When I entered the Ph.D. program, a friend who had already completed his doctorate gave me a piece of advice. “Pick a dissertation topic that you love,” he said, “because you’ll be sick of it by the time you complete your dissertation. If yo don’t love it at the beginning, you’ll never finish.” I’ll admit that there are moments when I want to drop the whole thing and think about something other than Kaunas in 1972. However, I can honestly say that I love my dissertation topic. There are so many interesting aspects to my topic in terms of the events themselves, methodological approaches, and relevance to broader historical issues. I’ve had a number of unexpected adventures and enjoyed meeting many new people as a result of my research. I even have ideas for related areas of research to pursue once I complete the dissertation.
However, there is one warning that I wish I’d received before I picked my dissertation topic — “be aware that you will become identified with your research topic.” I didn’t realize that studying events surrounding a young man’s suicide by burning himself would mean that friends and acquaintances now automatically think of me every time someone sets himself on fire. Mostly recently, this means references to the self-immolation in Tunisia.
Although my research is not specifically about Kalanta himself, his suicide was the catalyst for the events I study and therefore is constantly a part of the work that I do. Because it was such a dramatic act, I can understand that people who hear about my work remember the self-immolation rather than the details of my research topic. On the one hand, the continuation of this practice as a form of protest provides a degree of relevance to my work. On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to be known as “the suicide by burning” gal. I guess that I should be glad people actually remember something about my research, but mostly I am sad that there are still conditions in which someone believes setting himself on fire is necessary to draw attention to oppression.