Taya Sazama completed her degree in the Fall of 2016, but has continued to attend conferences to present her Master’s Essay research. As a graduate student, Taya took advantage of our teaching mentorship opportunity, and was also the recipient of our $1,000 student research grant, which she used to attend the Historical Romance Retreat in Spokane, Washington.
One of the most difficult transitions post grad-school is attempting to move on from your thesis project back into the “real world,” For months—and perhaps longer—you have immersed yourself in your research. For me, it was romance novels and the community of women who read and write them. Not only were these the only texts I had read for well over a year, but all of my thoughts seemed to constantly churn over related ideas, to-do lists, and questions I needed to ask my advisor. This obsession only seems to gain momentum as graduation nears and you prepare to review, submit, and defend the project to your committee. It took me months to actually read something other than romance after I graduated in December 2016. I intended to pick up something new right away as a sort of celebration, but romance had almost become an addiction and I struggled to get past the first few pages of any other book. Finally, at the beginning of April, I read A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman and I felt cured. Don’t get me wrong—I still love romance novels. But it was definitely time to take a healthy break.
Now, in contrast with the urge to break up with your thesis project, there is also the strong desire to hold on tightly to what has almost literally become your baby. For months it has kept you up at nights, you were constantly changing it, and you had almost no social life because it demanded your undivided attention. How can you just abandon it now? The question of what to do with my paper began to plague me even before I graduated. Sure, there is the goal of publication, but the path on how to get there is not always clear. What I chose to do, and what I highly recommend, is to present your work at a conference. Sure you can easily do this at St. Thomas, the U of M, or some other local university, but what I propose is something that, for many of us, is far outside of our comfort zone. Go somewhere where nobody knows you—where nobody knows your research—where no one from your school is presenting. This will give you the best chance at testing your ideas out in the scholarly world, getting fresh ideas and testing your conclusions in a way that cannot happen in the comfort of your own academic circle.
At the end of last October, an email came through with the following title for a conference taking place the following spring at Texas State University: “Century of Conflict: Dialogues on Women, Gender, Intersectionality, and Militarism. This event will provide a forum for diverse perspectives on work around issues of gender, ability/disability, veteran status, and intersectionality.” As I was currently in that obsessive state with my project, I immediately emailed my advisor for confirmation that I should, in fact, do this. After getting the green light from her that it was a good idea, I put together an abstract and sent it off, feeling rather pleased with myself. Unfortunately, those good feelings quickly dissipated when I received my acceptance email post-graduation. At that point, I was trying unsuccessfully to break up with my thesis and was genuinely annoyed with myself for wanting to attend a conference in March, almost four months after I should have been done with my paper.
Yet, even with all this anxiety, I can assure you that this experience turned out to be one of the most rewarding of my academic career. One of the biggest benefits to participating in this conference was that it forced me to evaluate my own conclusions with an eye towards seemingly dissimilar topics. What quickly became apparent once the symposium began was that the conference, and almost all of the other presenters, were focusing very heavily on the militarism side of the conference topics. In fact, as I glanced through the titles in the program, mine seemed to be a glaring outlier. As the morning sessions of the symposium progressed, I found myself panicking a little – How was I going to relate my project to all of these discussions on war and female soldiers in the military? I imagined what the reactions of my audience members would be and could already see their confused faces as they wondered how a scholar on romance novels was admitted to be a presenter. Silently chastising myself for getting into this predicament, I began to quickly brainstorm how to salvage what I assumed would be a disaster. Thankfully, my dire predictions did not come true. In fact, I was able to walk away from the experience with some major connections between my conclusions and the issues raised by the other presenters. In additions, the questions and positive comments from an outside circle of academics did much to encourage me in my research. They helped to validate the importance of my work while also providing helpful criticism and suggestions for further research. Best of all, I was invited to submit my paper to the university’s academic journal on women and gender.
There is no shortage of opportunities at which to present your research. I would urge all graduate students, especially those who are nearing the end of their programs, to seek out places where they can push their boundaries. As much as I recommend presenting at local conferences—because any practice is helpful—there is almost more to be gained by widening your sphere. It will help you to look at your work with fresh eyes and to really gauge the potential it has for publication. So, fight the urge to fully break up with your thesis immediately upon graduation. Take it somewhere new, but explain that you need an open reading relationship.