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The Importance of Coffee and Still Mornings

By Viki Dekle

Mornings always begin with a cup of coffee and NPR on my ten dollar kitchen radio. I might have a pad of paper and a pen with me to think about tasks for the day, but often it’s just me, the radio, a mug of coffee, and whatever catalogue or letter made its way to the dining room table.

I used to eat my breakfast at the computer in front of my many email accounts, but I have now learned to enjoy moments without being tied to a screen.

In fact, I know that I will have a more productive day if I start it off away from the computer. I’ll be in front of a screen for many, many hours today, so I enjoy the time to sip my coffee and think before I’m inundated by the outside world. As a student and a scholar, my mind and my internal thoughts are important to my ability to be creative and productive, so I cherish these quiet moments. I also know that creating time to think is essential for the development of my career.

Now in my fifth year of graduate school, I appreciate stillness and the ability to work on one task at a time.

My name is Victoria Dekle and I am a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Kentucky. I introduce myself as Victoria to the professional world and as Ms. Dekle to my students, but most people call me Viki.

In a couple of years I hope to add a new title to this list: Dr. Dekle.

Dissertate First

Every day I think about working on my dissertation and completing my degree. Among all the responsibilities I have and the roles I play in my professional life, my primary objective is to complete my Ph.D. in anthropological archaeology.

My life as a graduate student began five years ago in the fall of 2008, but the decision to enter a Ph.D. program began long before my first seminar meeting. Working towards a doctorate degree in anthropology in the United States means nothing less than a five or six year commitment, although the average year-to-degree estimate for my subfield is almost twice that figure. Not only is there an extensive time commitment for the degree, but graduate students generally face financial hardship during the course of their studies and an uncertain, overcrowded, and highly competitive job market upon graduation.

Needless to say, entering a Ph.D. program must be considered very carefully and only the most dedicated students complete the degree and hope to find an academic position. Working towards my degree every day is a necessity.

But it is also fun. After all, I am an archaeologist.

My dissertation research considers the identity and history of communities living on the southern Atlantic Coast between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago. I am studying the ways that these pre-agricultural groups moved about the Lower Savannah River Valley, part of the modern political boundary between Georgia and South Carolina. This river might have also been some type of boundary for the Native American groups living in this area thousands of years ago.

Every member of my dissertation committee (Richard Jefferies, Scott Hutson, and Christopher Pool) will tell you that I have had many research ideas through my time here at the University of Kentucky.

But I hardly find this to be a negative quality.

You see, when I entered my program five years ago as an ambitious but naïve young scholar, I believed that archaeology should be conducted in a specific way and there are only so many appropriate methods for studying people of the past.

Try again.

Through three years of rigorous coursework and countless conversations with my instructors and peers, I challenged myself intellectually beyond any level I ever thought possible. I was pushed and prodded and questioned in my coursework until I no longer took any form of knowledge or scholarship for granted. My reading comprehension soared and my writing improved drastically. The faculty on our campus conduct thorough research, but they also need to be commended for emphasizing graduate education and producing competent scholars.

Five years later, I am (almost) an independent scholar. I am also not just an archaeologist, but I consider myself a social scientist and I am dedicated to interdisciplinary research and collaboration. Organizations here on campus such as the Political Ecology Working Group (PEWG) have made this a possibility in formal ways, but the informal conversations at events like Friday happy hours also created space for these scholarly relationships.

Right now I am busy in a data collection stage of my dissertation and my writing is slow and primarily consists of notes to myself about the way my work in unfolding.

I also spend time applying for grants and planning research trips to archaeological laboratories around the Southeastern United States to collect my dissertation data. I recently received a Dissertation Enhancement Award from the University of Kentucky Graduate School to support my work and I will be heading down to Carrollton, Georgia in just a couple of weeks to analyze pottery collections at the University of West Georgia.

Life has been busy and hectic for me this year. I’ve only been able to put my dissertation first about two days a week because I work two part-time jobs and I am getting married in May. Life doesn’t stop just because I want and need to work on my degree (thank goodness!), but the dissertation always remains a priority.

My mantra to stay motivated is “dissertate first”. I also drink a lot of coffee.

