by Melissa Williams | May 14, 2012
I have a two-year-old son. Like many toddlers, he becomes intensely obsessed with things, and by far the biggest obsession these days is the movie Finding Nemo. Fortunately, it’s a nice blend of adult and child humor, so we’ve survived the multiple viewings every week without going completely bananas.
I’ve found myself listening sympathetically to learners as they’ve called frustrated or exhausted with the dissertation process and thinking about the phrase Dory (the character voiced by Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo) lives by: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…” It’s gotten me thinking about all the other great lessons I’ve learned from watching Nemo ad nauseum and how beautifully applicable they are to the dissertation process. Here’s a taste:
- Don’t let your fears prevent you from going on the adventure. In Nemo, the father (Marlin) finds himself stuck inside a whale while trying to get to his son and wails, “I promised him I’d never let anything happen to him!” Dory responds, “You can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.” The dissertation is a scary ride. We can’t control it. In fact, while pragmatism (thinking about a “do-able” dissertation) is good, you can also suck all the life out of the experience by trying to control for every variable. Sometimes some unpleasant things will happen along the way to a very good thing—the completion of your dissertation. Try to enjoy the ride, “adventures” and all.
- Sometimes the people you don’t expect to do so can help you, if you will only let them. Marlin, frustrated by the dead ends he encounters while trying to find Nemo, complains at one point, “No one in this entire ocean is going to help me.” Dory, who seems at times to hamper rather than help the search, retorts, “Well, I’m helping you.” And she does; by the end of the movie, Marlin tells Dory, “If it wasn’t for you, I never would have even made it here.” A whale, a pelican, a turtle, and an entire tank full of exotic fish also help Marlin and Nemo find each other. Your mentor might be the obvious source for help, but there are people both within Capella (librarians, career counselors, folks in Disabilities Services or Military Support) and outside Capella (that guy at work who’s also dissertating and needs a writing partner, the local writing instructor in that community college writing course you picked up to help you with Chapter Two, your awesome aunt who watches the kids every Monday so you can dissertate for several hours) who can help you. As one of our advisors here points out, every dissertator needs a “D Squad.” Look for and accept help as you go through this journey.
- Kill the motor, dude. Crush, the hippie turtle, provides many lessons for Marlin in going with the flow. As Crush’s son, Squirt, falls out of the current the characters are riding, Marlin freaks out and starts to rush after him. Crush holds him back, saying, “Kill the motor, dude. Let us see what Squirt will do.” Squirt has a beautiful moment of independence and growth that he and his father then celebrate. If you find yourself about to freak out about what looks like a bad turn of events, try to take a step back and give yourself a moment to get some perspective. It’s amazing what we can resolve on the administrative end of things in a day or so without needing a learner to intervene. And yes, sometimes intervention is good! But letting the dust settle before acting can often reduce the number of things you need to handle yourself.
- Fight! Marlin and Dory arrive in Sydney harbor where Nemo is being held, only to be swallowed by a pelican. Marlin yells, “NO! I didn’t come this far to be breakfast!” and fights his way out of the pelican’s gullet. While it may seem that I’m giving you opposite advice to my previous point, I’m really not. If you’re encountering an immense roadblock—say, an IRB deferral or a financial challenge—well into your dissertation, your reaction might first be to give up. And while I definitely acknowledge that there’s honor in a thoughtful exit from a dissertation if it’s not going to benefit your personal and professional life, sometimes the one thing that gets someone to the end of a dissertation is tenacity. Find another way. Talk with your advisor; we’re really good at finding alternate routes and are very honest about what can and can’t be done. I can’t tell you how many learners I’ve seen come back after even I thought they weren’t going to make it. Their tenacity was the difference. Don’t be breakfast!
- Sometimes failure helps us succeed. Nemo asks Gill, the veteran tank fish who eventually helps Nemo get back to the ocean and all of the tank fish escape at the end of the movie (sorry about the spoiler!), how many times Gill’s tried to escape. “I lost count,” Gill responds, but explains his persistence: “Fish weren’t meant to be in a box, kid. It does things to ya.” Gill knows where he’s meant to be, and although Gill fails over and over, he learns from each failure, helps Nemo get out even when he can’t get out himself, and eventually outsmarts the supposedly fool-proof gadget in the tank that seems to have foiled his plans. Gill gets discouraged, and sometimes he does things that aren’t wise. But he also thinks creatively, is informed by his failures, and uses that knowledge to succeed. Likewise, those who’ve encountered adversity throughout their dissertations often are the ones who are the most successful. Did your committee send back the proposal with opinions completely different from that of your mentor? Does it look like you may have to start over? What can you learn from their feedback that will help you succeed? How do your “failures” narrow your choices so that you can see the right path to take for success?
Thank you for taking a peek into my life as the parent of a toddler. Thank you for all the hard work you do as a dissertator—we DO see it! And remember:
Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…
What valuable lessons have you learned along the dissertation journey? What helps you keep swimming?