On Dissertating

My alma mater asked me to share my dissertation process to second-year doctoral students preparing their thesis proposal. When I was at that stage, my funding was still up in the air, I was changing supervisors, and the longest thing I’d written was my comprehensive exam (which, upon rereading a semester later, I thought was rubbish). So the thought of undertaking a proposal, let alone an entire research process with full-on exegesis felt like an ask too astronomical to imagine at a day-to-day level.

I remember asking for tips as well, the best one from my friend Alice who I met during field research: “Don’t listen to anybody else’s advice. You have to figure it out for yourself—what works for you. That’s way it’s so hard.”

So I share these reflections as a way to ideate on the page and bulk up the toolbox to choose from, if and when dissertating gets too daunting. In fact, I’ll start there: dissertating, as a verb.

Dissertating, Part 1: all the gerunds

After the proposal defense, you are truly on your own so if project management isn’t a skillset yet, it will become one by the time you finish. As with any project, research can look like many things: reading and writing, sure, also applying for ethics approval, sorting out logistics, editing, revising, integrating feedback, all of that, yes.

But research can also look like this: staring at the wall because some idea is trying to unfurl in the back of your mind; watching a film to see how narrative devices work because the current flow of data doesn’t track; or, doodling on the page because screen time is just too much to take. All of these may seem idle, especially from an outside perspective, when in fact these make up the in-between moments of brilliant writing. If you ever hear the voice of guilt (whether your own, or someone else’s), remind yourself that “writing” a dissertation involves countless other gerunds.

Of course, as high-functioning academics, we may find ways to trick ourselves into thinking that we’re “doing things” towards a goal when we’re really just avoiding the work. My favorite: opening the fridge as if to prepare a snack, but then closing it because I’m not actually hungry. (My partner and I always joke that we’re looking for existential answers in there. We haven’t found them yet but we keep searching.) Procrasti-baking, also a good one. Point is, this is when you really get to learn about your operating manual as a writer, so take note when you’re on, when you’re pretending but trying, and when you’re pretending but trying to get away with it. This leads me to…

Accountability Bears

More than having somebody wag their finger at you, get in the habit of setting a goal and reflecting on it—per work session. Especially with the coronavirus pandemic normalizing online work sessions, find the parameters that work for you (the platform, the people, the duration, et cetera). For me, I found it best working with only one other person from my cohort (#introvert), and we would do three 50-minute sprints together every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. We would log onto Zoom, chat for a few minutes, then turn off our videos and microphones. Having the (digital) presence of another person was enough for me to stay on task; well, at least most of the time. When one of us would wander down a rabbit hole or get distracted by world events, we’d admit to it in the chat (so as not to disturb the other person’s writing session) take a mini tea break, and then start again. On the receiving end of such a chat, I might write back “It happens, but I bet that can wait until the afternoon” or “wanna rewrite your goal given the time we have left?” Whether I fulfilled my goals or not was secondary to the fact that I felt tethered to my work through a co-worker. Or, if co-writing is a “nope, doesn’t work for me” tactic, then figure out what games you need to play with yourself to make butt-in-seat hours happen. This is what makes writing a craft.

A quick note to say that accountability can take different forms as well. When I needed the extra push, I printed a photo of my interlocutors and put it next to my writing desk.

Wrestling Time

I doubt any proposal sticks to the timeline. Part of that is just Life, but other disruptions are harder to pinpoint.

Disruption by non-linearity. Some people like to write linearly (or think of writing as linear) when the process itself is often recursive. If you’re one such person and “just need the introduction done” before you dive into the rest, write a provisional one. It will change, and it will need to because you don’t know yet what’s ahead and what you’ll need to signpost. Especially when a project is this big, your thoughts will change, so what you wrote then may not be the same by the time you’re done. Same with chapter order: because the dissertation will be pieces that articulate together (ideally!), if you change one thing in one place, chances are it’ll reverberate in other places. Totally normal. Account for the time needed for that kind of internal reconciliation.

Disruption by perfectionism. Sometimes, the craving for getting it perfect will overtake getting it done. Pick and choose when this happens because tinkering towards perfection takes time and loads of mental energy. I often find that the sections that feel the most blergh (and therefore get thrown into the must fix/perfect bin) are the sections that are still fuzzy because of the articulation I just mentioned. It feels blergh because I don’t know yet what I’m aiming for. To be sure, I’m not saying you should write in a mediocre way; be thoughtful about what you want to polish and make time for that in addition to the baseline time you need for generating content.

Disruption by efficiency myth. There is no mechanism for writing well that can be optimized, not in any that that mechanism can be sped up at will (exception: a looming visa expiration). What sustains many writers is instead routine and protecting “writing time” (scare quotes there because I mean “writing” in the expansive not-just-writing sense explained earlier). We are creatures of habit, and finding the right rhythm might take few weeks—make time for that. (As my friend Leigh reminds me: momentum starts small.) I found that I am a morning writer: I journal first to connect mind to pen, I then do improv or stretches to get juices flowing, I generate content for three 50-minute sessions, and I spend the rest of my day reading, revisiting data, revising, or reigniting my creative spark. I’m pretty useless after 4pm on the writing front, so that’s when I go recharge my batteries with something non-screen.

