Tag Archives: thesis

Week 5, or How to Successfully Defend A Master’s Thesis

Yes, it’s true, I did defend my thesis on Wednesday and I’m still riding on the high of being free from that enormous weight.

As I’ve got this step behind me, I want to reflect a little bit on the process. My program required me to write a portfolio, with the understanding that the essays will build off of those written for seminars over the course of the year. I used an essay that I wrote for my Popular Culture and Power class during my first semester, and the essay I wrote for my Harlem Renaissance class for the other. At the end of the year, my first step was to get organized…

STEP 1: Get organized! Make yourself a schedule!

At the start of the summer, I was required to create and submit a writing plan to my advisor and the Dean. While this was primarily a formality so that I would be allowed to hold a part time job at Michaels, having this as a set of guidelines was really helpful.

I admittedly did not follow this schedule exactly, but I followed it well enough to get a first draft in on August 1 as planned and a defense by the end of September. Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten was to be firm with your goals, but flexible about how and when you get there.


STEP 2: Make sure to do your research!

I already wrote about the joys of archival research, so be sure to check that out, as well as the lovely piece that was written about me from the VCU end.

STEP 3: Just write! 

Write, unfiltered, as much as you can, every day if possible. I also wrote about that struggle over the summer as well in another blog post.

STEP 4: Editing, editing…and more editing.

IMG_4348After I wrote my first draft and submitted it to my advisor the first time, she gave me a nice little letter with general comments, as well as a physical copy of my paper with marginalia. It took me a little while to wade through all of her comments, but after I did, I compiled a list of all the edits as a check list with notes on how to address each point. (For example, she might suggest that I need to add historical evidence, and I would write in which books or articles had the evidence she was looking for. Occasionally, I’d write a sentence or two addressing the issue on the page. Or rewrite an entire section on the back of a page…)

This process was particularly stressful because I waited until school started to really get into this. So I did an insane amount of content edits in about two weeks. For two weeks, I carried my binder of notes and drafts and edits around with me until I felt like crazy Joe Gould, writing and rewriting his oral history. I was agitated and stressed out for two solid weeks, and in the days leading up to my second submission, I had every last one of my family and friends praying for me.

But fortunately, my second submission was defensible! I got my advisor my second draft Monday morning of the 11th and by the 12th, she’d e-mailed me saying my draft was good, that she’d go ahead and e-mail my committee to set up a date at the end of September, that I would have yet another annotated draft in my mailbox and that after finishing those edits, I should e-mail out my portfolio (my third draft) to my committee by the 15th. (Can I just take a second to emphasize what a SUPERHERO my advisor is???)

STEP 5: Schedule and prepare for your defense.

My advisor handled this part, primarily because I think she thought we’d be able to get the ball moving faster if she plead on my behalf. I had to get my defense done by the end of September and while I wanted to be done, the fast turn around had less to do with me and more to do with satisfying administration.

Because of this, I didn’t have any control over when I actually defended. They gave me a date and a time, and that was it. I gave myself a week break from looking at my thesis because honestly, I was burnt out from thinking about it. Then, I started trying to prepare.

My defense, as I understood it, was not a formal thing. It would mostly be a conversation. My advisor suggested however, that I write a short statement to introduce my work. I tried very hard to write it, but it only happened the night before the big day, and in the end of it was just a series of bullet points– cute anecdotes about being a precocious child in love with comics and a hotheaded teenager using comics to prove a point in English class. I talked about how I came to Black Panther comics and Incognegro, what I was trying to accomplish and where I wanted to go with my work.  I practiced it in my car driving from Suffolk to Williamsburg and to my dog, who had no idea what was happening but looked at me encouragingly.


Even knowing that the defense was informal, that my committee members were awesome, that my advisor would not set me up for failure, I was still nervous going in. I put on my James Baldwin sweatshirt and prayed for the confidence of Angela Davis, the candor of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the presence of mind of Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, DuBois and literally every Black figure I’ve ever been inspired by as I walked up to the building.

We had it in the library in the American Studies building. I chatted with my advisor until everyone appeared, and soon after that, my advisor welcomed everyone and gave me the floor for my introduction. I did it and then the questions started. One of my committee members set me at ease by saying that all of his questions should be framed by the fact that he thought my portfolio was great and it was a really fun read. He got the ball rolling by asking me to talk about the parts that I enjoyed writing and did well in my portfolio and which could have used more work– and as I described how fun it was to go do archival research and learning about the historical presence of Black Panther, I finally understood what everyone was trying to tell me. I was the expert on this. I knew this stuff. This was my wheelhouse and I loved it. It showed in my work. It showed in my face as I lit up talking about my paper. So it went on like that for an hour and a half, fielding questions about intellectual property, time-traveling frogs, and Christopher Priest. They complimented sections of my close readings and pointed out one important section of an image that I completely missed (thankfully it didn’t destroy my argument and I can go back and add it as a footnote.) They gave me suggestions and helped me think through where I could go with my ideas. I took lots of notes, and then at last, it was over.

