Scared of the Scoop

Something I never expected: to be scared that someone would steal my dissertation topic.

I recently (okay, not too recently–a year ago, in fact) changed my topic–a massive change, actually, with only the smallest of threads connecting my new topic to the old.  The change came after an enthusiastic late-evening call from my adviser, who suggested that I consider this new topic because it hadn’t been done before, it’s a contained narrative, the sources are there, and it connects with a couple of the broader themes that I’m interested in (namely, the Cold War and late-60s/early 70s American liberalism).  This new topic also happens to have a bit more funding- and job-getting opportunities than my former, much more regionally-focused, work.  In short, it’s pretty much perfect.

I’m therefore scared to death that someone else is going to pick up this topic before I do.  Or, worse yet, that someone already is working on it, and I just haven’t met her yet.  Two people in my cohort started a project and headed off to the archives, only to find some other graduate student already hard at work and much further along in the project.  Horrible.  There have been a few results of this for me:

  1. I’m deliberately vague about my work for fear of someone stealing the idea.  This includes even to close friends in the field, and extends to this blog.  Which sucks, because I’d really like to get your ideas on this thing.
  2. Whenever I see an article or book that seems related to my topic, my heart skips a beat, I lose a little breath, and then my brain goes into panic along these lines: Oh, shit, someone scooped me.  What will I do now?  I suppose I could go back to my old topic.  Or drop out.  Yeah, maybe I should just do that.  I’m done for as a historian.  It’s over; time to go back to the tech world.  But that’s no good, because there are no jobs there.  What about the mortgage?  What about my dog?  What will she eat?  What will I eat? You get the idea.
  3. I’ve gained a bit more insight into just how fucked-up this business is.  See point #2.

Naturally, there’s nothing to be done but keep moving forward, hoping that I’m moving fast enough.  But it feels so damned slow sometimes.


Sorry for the long absence.  As previously noted, I passed my qualifying exams, thereby moving past the stage of general knowledge and into the rarified air of shit-nobody-but-me-cares-about.  More in a future post about my dissertation topic (I’m taking ideas…), but for now, quick reflections on the qualifying exam process:

  • Though I pumped out 10 pages in a mock exam, I was only able to generate 5 pages for the real deal.  I still don’t know why, exactly.  It wasn’t the questions–they were pretty much what I expected.  Nerves, maybe?  The flourescent lights in the exam room?  Whatever it was, I just about threw my computer across the room when I got done.
  • Yes, I got to use my own computer.  What the hell is that about?  Shouldn’t they have given me a sterilized, non-networked, WordPerfect 5.1-only computer to do this thing on?  Instead, I had access to all of my notes plus the Internet.  What a tease.  Naturally, I was scared to death to use those resources (cheating on qualifying exams goes under the “really bad idea” category).  But seriously, what torture.
  • The oral component was kind of fun.  I say “kind-of” because there’s still the pressure of having to perform for a highly educated audience, including my adviser and his colleagues, so I was trying to both impress my adviser and not embarrass him in front of the rest of the committee.   And I muffed that pretty good: apparently I made a ridiculous error regarding the Navigation Acts of 1651.  But I still don’t know what that mistake was.  Nor, if I may be so bold to say, do I give a rat’s fart.
  • Final word on qualifying exams: All you have to do is pass.  In fact, that’s as much as you can do–nobody really impresses their exam committee.  Because, hey, these people have been doing this for years.  They know this stuff backwards and forwards in a way that a grad student just can’t at this early stage in her career.  So sit back and try not to fuck it up too bad.