Introducing Dr. Woodbury: Dissertation Work, Final Update

In hindsight, it makes sense that the journey leading to my dissertation started while I was in transit.

Let’s rewind to 2017. I’m on a plane heading back to Roswell after a week of exhibition research in Pennsylvania. Not for the first time, I consider my next move. The exhibition I’m working on, Magical & Real, and my reason for this trip, opens next year. I don’t want to stay in Roswell beyond that, but what to do next? All the available museum jobs that interest me are either underpaid or require a PhD. My options seem limited.

Then there is that archive I recently started looking at, the one documenting the WPA history of the Roswell Museum. The story it tells of an art-sharing system operating through trains has ignited my interest. Enough to consider quitting my job and going back to school.

During that flight, I make a decision. After returning to Roswell, I start researching graduate programs to pursue my burgeoning interests in art access and mobility studies. A year later, following correspondence with faculty, endless applications, and on-campus visits, Brandon and I exchange New Mexico for Virginia. That August, I begin my PhD at William & Mary.

Seven years after my initial in-flight musings, I defended my dissertation. On April 23, 2024, I became Dr. Sara Woodbury.

I completed my defense in the second-floor seminar room at the American Studies building. Over the past six years, I’ve spent a lot of time in this room, whether through taking courses, listening to presentations, or giving my own talks. Photo by Brandon. Image: a white woman in a wood-paneled room sits at the end of a long wooden table in front of a window. She exudes scholarly poise.

So What Exactly is a Dissertation Defense, Anyway?

Here’s the short answer: a defense is a meeting where you explain your research to a committee. Theoretically, every member of that committee has read your dissertation. The committee usually consists of your advisor, faculty members whose work intersects with yours, and an outside reader from another institution to bring a different perspective. You answer any questions they have, respond to any critiques, and demonstrate that you have the scholarly prowess and flexibility expected of a doctorate.

The long answer is that it depends on your program. Some expect the defense to be a rigorous, examination-like process, while for others it’s more relaxed. Even at William & Mary, every department’s expectations of the defense vary. Some require formal presentations, while others are more low-key. Technically all defenses are public, but some departments advertise theirs more proactively than others.

In the American Studies program at William & Mary, defenses are generally a more informal affair. From my experience with the reading list colloquium, comps, and the prospectus, our faculty don’t schedule anything until they know you can complete it. But even then, every student’s experience is different, reflecting the variety of research that has always defined the program.

How My Defense Went

As far as defenses go, mine went very well. My advisor had told me not to stress about it, and frankly, I didn’t have time to worry about it, given all that’s been happening at the Barry Art Museum. My committee was highly supportive of the dissertation I wrote, and everyone had excellent questions or suggestions. I came away with a lot of fresh ideas for moving the project forward, which was exactly what I needed.

The defense was also a gratifying emotional experience. Since my parents are in town this month for their annual visit, I invited them to the defense so that they could meet my advisor. Brandon took the morning off from work so he could attend, as did some of my friends from the program. The defense, then, was as much an opportunity to share my research with family and friends as it was the final step in completing this academic journey.

Next Steps

As the title suggests, this is the end of the line for my dissertation. Once I fix a couple of typos, get the requisite paperwork signed, and upload everything to Proquest, I’ll be finished. After three years of ongoing research and writing, and even more years of preliminary research and preparation, my dissertation journey will soon be over.

But as I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, finishing the dissertation is not the end of my research. On the contrary, it’s a gateway to new projects and opportunities. I fully intend to revise my dissertation into a new project, whether it’s a book, a series of articles, an exhibition, or all of the above. I also have numerous ideas for expanding my research beyond what I covered in the dissertation. Far from being the pinnacle of my work as a scholar, the dissertation has shown me that I have only just started to untap my full potential as a researcher. I’ve developed enough ideas to last a lifetime, not to mention what I’ll think of in the future.

For now though, I’m ready to give this research a rest. I’ve already managed to publish some of it, and I’ve gotten so close to the material that I can’t really see it for what it is anymore. I’ve also got new projects and priorities at the Barry Art Museum demanding my attention. All things considered, then, it’s a good time to set aside the project and focus on my museum work. By the time I go back to my research, I’ll have fresh eyes.

Still Sinking In…

So how does it feel to be Dr. Woodbury? The truth is, I don’t think it’s fully sunk in yet. Brandon and I are currently selling our house in Williamsburg and buying a new one in Norfolk. Needless to say, there hasn’t been much downtime for reflection lately.

Another reason it hasn’t fully registered yet is because the dissertation has never been my whole life. After pushing myself to the brink at Williams, I’ve made a point of maintaining a more balanced life. That’s been especially true at William & Mary. Between my work at the Barry, maintaining my creative hobbies, spending time with Brandon, and socializing with friends, I’ve always had other interests and projects. Not having the dissertation to work on every day will certainly be a change, but I already have a full life outside of it. I know I’ll feel its absence more once we’ve finished moving, but for now, there’s already too much going on for me to give it much notice.

…But Starting to Feel It

I think I’ll feel a more official sense of finality next month, when I attend Commencement. Initially, I was on the fence about going, but my cohorts talked me into it. I’m glad they did because I think attending those events will help me understand on an emotional level that this chapter of my life is coming to an end. I’ll likely write a post reflecting on the whole PhD experience then too, though I might hold off on that until after we’ve finished moving.

That said, there are moments when I feel the impact of the defense. I experience it most strongly when I think of the friends, family, and mentors who have supported me throughout this process. Yes, I ultimately did the research and wrote the 300+ pages that comprise the dissertation, but having their love and support gave me the confidence, stability, and flexibility to do it. And when I think about that, I can’t help but feel deeply moved.

I also feel indebted to the 2013 version of me. 11 years ago, around April coincidentally enough, she applied to a job at the Roswell Museum in New Mexico. And she has no idea what she’s about to get into. If I could talk to her, I’d say don’t worry, it’ll be worth it.

Trust me, I’m a doctor.

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