Surviving the Dissertation: Tips from Someone Who Mostly Has
In the sticky, sweltering heat of late summer, I wrote a little post called “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dissertation,” which translated my writing struggles into a therapeutic list of writing tips. This post was written as I despairingly grappled with many of the negative emotions that can accompany slogging through a long form project like a dissertation (guilt, self-loathing, and a healthy dose of but I don’t wanna, primarily).
The final tip was “You can do this,” a hopeful message to not give up. I am proud to say, at this point, that I have, indeed, mostly done this. There’s still a long way to go between here and the final submission. But I have an actual draft! Whole and complete. Sitting right there on my hard drive (and in dropbox, and on a USB drive, and my backup hard drive, and on my friend’s computer…).
This post isn’t just to brag about my accomplishments, but to offer tips for getting through the dissertation process from someone who mostly has and is now looking back on the places where I struggled the most. The (occasionally contradictory) tips below represent the things I would have done differently, if I could have.
Set deadlines early on in the process. Having a goal to work towards is incredibly important for sustaining motivation over a long period of time. As someone who needs the pressure of a deadline to get anything done, I found that a list of due dates was essential for keeping me on track.
But make sure those goals are flexible. That said, I pretty much immediately blew past my deadlines and had to keep adjusting them back. Life unexpectedly happens often over a year-long period (or more!), and knowing that your deadlines will likely change will help to prevent you feeling guilty about that. If you’ve set early deadlines, you should be able to move things around without throwing off your schedule.
Ask for feedback early, and often. The sooner you can be communicating with your committee about your writing, the smoother your editing stages will go. Sit with your advisor with just a rough outline of the chapter and find out if it works. Send partial drafts to anyone willing to read them. This will not only prevent feelings of isolation as you write, as it will keep you connected to your committee and other writers, but it will also help prevent situations where you have to rewrite entire chapters.
As long as you can handle feedback, anyway. There may be times when you don’t need actual criticism, and instead just need to write, or to have someone say something encouraging. One of my biggest stumbling blocks while drafting came from receiving negative feedback on a chapter. My fragile ego interpreted the critique as a condemnation of my viability as a scholar, and I moped around for several weeks, wasting time assuming I was worthless. At a time when I needed encouragement, hearing any criticism, no matter how constructive, hurt my productivity. Knowing yourself and the kinds of feedback you need as you write is important on a project like this. If you need someone to say “yay, good job!” find someone to say that to you.
Find out what your committee wants and expects from your work. Following the advice about feedback above, find out what kind of writing your committee expects. Read dissertations completed by students they have worked with before. Ask them often what kinds of expectations they have for your chapters, and your project: what kinds of sources, how footnotes get used, the structure of chapters, how they feel about headings, and more. Knowing expectations will help you write effectively to your audience, and communication is key to avoiding potential pitfalls.
But remember that this is your dissertation. At the end of the day, this is your work. It represents who you are as a scholar (for now, anyway). Stand up for what you think is important, and for what you want to say. Trying to please the entirety of your committee may be impossible, and at the end of the day it is up to you to know what you need to write.
Take time off when you need it. As Katy Meyers mentioned in her post last week, taking time off is important to personal happiness, and you should do so as guilt free as possible. Dissertations take time, and you will need to take breaks and recharge at some point. There will be times where you have to focus your energies elsewhere: teaching, the job market, writing publishable articles, sitting on committees, taking care of your family, watching cartoons. It is important to understand that short breaks in writing will happen, and you can take those breaks without feeling guilty.
But remember to start writing again. Short breaks are awesome! Take a week off to focus on grading 150 papers. Take off two weeks to prepare for job interviews. But then start writing again. Academic work is always a balancing act between various pressures, and you have to get used to carving out time for writing next to all of your responsibilities. We likely all know that guy who is on his 7th year of writing because he “can’t find the time” to write. Don’t be that guy. To that end…
Claim writing time by learning to say no. One of the challenges of writing a dissertation is being surrounded by people who don’t understand; some of your colleagues, friends, and family likely have no idea what writing a long form project like a dissertation is like. It is hugely overwhelming and distracting, and you need to be able to say “Go away, I’m writing.” Sometimes this means turning down a seat on that committee, choosing not to go to that concert, or kicking your friends out of your office. My friends often struggle with the fact that I don’t have the free time to spend with them that I used to, but it is important to my sanity to say “no” every now and then, as much as I hate it.
But say yes sometimes too. As I said above, taking breaks is essential. Next time someone asks you to go for a beer, close your computer and say yes.
Carve out little bits of writing time. As I mentioned in my previous post, dissertation writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Writing often happens in little bits spread out over time. No matter how busy you are, take the time to write for half an hour a day. You can find half an hour somewhere. Get up early if you have to. If you write about a page a day, you can finish a chapter in a month.
Stop making excuses. There will always be a million reasons to not write. You have other work to do, you have papers to grade, you have jobs to apply for, you have meetings to go to, your back hurts, your computer is acting funny, the stars aren’t in the right position. There will always be reasons not to write. And it’s hard, but sometimes you pretty much just have to tell these reasons to shut up. Sitting down to write, even when it seems like you can’t, is the only way to get anything written.
Read everything you can. Read this post. Read the one I wrote in August. Read this one by Kaitlin Gallagher about PhD thesis project management, or the one she wrote on sucstress. Read this post by Amy Rubens about Exit Strategies. Read this post by Terry Brock on “The Dissertation from Afar”, or this one by Micalee Sullivan on getting started writing. Browse our dissertation or productivity tags. Read this book, or this book, or this book. Or this one. Try this one. An awful lot of people, far smarter and more accomplished than I, have written guides for writing a dissertation. Read them.
But remember that reading about writing a dissertation isn’t the same as actually writing it. It’s easy to feel like you’re doing work when you read a book about dissertation writing, but reading GradHacker won’t code your data, compile your sources, or write your literature review.
Celebrate accomplishments as you go. Take time to appreciate all of the little accomplishments as you write. Working solely for the “reward” of defending or graduating is overwhelming, so find little places to celebrate as you go along. Finish a page? Have a cookie! Finish a chapter? Go get a beer! Work through data you were struggling with? Take the rest of the night off! Find places to feel good about what you’re doing.
But don’t let good feelings stop you from working. I have the bad habit of working furiously to meet a deadline and then riding the endorphin rush of finishing the work for weeks. Don’t get distracted by small feelings of accomplishment: finishing one page means that you are now ready to write the next one, after all.
Know that you can do it. You’ve got this, seriously. If I can do it, you can do it. It’ll be great.
Have you written, or are you writing, a long form project like the dissertation? Share your hacks in the comments below!
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