Working 9 to 5… Sorta

After coffee, packing my lunch, and hopefully a little breakfast with my fiancé, Tim, I set off to campus. Lately I’ve been stuck on a particular David Bowie album for my walks down Euclid – I know it so well that I can zone in and out to the music to avoid traffic and fellow pedestrians.

I trek towards the Patterson Office Tower, site of my first and primary part-time job: writing for the College of Arts & Sciences. They’ve put me in a nice office on the ninth floor with a window (yay!) and a state-of-the-art coffee maker down the hall.

I started working for the College last October right after I passed my qualifying examinations and advanced to candidacy, a tremendous and relieving milestone for a doctoral student. Being a candidate means that I am now ABD (“All But Dissertation”) and I only need to complete my dissertation before I can graduate.

Writing for the College has been a fantastic job where I get to stretch my creative muscles and learn some new skills like writing in a journalistic style instead of the prose and style required for academic publications. I write and edit many things for the College and my tasks change constantly. Last week I worked on summer course promotion and telling a sophomore ROTC cadet’s personal story. This week I’ve been assigned to write about myself and my life as a graduate student.

For my first four years as a graduate student here at the UK I worked as either a teaching assistant (TA) for the Department of Anthropology or as a research assistant (RA) for the Laboratory of Archaeology associated with our department. Each semester I was expected to work twenty hours a week on various tasks related to each assignment: teaching, grading, analyzing artifacts, data entry, public education, etc.

In five years, I’ve had seven different offices around this university.

TA and RA jobs are funded positions where you are expected to work twenty hours a week and you receive a full tuition waiver, health insurance, and a living stipend. It is a system designed to provide graduate students with financial support while they work on their degree. Fellowships also fall into this same category, but without the work assignments.

Because of the limits on funding in my department, I maxed out my financial support at the end of the 2011 – 2012 academic year. There is some possibility that further funding might be provided by my department in future semesters, but this is not always guaranteed.

I still have to pay the rent, however, so I’m working a second part-time job as an adjunct instructor at Eastern Kentucky University. Every Thursday afternoon I commute to Richmond to teach a 300 level course (Old World Civilizations) to keep my teaching skills sharp and to pick up some extra money.

Holding these two positions does make it difficult to for me to “dissertate first.” I enjoy both of these jobs immensely and they provide me with excellent opportunities for my future, but the pay is low and the financial struggle that I and other graduate students often experience is very real and challenging.

Teaching is one of the primary reasons I decided to pursue my Ph.D. in Anthropology. An M.A. would allow me to conduct any archaeological project in the private sector or for the government, but the Ph.D. is necessary to work as a tenure-track professor or to fully instruct on the collegiate level.

I love teaching, but I do not love it every day and I certainly do not love it all of the time. Teaching is demanding. It tries your patience. It can make you feel self-conscious and it will always demand much of your time when you are fully committed to the class and the students.

But there are also benefits and joys to teaching. I feel privileged that I am able to share my understandings and my passion for the discipline of Anthropology with my classes. It is exciting to see students learning to challenge the world around them and to think carefully and critically about the theories and ideas they hear from others.

Being an effective teacher does not happen overnight. Being a good or a great teacher takes much longer – years or decades, I assume. Although my primary purpose here at UK is to develop my scholarship and prepare for a life of academic research, another important part of my education here is to learn how to teach in a university classroom.

Graduate students across this university teach hundreds of courses and recitation sections each semester. There were approximately 700 new graduate students in the TA orientation this past fall. We are an integral percentage of the educational work force here at UK.

Staying Connected

Days on campus are not entirely devoted to working on projects for the College or preparing for my class. There are plenty of people I meet with during my days including advisers, colleagues, and friends.

Sometimes my committee chair and primary adviser, Richard Jefferies, and I will meet in the afternoons to chat about my work. We often grab a cup of coffee – we need more fuel for the day.

Dick has been my adviser for the past five years and I’ve known him for about seven years in all. I first met him at the Southeastern Archaeology Conference (SEAC) meeting in Little Rock, Arkansas when I was a senior undergraduate student. In fact, one of Dick’s then current students introduced us because he knew of my interest in Kentucky’s program and my respect for Dick’s research.

