doubt is a great impediment to determination. The mind is not a friendly neighborhood, but a ghetto of pitfalls weighed against possibilities.
I re-entered the academic life in middle-age with a career behind me and a number of uncertain paths ahead. I had a passion for a subject and I was content for a time just reading and writing about it in this blog. To do more would have meant choosing one path over the others with no guarantee of success. This was the paralysis of analysis where the mind constantly explores the possibilities and ultimately rejects them all, only to revisit the matter the next day with the same result.
But as I sat still, my world changed around me. I saw my preferred options narrowing if only for a predetermined period of time. I began to pay attention to other voices that had been telling me for years that academia and I might be a good fit. So I applied to the school of my choice in the specialty closest to my heart, and to my surprise I was accepted as a student.
Thus began my time as a graduate student at the University of Kent Brussels School of International Studies. I went to study International Migration but that wasn't the only education I received. I learned, for example, that my unruly mind that lived in the wreckage of the future simply didn't have the capacity to imagine all the possibilities open to me and greatly underestimated my ability to do things I had never done before. Guided by a friend in Paris, I found a place to live and a flatmate who turned out to be one of the most delightful women I have ever met. I could pay my rent, cook for myself, explore the city, Perhaps at this point you are laughing - of course a grown woman can do those things. But consider this: at 50 I had never lived on my own. I missed my family but I gained confidence in my ability to take care of myself.
I also learned that the voices were correct. I could do the classwork, I could finish the required reading (though sometimes it was a struggle), I could participate in seminar and I could write those papers in the proper form with an argument and sources cited as they should be A great deal of that success was due to humility. I hadn't darkened the doors of academia in 30 years and that was in the American system not the British one. When I didn't know what I was doing, I asked and my professors were more than happy to help, particularly my program director, Dr. Klekowski von Koppenfels, who was very patient with my never-ending inquiries. From here are my research questions, are any of them promising? to what citation system should I use?
Less doubt meant more determination. Nevertheless, I was still very worried about my dissertation. I did my fieldwork in Japan and I started doing the research and setting up the study as soon as I could. That was another exercise in humility because studies that involve human beings meant understanding research ethics and submitting the study format and questions to an ethics review board. Graduate students are not simply loosed upon the world to ask questions of anyone, anytime, anywhere. There are rules and there is supervision. I had no idea.
Last step was writing it up. 14,000 words more or less, a research question, an argument, data I spent weeks reviewing, literature review that places this work within a context of other works and the absolutely necessary but truly dull business of citing sources and compiling a bibliography. Ever day was filled with anxiety watching the deadline approach and counting down the number of days I had remaining. I was up at 5 or 6 AM every day and went to bed at 10:00 PM when I was so exhausted that my vision was blurry and everything I wrote was utter crap. The family was kind and ignored my grumpiness; they took over the household duties and proofread when asked. I even had a weekly skype with my thesis advisor who finally gently gave me this bit of advice: "There are perfect dissertations, Victoria, and there are finished dissertations."
I submitted a day before the March 22nd deadline. Still consumed with doubt I tried to reread what I had already sent and when I found a spelling error on my first pass, I decided that the insanity had to end. I closed my text and let it go. Factum es.
Since the beginning of June I have been waiting to hear if I passed or not: checking my school email every day. Last night the verdict appeared in my inbox and it said: "I am pleased to inform you that you have satisfied the Examiners in the examinations for the above degree at the appropriate standard." And not only did I pass but with "Distinction" - the highest of the three grade categories (pass and merit are the other two).
So sometime at the end of November I will be in Canterbury Cathedral in Kent for the graduation ceremony. I never attended the one for my BA so long ago but for my MA? I wouldn't miss it for the world. And let's be very clear, an MA doesn't make me a master of my specialty but it has made me a better observer and researcher in all the areas that interest me. But above all, it represents to me the triumph of determination over doubt. I honestly did not know if I could do it. But I did.
With a great deal of help and encouragement. The acknowledgements in my dissertation take up nearly an entire page. Some of them may not even remember what they said that made a difference and are oblivious to how much it stayed in my mind until I was ready to act on it. Thank you for having faith in me.
And now, on to other things. The gardens awaits. The job hunt begins. And we'll see what this middle-aged woman can make of herself now.
For anyone who is interested, I feel comfortable circulating my dissertation about Anglophones in Japan. For those of you with more experience with academia, is there a place I can upload it? Do I have the right to do so or do I have to ask my school? If not, just send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I'll send you a copy with one caveat which is that I would like your thoughts and comments in return.