Dissertation Doppelgänger - Dealing with Research Overlap
I was sitting in a coffeeshop when a friend sent a link to our group chat, claiming in a halfway joke that someone had just written their dissertation in a Tumblr post. The anxiety was palpable, and I have felt it myself on several occasions - what if someone (anyone) just wrote my work out, and maybe even did it better than I have, or will, do?
In my very first year of graduate school, my then advisor told me what remains the most important piece of writing advice I've ever received: No one can write what you write. I kept it on a post-it note near my desk for those moments when I felt other scholars, professors, public researchers, other generally smart and well-read people, were saying what I wanted to before I had a chance to write it. My topic, as it happened, grew in popularity and prominence as I was drafting my dissertation, going from a "you're writing about what?" to national and international conferences and special journal editions. I got used to the cycle of panic, defensiveness, and then curiosity that developed as my community of subject-adjacent scholars grew. Here are the steps of that cycle, and how I combatted each.
What it feels like: This is the most dangerous stage, as it is earliest and also most emotionally potent. I felt it in my gut when someone sent me a CFP or article touching on my subject areas. My first instinct was to pretend it did not exist, and continue to write in a world where I did not have that information. Others I know go in the completely opposite direction, scouring journals and conference descriptions for similarities and hunting down every ounce of information out there about the research and (often) the scholar.
What I did about it: I kept a text file of citations (and abstracts if they were easily accessible) of pieces in my "research neighborhood." If I heard about a piece of work multiple times, it got a mark next to it, to indicate to me that I probably needed to follow up and read it. Unmarked pieces were read on an "as-needed" basis (I'll touch more on this later) but not when I was not in a stable frame of mine. The list helped me feel like I was on top of the situation and not avoiding it, but stopped me from feeling like I had to drop my own work and writing schedule to read every related piece that came across my desk.
What it felt like: A low boiling anger. Common mental refrains: "How dare this person get into that archive I didn't get?" "I bet their advisor is helping them get access to these sources." "If I were better funded I'd have time to write articles like this for fun too." "This is garbage scholarship and I can't believe it got published." "There's no point in even writing my dissertation/article/paper now." "My work is a thousand times better and smarter."
What I did about it: If I was still swirling in the defensiveness stage after reading the paper/hearing the conference talk, I often brought in a friend at this point. This could be an advisor, but more likely, a peer colleague, member of your writing group, etc. Ideally, this person is familiar with your work, at least in the broad strokes. Letting someone else read it, and then be able to talk me through the piece gave me an outside voice to quell any unhelpful thoughts, and help me better see the distinction between my work and theirs. Because, 9.5 times out of 10, unless you have an evil doppelgänger twin in a competing graduate program, there are probably differences between the two works of research. A friend can help you find those differences, evaluate their merits, commiserate over the brutal and often nonsensical seeming decisions of publications, and give you a space to talk through the connections your work has to the larger field.
What it feels like: This feels like the first time you ever heard someone else speak about something you also like - warm, connected, curious, excited - and felt like part of the bigger community It feels great, if you can get there.
What I did about it: There are lots of ways to take what feel like "threats" to your research and its originality and turn them into community building links. Read pieces that touch your research areas and scan their footnotes for other tools (archives, theories, methods) that could help bolster your own. Look at what else that scholar has published to get a sense of their career and intellectual trajectory. Send them a quick email (if you're genuine!) about liking the piece, and any questions. Keep them in mind for future panels or projects. Follow them on Twitter. Just feel excited that your topic is exciting and interesting enough that at least some people wanted to put it in a conference or a journal or a book.
Because even if your topics overlap, no one can write what you write because our scholarly output is more than the topic. It is the combination of the topic, and everything in our brain that frames our specific, individual view of the topic. So think of the other work, once you process the panic and defensiveness that usually come first, as a conversation you can enter into. It can help you feel less alone, and maybe even confirm that your ideas are being validated on the larger academic stage.