They asked me to step out of the room for a few minutes and when the door opened again, my advisor came to get me, smiling widely and giving me thumbs up. “They loved it!” she told me, and I walked back into the room to congratulations and hugs. I chatted with them for a little while longer, got myself a celebratory hazelnut latte, and called my parents with the news as I walked to class.


IMG_4389 I spent the hours after my successful defense buying myself ingredients to make stew, having Red Lobster with my parents and writing a blog post about my gratitude for everyone who helped me get to this point.

The celebration lasted a couple of days. I was taken out for dinner, ice cream and coffee by friends and family. My friend got me a hilariously appropriate congratulatory Superman card, on which she had crossed out the “birthday” with Sharpie and added “defense” instead. I got calls from friends and texts from advisors and mentors and I could not have been happier.

STEP 8: Attend to the final administrative touches.

Now, even though the hard part is over, I still have administrative touches to go through. My committee each gave me drafts with comments and line edits, though one member assured me it would be a day or two of edits at the most. I still have to submit it to an online system for the College, which could result in formatting edits, plus forms of all kinds which will allow it to go on JSTOR and I have to get it bound for the American Studies department once those edits happen.

My advisor suggested I get these done sooner than later, so I’ll probably take this up again over Fall Break. I applied to get my diploma in January, so I do need to make sure all of these logistic matters are in order so nothing stands between me and degree number 2.

It’s been a wild ride but the worst is over thankfully. Now, I can move on to the next step– I’ll admit, I’m already thinking about comps lists.

As my mom would say, “Keep it movin’.”

Week 4.5, or Gratitude

I’m coming to you with a midweek update to let y’all know your favorite Black Girl Doing Graduate School has successfully passed her Master’s Thesis Defense, which means that I’ve leveled up from Ravynn, MA/PhD student to Ravynn, PhD student.

Ravynn Stringfield, M.A….That’s a nice feeling.

I’ll be back to my regular schedule on Sunday with a comprehensive guide to successfully completing a Master’s Portfolio, but until then, I wanted to briefly give some shout outs to some people who have helped pull me through to this point.

Thank you to…

  • God. First and foremost. My relationship with God has gotten so much more intimate since I started grad school, real talk.
  • My amazing parents who love me, support me, encourage me, and push me. I would be nothing without my parents.
  • My fantastic advisor, Lynn, who really stuck it out with me when it got tough and who gives some of the best pep talks and critical feedback in the world.
  • My thesis committee for a fun and productive defense that I will take with me as I go forward in my journey in PhDLand. (Thanks also for just taking time out of your schedule for me, I know how busy y’all are.)
  • Cindy Jackson at VCU Libraries for helping me with my research!
  • MY CREWWWW, Kelsey, Micah and Leah, y’all are the realest, I love y’all. I don’t know how I would’ve gotten by without being to talk to y’all on the regular. Micah, you helped inspire my project and helped me think through it in its early stages. Kelsey, you push me and I push you because no one else is looking out for Black women but Black women! I would have never gotten here without your support. Leah, thank you for listening to me whine about how hard school is pretty much every day and for ALWAYS, and I mean, ALWAYS rooting for me. Protip to everyone: Get you a Leah.
  • Professor Harold, for always believing in me and having high standards for me. They’re not impossible, you know I can reach them and I know I can always ask for your help getting there.
  • Dana, you don’t know how valuable it has been to have a Black woman ahead of me in grad school to turn to when the going gets rough. Seeing that you have gotten where I want to be, encourages me to keeping moving forward. Thank you for lifting as you climb.
  • My William & Mary grad school peers: Ari, Chris, Hyunyoung, Felicia, Zarah, Adrienne, Shana, James, Travis, and Jaymi for encouraging me, whether it be bringing me books, talking comics, having Black (woman) moments with me, or simply hanging out and making me smile, y’all have all helped me get here, and I am so grateful.
  • My Outreach moms, Dean Gregory and Ms. Cathy, and my big sister, Alexis, for always reminding me that I always have a home with them, for believing in me and for just being family to me.
  • My family and friends, more generally, who have checked up on me as I’ve ventured along my grad school journey.
  • You, dear reader, whoever you may be. It’s been wonderful having this outlet to come home to every week. So thanks for reading, it encourages me to keep going.

I will more than likely forget someone immediately after I post this, but for now, consider this a working list.

Thanks everyone for helping me (and boy, did I need help) to get through this.

Week 1, or Ravynn Begins Again

Sometimes it’s still hard to believe that I have an entire year of graduate school experience under my belt. I was an editorial apprentice for a year, I presented a paper at a conference, I took six classes and wrote substantial papers for all of them. I did archival research, wrote a Masters thesis, and even took a summer job as a Course Instructor for the Keio program.

