Imagining Youth
social movements and networks in Ukraine
unsolicited advice
Categories: dissertation

If you’re applying to graduate school, especially in anthropology, you have probably heard one — if not all — of your professors tell you that, no matter how much you love the project you’re proposing to do, you won’t do this project as your dissertation.

When I was applying to the CUNY Graduate Center in 2009, I heard this same “advice.” It came to me along with the suggestion that I was far too young to go to graduate school, especially without taking time off between by bachelor’s and Ph.D. — that’s probably why I didn’t pay attention to either. I proposed a project about coal mining in West Virginia (you may have followed some of the process of that project here) that I was absolutely dedicated to completing. Because it was so close to my heart, I thought that there was no way I would ever change my mind about that project being my first major research contribution. Or, if I did ever think about changing my mind, I would feel too guilty to do it, because I couldn’t abandon my home state.

It took me a long time to even get to the point of balancing multiple interests. When you begin graduate school, it’s really hard not to get pigeonholed into that one thing that people remember about you. Mine was always West Virginia and coal mining. When I first did a book presentation on an ethnography about Ukraine, it came as a huge surprise that I knew anything about the context, let alone was still interested in contemporary Ukrainian politics. A few semesters later, I took a course entirely about the ethnography of Eastern Europe under the guise of it being a “area” requirement, rather than a growing desire to use anthropology to understand a part of the world that has fascinated me for a decade. Before I knew it, my mother and I were planning a summer vacation to Kyiv, Ukraine, and, in the midst of the world’s best people-watching, I was in the process of reformulating my entire dissertation research project.

druzhby narodiv

Me in front of the Friendship of Nations Arch, Kyiv, 2011

How does a person who is so committed to a cause, an idea, and a research agenda have such a massive change of heart? I’ve been going over what happened in my head, partly because I felt like I’d really have to work to justify the change to everyone who knew me as West Virginia and coal mining. However, I’ve seen most of my classmates have similar shifts in their ideas about research (probably agonizing less than I have over their decisions!). I want to use this first post to explain some of the main factors in my (and in my classmates’) shift in interest, because multiple factors play into these kinds of decisions. This isn’t to suggest that you should use these to pick the perfect project the first time around — instead, keep them in mind as you move out of your own research utopia and into some realities about dissertations, careers, and interpersonal relations.

Feasibility. As a Ph.D. student, you might assume that I want to be in school for the rest of my life. Despite the reputation of anthropologists taking decades to get their degrees (which isn’t always unwarranted, by the way), I have a plan to complete my dissertation and degree in under 10 years. At the end of my second year of coursework, I was starting to think seriously about how to structure my dissertation research — how would I write a proposal? What bibliographies would I use in my comprehensive exams? Who would be on my committee? In 2009, when I started grad school, I had answers — murky ones, but answers all the same. By 2011, I had no idea how to answer those questions. As I worked on the topic of coal mining over those two years, I discovered a few things: I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did about West Virginia or coal mining. There is an enormous literature on both. My dissertation research could take any direction.

While I felt like I could deal with the first two realizations, it was the last one that terrified me. When I proposed my project in 2009, it was imperfect, but it was specific, and it included answerable questions. There was a lot of amazing support among GC faculty for various aspects of the project — an environmental perspective, a labor perspective, a legal perspective — but I felt like I was the only person who understood that I couldn’t actually combine all of these to make some perfect trifecta of research perspectives, because each was too big on its own. I couldn’t imagine getting a committee together that would support my idea rather than just argue about whose perspective is the most appropriate in this context. Forget about theorizing anything like gender. All of a sudden, it seemed like my perfect project had turned into something that was so far from what I had ever imagined, and I didn’t like it anymore. I felt stuck between doing a project to please these faculty members or committing to my own version and never getting out alive.

It was very convenient to head back to Ukraine for the first time in 8 years at this very moment. While my original dissertation idea was becoming more vague and more frustrating, I returned to Ukraine with an open heart and open mind. Something clicked while I was there, and it came in the form of a question — however broad — that I could actually answer with research that I wanted to do and theoretical frameworks that I could comprehend. Spending time with young people who are maneuvering the continuing changes following the end of state socialism made me want to know more about young people in general and the ways they respond to change. Knowing young people in Ukraine — people I met in 2004, who I am overjoyed to count as my friends in 2013 — allowed me to have a glimpse into what such research might be like before it became really real. This amazing combination of timing, support, and frustration allowed for a certain clarity in these new questions.