Disruption by indigestion. Academic constipation is the worst when you’ve read all these sources, your brain is swimming in your own data, and you have all these ideas about how to weave them together but the sheer amount of it all cannot happen quick enough for it to come out in a cogent stream of eloquence. Hefty readings take time to sink in. Complex data need extra care to stay nuanced. Build in buffer times with each chapter so that you have a chance to finish digesting its content and purpose. A note of caution here, too, on the fallacy that gathering enough sources is the same as internalizing it all:

“A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labor he exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them. This sort of vertigo of accumulation, a neocapitalism of information, happens to many.”  —Umberto Eco, A Guide To Thesis Writing

Dissertating, Part 2: a critical distance

The contradictory torment/delight of dissertating is that it can consume you. It is a cherished time devoted to answering a question (when else in your life do you have this kind of opportunity?), as much as it is a grumbling purgatory until said question is answered and defended. I found that the balance lies in being able to zoom in and out of yourself as a worker-bee: obsess at the level of word choice when need be, but in return, check out when the work day is done. (There’s nothing worse than trying to quasi-edit or half-organize your thoughts in the background while, say, trying to eat, sleep, or socialize.) As my dear friend Zoe once told me: you are not your dissertation.

Have a support network of folks who are outside of your discipline, your institution, and academia writ large. Have activities outside of reading, writing, and ideating—ideally ones that move you. Have causes you care about outside of your dissertation topic to remind you that you’re a human invested in a better future. Have different login accounts for your computer: one for dissertating, one for all else (thanks to Alison Loader for this suggestion). Have other people read your in-progress work, including and especially your supervisor, who will help you navigate what works and what doesn’t thus far. Find thinking-communities elsewhere, at conferences, in chosen cohorts, on Academic Twitter; find that critical distance to sharpen your thinking.

This may all seem like a given, especially if you’ve already survived a few years of grad school (during a global pandemic nonetheless). But when exhaustion sets in—and it likely will—I hope you’ll find ways to buoy you here, through your support networks, or in the original impetus for why you’re pursuing a doctorate.

Some Little Things

…that aren’t so little.

— Know what dates mean what, especially if have time-sensitive dates like funding cut-offs, expiring visas, or the start of a new job. When it comes down to the final steps, there are too many external pieces for wiggle room to exist in a meaningful way.

— I used Scrivener because I could put images and PDFs in the same work space. Admittedly, it’s a better novel-writing tool, and I had to export the file into MS Word towards the end anyways. But its multimodal platform was helpful towards the beginning.

— If you’re not a MS Word wizard, you’ll become one by the end of formatting your dissertation. For instance, how to number the front matter with roman numerals and the main text with arabic numbers was something I had to teach myself.

— Color-code if it’s helpful to you. I organized my colors into three categories: one for my data, one for my argumentation, and one for citing others’ work. Because I used these colors consistently, I could look for things easily when trying to revise.

— One writing ditch I kept falling into: foregrounding everyone else’s argument instead of leading with my own. Argumentative writing in academic settings can seem like justifying each sentence in 17 maneuvers, but doing so can sometimes relegate your voice as writer. I had to constantly write at the top of each data chapter: THIS IS NOT A LIT REVIEW. THESE ARE MY THOUGHTS THAT I AM PLACING IN CONVERSATION WITH OTHER THINKERS.

— Start each paragraph with a strong sentence; end each paragraph with a stronger sentence. And, at least for your first draft, end each section with a paragraph by leaving yourself bread crumbs for where you want to take the writing next.

— I found it helpful to write a meta-narrative for why I was writing a dissertation: why in my disciplines? why my topic? why now? why me? I wrote it like a hidden transcript, unfiltered, meant for my own viewing and no one else. This helped me write parts of my introduction (e.g., contributions, rationale), but it also reminded me why I was slogging through a doctorate when I was feeling exhausted.

— Celebrate along the way. Celebrate yourself, and celebrate others too! Inspired by Ravynn Stringfield’s tweet, I made my own care plan and celebration menu in the final weeks of dissertating/defending. I highly recommend this for any major project or hectic week because it prioritizes your wellbeing.

Resources I Found Helpful

  • Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft – especially on cadence and pacing
  • Alexis Shotwell, “Suffering-Free Academic Writing” – especially on time vs. guilt management
  • Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way – morning pages and artist dates are great for research-creation
  • Lynda Barry – especially for process-writing exercises, like this focus spiral
  • Eric Hayot, Elements of Academic Style – especially about “the uneven U” structure to a paragraph
  • Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say, I Say
  • Ravynn Stringfield, care plan and celebration menu