Feb 24, 2009

A Few Thoughts and Recommendations on Dissertation Writing

I am pausing from an extended period of work on my dissertation to reflect on the process of writing such a document. I crossed the threshold of 150 pages a few minutes ago, and for the first time I can say that this project seems like it is making real progress, even to the point that I can allow myself to visualize its completion.

The final document will be well over 300 pages, perhaps as many as 400 by the time I finish. Some of this depends on the cuts or additions that my dissertation committee members suggest, while I may reach a point in some chapters that I simply decide to declare them "complete" and move on. There is only so much you can say about certain topics without creating literary overkill.

I have only a few pieces of advice for those just beginning this arduous journey, as I myself am still learning the unwritten rules and hidden expectations associated with churning out such a piece of literature. I can say that setting reasonable goals and sticking to them pays dividends; personally I force myself to write at least a page a day, seven days a week, without exceptions.

Some days this is limited to little ore than a weak paragraph, some bibliographical entries, and a few footnotes, but a page is a page, and my diligence in this simple goal should result in 45 pages of text in the 28-day month of February. I have also been completing more writing in the early morning, when my house is quieter. Trying to accomplish high-level thinking and writing is well nigh impossible when the noise of my rowdy teenagers reaches a fevered pitch.

I also recommend that dissertation writers avoid getting intimidated by the sheer enormity of the final project, especially when they are in the earliest stages of dissertation writing, with perhaps only an outline and one or two dozen pages of text. Break the paper down into ever-smaller chunks and focus on writing those 2-3 page mini-essays that begin to link together into a chapter.

Meanwhile, be sure to take care of your physical and mental health. There will be times when the muse strikes and you can crank out 10-15 pages in a day, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Avoid the trap I fell into this week, where I obsessively worked on my dissertation most of Sunday and Monday, perhaps 24 hours over the two days, reading and writing with such intensity that I could not remember if I ate lunch or dinner. Yes, I managed to generate my highest two-day page count to date (almost 20 pages), but today I am walking around like a zombie, and composing even simple paragraphs are a chore.

It is better to set a regular writing schedule of, say, four hours per day than it is to run the risk of burnout by pounding away on the keyboard for endless hours. The research and writing will still be there, but your health and outlook can quickly degenerate if you push yourself beyond reasonable limits. Also, avoid getting so wrapped up in your dissertation writing that you ignore the importance of human contact. I have found myself in an almost dissociative state a few times lately between the isolation of research and the fact that only 20 people on the planet might be able to actually engage in a lengthy, focused conversation on this narrow topic.

On a related note: learn to prepare a highly condensed version of an answer to this question: "So, what is your dissertation about?" Non-specialists and regular Joes ask this question out of curiosity and kindness, but they are usually not interested in a 15-minute lecture. Try to keep any responses under 30 seconds, and use only two-syllable words.

Dissertation writers might also consider some form of scorekeeping to keep themselves motivated. I have been posting page and word counts in the header of my blog to act as a visual reminder of my progress, and I find that it is an extra bonus to be able to broadcast to the world the completion of even a single page.

Kind of like chalk marks on a wall, or something like that.

Feel free to leave any comments on your own experiences with dissertation or thesis writing. I'm sure that there are many thousands of other people - especially those who have actually completed a dissertation - who are much more knowledgeable than me on the most important considerations of this academic genre of writing.


Anonymous said...

From one who knows, you speak with acquired wisdom. Your suggestions are clearly the result of the disseratation process. Taking good care of your mental and physical health is quite important. (Nonacademic and physical activities are really essential.)

I would only add that the disseration is an exercise...part of the educational rites of passage...not a finished product. Produce an industrial diamond, not a polished gem. (The latter is appropriate for your postdoctoral research and writing.) Stay in close touch with your advisors and follow their whims (despite your reservations). Best of luck!

Mad Jack said...

I supported Main Lady during the writing of her doctoral thesis. What a job! In particular, her prof.'s name went on the thesis, which was richly undeserved. At one point Main Lady was informed by Academia that your priorities are not Our priorities...

I offered to collect a few friends and talk some sense into this gas bag's swollen head, but Main Lady declined. Just as well, I suppose.

Anyway, remember that it doesn't have to be perfect by any means. There will be other papers and books in your future.

historymike said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Anonymous. It's good to know that - at least from the outside - I am developing something resembling a clue about this process.

historymike said...

Thanks for the reminder about perfection, MadJack. My desire to create perfect writing can be both a blessing and a curse, though I think I am getting better at focusing my "perfection" on scholarship and research as opposed to getting hung up spending 10 minutes thinking of the perfect adjective.

Historychic said...

Have you taken your major and minor fields yet? Great to hear that you are making progress on the dissertation.

historymike said...

Just trying to coordinate a date and take the major field exam - it will probably be in the next 2-3 weeks, schedules permitting. I am finishing up my last two minor field essays as we speak; that will probably be done mid-March.

I'm shooting for a summer defense at the earliest, or early fall if I run into some research snags.

How about you? Marching along with exams? Have you picked out a topic for your dissertation yet?

Historychic said...

I am taking my .major field exam on March 20th. So let me know if you want to get together before your exam date and go over the questions. I have answers written out. Minor field should be done by the first of May and then I will start work on my dissertation. I am going to Europe in March 2010 for research and hope to be completed by December 2010.