Keeping your own interest. I’ve always loved traveling and learning languages. It surprised me a little when I decided to focus on the United States for my dissertation research. It meant I was committing to staying in the US for the next 10 or so years, and maybe more. When I began to approach new faculty members about my Ukrainian revelations, one of them reminded me of Emily Martin’s reflections on doing fieldwork in the United States only after she had completed her first research project in a village in China.

“I think that the seeds of my desire to try doing fieldwork in my own society were sown in that foreign place, as a result of questions Chinese villagers frequently asked me about the United States. I could give superficial answers to questions about why we put our aging parents in old people’s homes…, why I still had no children at the advanced age of 25, why the child I brought with me at a somewhat later age might well be my only one, even though she was a girl — but I realized that at a deeper level I really did not have good answers.”

(The Woman in the Body (2001), 3-4.)

In other words, we have as much to about our own society by living and working elsewhere as we do about elsewhere. As this faculty member reminded me, if you feel even remotely interested in international research, now is the time. I don’t believe that this is a return to the romantic ideal of exotic anthropology: rather, it can be easier to do research abroad when you are young, before you have career commitments, among other reasons. I also don’t think this means that everyone must do research abroad before working at home. For me, it was a reminder that, just because I don’t complete one project now, it doesn’t mean that I will never complete it. In fact, the timing may be better to complete it in the future. Obviously this is not true for everyone, but it struck me at the right time. It reminded me that, despite anthropologists’ convictions of their own solitude, we aren’t usually alone in the kinds of decisions we’re making.

Changing my dissertation research to work in Ukraine meant that I got to start studying Ukrainian, which I have been trying to do since I first went there in 2004. (I promise a future post on language politics — until then, read this.) While frustrating at times, learning new languages is yet another reminder that it’s impossible to know everything, no matter how much you read or learn or think you know. It presents a lot of new challenges (interviewing in Ukrainian! transcribing in Ukrainian! remembering that about half the time, people in Ukraine speak Russian!) but it keeps asking the same questions over and over again interesting. In Ukraine, language is always a contentious issue, or at least something to ask about. Choosing a project where I get to commit to learning a language presents, to me, another dimension of enjoyment to doing research that I would have missed out on doing research at home.

Love the one(s) you’re with. I used to laugh at the GC’s mental health workshops on “choosing the right advisor.” I never ended up going to one, but I will never again scoff at the importance of doing just that. Finding the right person to work with and asking them to please give up even more of their precious time to advise your project is… Well, as my closest colleague once said, “It’s like asking someone to prom!” She’s absolutely right.

As soon as I started considering working in Ukraine, I knew exactly who I wanted to work with. Once I started working with her, I realized that having the right advisor is an absolutely essential in getting where you want to be. From moral support for your project to reading (and rereading…and rereading) your proposals and bibliographies, to doing reading courses for your intellectual development, choosing an advisor who can help you get to where you need to be is a very personal process. It’s always easy to want the most prestigious person to work with you, but are they always the right choice? Furthermore, you don’t just work with one person but a group — this is for your benefit as well as theirs. Choosing a group of faculty members who can all enhance and challenge your research is a daunting task. I went with my gut on all of my committee members, and it has made my project stronger. This all sounds a little cheesy, but having faculty members support your project makes the other stuff that goes along with research (proposals! funding! IRBs! exams!) that much more manageable.

Money! I’d be lying if I said funding played no role in my decision to do research in Ukraine. While it didn’t make the choice for me, the realization that I could double the number of grants I applied to for research funds if I didn’t work in the US made me think I wasn’t making such a bad decision. In this climate, funding is increasingly scarce and I, like most other anthropologists, rely on outside funding for research. It’s not very romantic or exotic, but it’s honest, and it’s something to consider if you choose a graduate school that doesn’t subsidize student research.


Fieldwork in Crimea, 2012. Photo by author.


As I face spending 10 (funded!) months in Ukraine to do this research, I still feel a pang of guilt now and then for not following through with my original project. At the same time, I know that spending all this time in Ukraine will help me better face the problems at hand in West Virginia, whether it’s 5, 10, or 20 years down the road. Until then, I hope you’ll follow my upcoming adventures toward dissertation completion in Ukraine!

And remember, sometimes your professors’ advice is right, even if you don’t want it to be. But only sometimes.

1 Comment to “unsolicited advice”

  1. Kara says:

    I love this post! Although I watched (and cheered for) you as you figured at which project to do, there are insights in this post about your choice that I hadn’t heard before. And the last paragraph made me laugh 🙂