One thing to understand about a Ph.D. program is that developing a strong and professional relationship with your adviser is key to your success in school and afterwards when applying for jobs.

Not only do Dick and I spend time discussing my dissertation progress and my research objectives but we also talk about the happenings in Southeastern Archaeology, the courses we’re teaching, papers we’ve read, and often the latest movies or concerts we’ve seen in town. Archaeology is a field science, so Dick and I have spent portions of several summers in the field together on the Georgia coast with student field crews working on his Spanish mission excavations and developing my dissertation research program.

Mentoring is such an important part of the academic system. Not only am I a recipient of such guidance, but I am also developing my own mentoring skills for a possible academic position one day much like Dick’s.

The role of the graduate student as a relatable mentor towards promising undergraduate students cannot be overemphasized. It is perhaps the most important advantage that research institutions have over small liberal arts colleges and regional universities in preparing undergraduate students to enter graduate programs.

During my undergraduate studies at the University of Georgia, I befriended a handful of graduate students in the Department of Anthropology that showed me the day-to-day realities of graduate student life. They spoke with me about publication pressure, adviser expectations, financial worries, job concerns, research motivations, and how to keep your personal and professional worlds balanced. They took me to their field sites and they invited me to the occasional lunch or gathering. Years later, these former students that are now academics and professional archaeologists still mentor me about their experiences when we all meet together at conferences.

I recognize how profound this mentoring activity was for my professional development and I try to pass this forward to undergraduates here at UK. Mentoring begins in the classroom and I have counseled many of my students about pursuing higher degrees and careers in Anthropology.

Some of this is starting to come full circle because a recent UK graduate and a former student of mine entered the Ph.D. program at UGA this past fall. There are many other people that contributed to this student’s decision to study Southeastern Archaeology at my alma mater, but I know that the many conversations we had at the archaeology lab, over lunch at Jalapenos, and in the field on the Georgia Coast did have some influence on his decisions to pursue this career.

Finishing the Marathon

Class ends late in Richmond on Thursday nights around 8:45 pm. On the drive home down I-75 I rejoice that the week is almost over. There is only one more day on campus for my work week. Most semesters I spend my weekends working and catching up on errands, but I find that keeping up with wedding plans leaves little time for weekend writing at Coffea or the library this semester.

When I make it back to Lexington I’ll either grab a drink with friends at Lynaghs’ trivia night or collapse on the couch with Tim for some West Wing reruns on Netflix.

My fiancée is also a graduate student, but Tim is in another department (Geography) and he is further along with his dissertation than I am. We are an academic pair awaiting to see what the job market holds for us in the next few years and we are anxious to know where we will go after UK. It can be difficult for academic couples to find joint employment, especially when it can be hard enough to find a job for one person! At the end of the day, however, we are both elated to have each other and find that all those pressures of graduate school and academia are more bearable with a supportive partner at your side.

Graduate school is not a race; it’s a marathon.

That might be one of the most common phrases we all hear about surviving the many stages of graduate school. In fact, I think of a degree program more as a marathon with hurdles to jump and mountains to slowly climb. Some of us carry extra weight with us for portions (or all) of the journey. It’s a very personal process.

The stresses of this career are many, but the ultimate difficulty has to be finishing the degree and moving forwards. My agenda is full of activities and responsibilities, but I know the ultimate reason I’m here at UK is to become Dr. Dekle.

I chose this lifestyle because I enjoy scholarly pursuits and I want to constantly learn new things about the world and I want to continue to challenge ideas about humanity and society. Pursuing a career in academia gives me this space for creativity, which is a priceless gift and something I’m willing to work for.

First, however, I need to keep everything in check and repeat the mantra: dissertate first.

I must keep my life balanced and I must stay adequately caffeinated.

In writing this brief memoir, I now see what a hold coffee has on my life. Maybe it’s time to incorporate a little herbal tea into my routine.

But my need for NPR and still mornings to think will never go away.

Images courtesy of Viki Dekle:
First image - Marsh survey in Liberty County, Georgia
Second image - Wading in Screven County, Georgia