Explaining my Dissertation and Research

I’ve recently had to explain *what I’m currently doing with my life* to friends and family outside of academia and realized that very few people understand what completing a PhD looks like, particularly in the humanities. So I figured I would come on here and try to explain the PhD process, as well as my research, as simply and clearly as possible. One of the goals of this website, in my mind, was always to chronicle this process – though I haven’t been successful at this yet. This can hopefully be one step towards fulfilling that goal as well.

In short, I am currently a PhD candidate. This signifies a certain position in the process of attaining your PhD. In my case, I entered my doctoral program with a Masters degree, which meant that when I started I was a PhD student who needed to take two years of coursework before becoming a PhD candidate (as opposed to those who start with a Bachelors degree, who often need three years of coursework). After you’ve completed all course requirements, you also need to take a series of exams – we call these comprehensive exams (some people have oral comprehensive exams, but ours were written). Then, you have to defend your dissertation prospectus, which is essentially your proposal for your dissertation. In the case of history projects, you have to adequately explain your research questions, the goal of your dissertation project, what types of sources you will utilize in your dissertation, what archives you will need to visit to access such sources, and why your project is significant to the wider historical narrative. Once you have achieved all of these things – the coursework, the exams, and the prospectus defense – you become a PhD candidate. We also call this ABD, or all-but-dissertation.

Since May 2021, I have been ABD. This means that my goal currently is to complete the research and writing necessary for my dissertation. One component of dissertating that most people find confusing when I describe this process is funding. Usually, while you are taking courses as a PhD student, you also serve as a Teaching Assistant, which you are paid for (though our stipends for this are abysmal). However, once you become ABD, you need to find funding to complete your research – particularly if your research will take you abroad. Some PhD candidates can and will TA while completing research – but this is not possible for me with my project and the research I need to do. So, in my case, and in the case of many PhD candidates in history, we have to apply for grants and fellowships to support our research. I will return to this issue later.

My current research, and my goal for my dissertation, is a culmination of my research interests over the past six years or so. I want to try to explain this research here, briefly. While finishing my Masters degree in Holocaust studies, I became fascinated with the fact that during the Second World War, many Jewish cemeteries in occupied Poland (and also in other areas) were destroyed as part of the genocide. But as I researched this concept, I discovered many instances of Jewish people using cemeteries to escape from ghettos or hide from deportations – and this concept became so much more interesting to me. However, I also felt that something was missing – how can I try to understand these varied uses of Jewish cemeteries during the Holocaust, without knowing the uses of these spaces before it?

That is one part of my dissertation research: how were Jewish cemeteries used during the interwar period in Poland, and how might these uses have influenced the utilization of these spaces during the war? Of course, the obvious answer to this question is that people use cemeteries for funerals. And that’s true, but even my early research has proved to me that the cemetery was a significant space in both time periods not just because it was a space for burials and funerals but for many other reasons as well. During the interwar period, Jewish cemeteries in Poland often became sites for conflict over political identification or even between Hasidic and more secular Jews (I have written a paper on this and it will hopefully be published next year). Another aspect of cemetery usage that fascinates me is how the use of Jewish cemeteries impacted the creation or alteration of ghetto boundaries during the Holocaust. The best example of this comes from the Warsaw ghetto, where the German authorities recognized the need for a cemetery as a space to bury the dead, and therefore, when changing the borders of the ghetto, included the Okopowa Street Jewish cemetery along the border. This meant that smuggling operations out of the ghetto, through the cemetery, were able to continue (saving thousands of lives) and people were also able to use the cemetery to escape from the ghetto. Hopefully this will be a paper I write soon as well.

My dissertation will hopefully examine four different thematic lenses of analysis: ritual, space, movement, and actors. I am interested in not just the ritual uses of these spaces, of which there are many, but also how the space of the cemetery influenced human behavior in these periods, how people moved between cemeteries and other spaces, and which actors were involved in the management or use of Jewish cemeteries. The goal, then, is that these methods of examination will allow me to place Jewish cemeteries into broader contexts in Polish Jewish history, as well as Jewish history and the study of the Holocaust.

In order to write a dissertation on this topic, I need to find sources to support this research. In the field of history, we use a variety of sources – we find sources from the time period we are examining to be the most accurate, such as a newspaper articles, diaries, journals, documents created at that time, etc. These, we call primary sources and they should serve as the foundation of our research. But there are other types of sources that we consider to be primary that might not be from the time period of examination – sources like memoirs and oral histories or testimonies (interviews) with people that experienced that history, are also vital to our projects because they are first-hand accounts of what happened. Currently, my goal in my research is pursuit of such primary sources. So far, I have accessed or found many newspaper articles, memoirs, oral histories, and other documents that support my research but I am in search of more! I was thankful to be able to spend some time at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s archives in the spring, where I accessed so many documents that I am still working through them.

One of my organization tools for keeping track of my dissertation. This map shows towns where I have found documentation on their Jewish cemeteries. I try to keep this as updated as possible. One goal for this project is to look at the use of cemeteries in individual towns but also build a wider narrative about cemetery use as well.

The type of project I envision will require examination of documents in many different archives around the world. This requires a fair amount of travel and time spent abroad. I am very grateful to receive some awesome fellowships for this academic year that give me funding to be able to travel and well, *survive*, while completing this research. The first fellowship is the Claims Conference Saul Kagan Academic Fellowship in Advanced Shoah Studies. This essentially provides an academic year of funding and it allows me to travel wherever I need to travel to complete my research. This fellowship is also wonderful because I can renew this funding for another year if necessary (it will probably be necessary). I also received a fellowship through the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. This is a three-month in-residence fellowship to access YIVO’s archives. My current plan is to spend some time in Poland this fall (I leave in three weeks!), then spend January-March in residence in NYC. After that, I may return to Poland or make a trip to Israel in the spring.

I have also been using other organizational tools as well. This is Zotero, which organizes sources and allows you to more easily cite when using Word. This tool has really helped me to keep track of my sources – which ones I have translated, which I have yet to translate, where I keep notes on the documents – it can also link sources together using tags and collections.

I hope this post helps to explain my dissertation project. I also want to use this site to chronicle some of my research trips and important finds along the way. Hopefully I will remember to keep this as updated as possible. Writing is so crucial to our progress in academia, and hopefully writing in this form can keep me accountable while also allowing me to share information in a public manner.