“It’s gone.” Those were the last two words I wanted to hear from a data recovery expert. In my earnest attempt to back up my files, I had inadvertently deleted weeks’ worth of recorded interviews for my dissertation. I found myself in a heartrending bungle where I could blame no one but myself.
Losing data was one of many challenges that made up my dissertation experience. My research was hardly ever easy. Regardless of my well-thought-out progress matrices and filing systems, I experienced moments of “drowning” in my data. Although I enjoyed writing as an education researcher, it was nevertheless a demanding process. No matter how triumphantly I submitted a draft of a chapter to my advisor, feelings of defeat ensued after receiving feedback that required weeks — even months — of revision. My dissertation was a series of small everyday battles that didn’t feel small at the time.
Such battles are difficult, especially when we cannot clearly determine their ultimate purpose. In the first year of my doctoral program, I questioned the purpose of my research because I had no serious intentions of becoming a professional academic, locked away in an ivory tower to publish or perish. With experience as a teacher and staff developer in K-12 public education, I desired to remain a practitioner in the field. “What exactly is the point of writing a dissertation, besides graduating?” I pondered. My answers to this question varied, ranging from the grandiose notion of “launching the trajectory of my life’s work” to the cynical declaration, “It’s academic hazing!” Needless to say, both answers left me utterly frustrated.
As this battle waged on, a close friend gently reminded me, “Regardless of what you do, you are truly treasured for who you are in the Kingdom.”
My friend’s brief-but-wise words not only brought comfort, but provided the theological foundation for how I viewed my doctoral work. While I had specific goals tied to my research, I realized that my primary purpose for being in the academy was no different from the previous work God had given me to do: to be a part of his redemptive story, giving him glory through every thought, word, and action. Carolyn Custis James beautifully articulates this purpose in her book, The Gospel of Ruth.
Whether we’re tucking a child into bed; ministering to a friend; pursuing a heart that is hardened to the gospel; working in the corporate world, the church, and the community; or fighting for justice in some remote region of the earth—God is advancing his kingdom through our efforts and our gifts. And you never know when some small everyday battle you are fighting may turn the tide for the kingdom in a big way. (p. 208)
My frustration began to fade as I entered into the discipline of committing every aspect of my dissertation to Jesus. While I knew intellectually that God could use me through my work, living out this reality through seemingly mundane tasks — like transcribing interviews — was both a joy and a challenge. While I will never grow fond of repeatedly pushing “play” and “rewind,” being able to see my work as part of God’s kingdom made it bearable. Though waves of angst always rolled my way whenever I studied tables of statistical data, I knew that I could weather those emotions knowing that my small battle held significance.
After accepting the fact that my dissertation data was irretrievable, I scheduled another cross-country flight to re-interview my research subjects. Wonderfully and mysteriously, God used this predicament for his glory and for my good. To my astonishment, the interviews I conducted the second time around turned out to be some of the most significant data collected during the course of my doctoral career. And to my amazement, the Lord orchestrated this trip to bring me closer to friends who were experiencing fierce battles of their own.
I’m relieved to have made it out to the other side of the dissertation tunnel, but life presents new (and old) everyday battles. Thankfully, he holds my hand through them. As I enter a new season of life, I am grateful for how God used my dissertation to reveal a more vibrant reality of his love for me, and how my small everyday battles marvelously and mysteriously hold significance.