As much as people tell me, “Don’t look at it as a failure,” it is what it is. A failure.
The past six months there have been five aspects of my life: family, dissertation, work, church and personal — typically in that order. But the dissertation affected every aspect. I missed many Saturday “family days.” I neglected work emails and phone calls. I shrugged my church responsibilities. And personal time? Forget it. The dissertation followed me everywhere I went. I wrote while on the bleachers during my son’s baseball game. I spent a trip to visit my mom in Chicago locked up in a bedroom to write. I wrote during work. I wrote in church. I wrote in doctor’s offices.
My family sacrificed immensely, not only in my wife going without her husband and my sons going without their father for months, but also financially. I spent north of $1,000 paying for recording and transcription services, token gifts for my participants, and of course the open coffee tab at Starbucks, my official writing headquarters. I bought my $750 doctoral graduation gown and planned a flight for my mom to watch me achieve the highest academic accomplishment in my field. And on Oct. 15, it was all worth it. I was done.
Only one step was left — the defense. It was supposed to be a mere formality. I know dozens of Ph.Ds, many of them who came through my program. Every single one of them breezed through the defense. Perhaps a revision now and then, but nothing to delay graduation. Failing a dissertation defense is almost unheard of — just google “failed dissertation defense.” At the point of the defense, the dissertation has been well-read and vetted by the committee. Any major issues should’ve long been addressed.
So I walked into the defense confident and proud. I couldn’t wait for that moment when I would be dismissed from the room so the committee can deliberate, and be invited back to the room to hear my major professor say, “Congratulations Dr. Dennis.”
But that didn’t happen. The form the committee must sign has three options: approve, approve with revisions, and disapprove. My dissertation wasn’t “approved.” It wasn’t even “approved with revisions.” Perhaps not to completely crush my psyche, the committee didn’t “disapprove” either. The form disappeared. And I was told there were “serious concerns” about my study. My methodology was flawed. My research questions were misguided. My results were unreliable. “Don’t look at this as a failure,” I was told.
Countless family members, colleagues and friends knew I was defending on that day. And when I’m forced to tell them what happened, they all echo the same sentiment: “This isn’t a failure.”
But I did fail. All the missed family time, all the neglected work duties, all the shrugging of church responsibilities, all the money spent, all the neglecting of personal gratification was all supposed to lead to the graduation stage on Dec. 18. But it won’t. And it’s not because some tragic life event happened or because I gave up along the way — it’s because I failed.
To say I didn’t fail ignores the hard work I put into this, and the sacrifices my loved ones made to support me. After months of work with hundreds of pages of notes and text, I didn’t submit my dissertation for defense so the committee could debate whether I was going down the right path. I submitted it so they could approve it, and I could finally complete this chapter in my life that began in 2008 and has withstood the birth of my two youngest children, fires that destroyed my parent’s home and my church, the death of my father, a sickness that nearly killed my wife, and a myriad of personal health problems. The chapter was supposed to have a happy conclusion, with me finally graduating in 2015.
Now that chapter will have to be rewritten, much like my dissertation.
Because I failed.