One entire year later, I stand once again at the precipice of another academic year, filled with surprises, challenges and joys, knowing that if it gets harder, at the very least, I can say I got through one year already– what’s another?

This year, this semester, looks a lot different for me already. Instead of the highly structured work of being an Omohundro apprentice, I’m now working with the nebulous Lemon Project, where my physical presence is only required for one hour a week, which I am to spend in my office in Blair Hall. Thus far, this year’s assistantship has been a lot of e-mails and meetings, going to events and planning for them. It’s a good year to be doing the work I’m doing, as it’s the 50th anniversary of residential African-American students at the College. I’m sure a lot of interesting opportunities will arise because of this over the next year.

My current task is simply to organize the first Porch Talk of the semester. I suggested making it self-care themed, as this is a particularly difficult time for a lot of people, given the political climate of America, and also recent events in Charlottesville. Now’s as good a time as any to work on keeping ourselves sane while preparing to fight the good fight.

In addition to this, I’m also going to help my boss move forward with her idea for a Lemon Project journal, hopefully to come out during the Lemon Symposium in the spring. I’m certain that this is going to be my pet project for the duration of my time with Lemon.

In terms of classes, I’ve got a dope line up: New Media, Old Media (it is what is sounds like, a media studies class); Anthropological Reflections of the African Diaspora (taught by a former Black Panther); and Feminist Theory (a class that I have astonishingly managed to miss despite my interest in feminism). It’s going to be tough: it’s the first class line up I’ve had in grad school that doesn’t have at least one literature course, which usually helps me break up the monotony of the academic-ese and theory I have to read. Plus, I’ve never taken a media class (I just sort of got drawn to it on my own and was self-taught until now), I did anthropology once my first semester at UVA, and theory isn’t my favorite. But, given that I do comics and often talk about their television and film counterparts, New Media, Old Media will be useful; I love doing Black Studies in basically any form; and who doesn’t need a good feminist theory class? (Rhetorical; I can think of a few people who think they wouldn’t need it.)

Not only will these courses take me out of my academic comfort zone, they will also challenge my critical thinking skills and how I express my knowledge. New Media, Old Media is going to require me to write blog posts and do a scalar project (I don’t know what this means yet, my first class is tomorrow), so my final paper will be shorter because I’m doing so much other work. Feminist Thought is going to have me thinking outside of the box as well: my professor wants us to write a book review and an oped during the semester, and a research proposal or a lit review for our final papers. She thinks it’s worth being able to express yourself in a variety of ways; I couldn’t agree more. Reflections of the African Diaspora will be more traditional, but even that final won’t require me to do a research paper: my professor wants a lit review.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to have different creative projects this semester, but I will admit, I was already starting to think about the research paper I could write for Feminist Theory about the Dora Milaje in Black Panther. It would be a cool paper that could potentially turn into a dissertation chapter, or at the very least, something to submit for a conference. At least I can write the proposal for that paper and tuck it away for a later date.

And amid all the chaos of starting classes and a new assistantship, I have my biggest project yet looming over me: my Masters thesis. The Dean kindly reminded my advisor that I need to be defended in September. It’s not as though I won’t be ready, but the message definitely jolted me awake and reminded me that I can’t let edits drag on forever. The fact is, I had my first draft in to my advisor on August 1. She gave me my edits back. Now, I’m working on them and the goal is to have draft 2 in by September 15. That gives me time to organize my committee and prepare my notes for my defense for the last week in September.

I can absolutely do it. The edits my advisor gave me are substantial, but doable in the amount of time I have, if I focus. Fortunately, time management and self-discipline are some of the strongest tools in my arsenal.

My plan for this week is to keep editing as I’ve done the last few days, letting my reading for class sort of take the backseat for a few weeks until I’ve gotten through my Master’s Defense. (Though I have every intention of keeping up.) I want to see my advisor about a few finer points she brought up in her comments, suggestions for citing a few things, and maybe a pep talk, but after that, I want to kick into high gear.

If all goes to plan, I’ll be 23 with a Master’s Degree, and the newly freed up mental space to take on new projects in 2018. Then, I can think about the next set of obstacles: Comps.

Fortunately, I have a low key assistantship with flexible hours, so I can afford to spend more time on my thesis this first month of the semester. Most of the work comes in the spring, I hear, with the arrival of the Symposium and Branch Out. I’ve also got a dog that I love, who helps remind me that the most important things in my life are not on my computer, a mom and dad nearby to catch me if I fall, and a community of mentors, scholars, and friends who encourage me. Talking to a friend from UVA who is now ABD at Penn gave me the jolt I needed to jump start my year; Kels is my perpetual hypeman– she keeps me going when I want to give up, so I do my best to return the favor when law school plays too much; and seeing all that Professor Harold has accomplished reminds me that, if she can do it, so can I.

My academic community may not necessarily be here with me in Williamsburg, but I know there are some people out there who’ve got my back. They give me the strength to begin again.