Three Tricks to Finishing that Dissertation

Anyone who has completed a PhD dissertation, or who is currently in the throes of completing one knows what it’s like- It’s this marathon writing session that lasts for years. After jumping through multiple supervised hurdles (coursework, comprehensive/qualifying exams, prospectus defense, teaching evaluations, language requirements, etc.) professors tell you to go away and do it. Just do it.

And at that point, you are absolutely qualified to do it. And you are absolutely able. But you spend several days procrastinating and scared of where to begin, and overwhelmed by how much information has to go in, and what the right balance of evidence to argument to sources to lit review should be. And once you do get started, you keep running into places where you’ve written yourself into a corner, or where you discover that you are writing about the same phenomena in every chapter when maybe those phenomena should be their own chapter…

Last month I was invited to speak to Vanderbilt’s dissertating PhD students of History as part of a roundtable on dissertation-writing. While I prepared, I thought through some topics to talk about – do I talk about how to organize your sources? How to figure out the frame that best showcases your evidence and argument? Writing grants to help keep you financially afloat while you work? The digital tools that can help streamline the writing process? How to form and structure a dissertation writing group?

When I got there, they didn’t want to know any of that stuff. These are PhD students at a top-20. They didn’t get there by not knowing how to do this stuff or how to figure out how to do it. Their questions were about the things that no one tells you while writing a dissertation- things that you really only learn by doing and by asking someone who has.

My three biggest contributions to this roundtable were the things that made all the difference in my success: writing habits, self care, and an exit strategy.

1. Writing Habits & Routine– There is a huge and overwhelming amount of literature out there on this topic. Basically, it comes down to this: don’t set yourself up for a life where you only write when you feel like it or when you are inspired to write. Make writing part of your daily routine like breakfast or walking the dog.  Don’t think of it as this lofty beautiful thing you do to add meaning and worth to your life and the world  (It is that, but don’t think of it that way). Think of it instead as you would a part time job.

Yes, part time. Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who gets paid to write, don’t feel like that’s what you have to do full-time, because no one can. You will burn out if you try, and come to dread writing. Instead, do a small piece each day, and don’t be afraid to make yourself a schedule to figure out how much you’ve got to do. For example, if you’ve got one year of funding left, figure out how many pages of dissertation you have to produce by the end of that year and start doing some division. Often you’ll find that even if you give yourself weekends off (you should) it comes down to a page or two per day. You can do that! That’s totally doable. It’s probably doable in an hour. So which hour will you pick? Choose one, and be consistent, and show up to the keyboard every working day for that full hour.

When I wrote my dissertation, I found that I preferred to write first thing in the morning. I didn’t even get dressed or eat breakfast- I just make some tea or coffee and sat down and wrote for an hour. Then the rest of my day was free to fill with all the other professional development things I did- teaching, going to talks and workshops, reading the latest releases in my field, applying to conferences, working on journal articles or job application materials, meetings, etc.

This had the advantage of not allowing me to put it off until it was too late. It’s hard to write during the day while the semester is in session, and when I tried to write in the evenings, I would often look up to find it was 11pm and I was too tired or unfocused to write. And that’s when the guilt and anxiety would set in: what had I done with my day? I was getting paid just to write my dissertation, and I didn’t! And in turn, it would affect my sleep. Changing my writing routine to an hour first thing in the morning alleviated so much of that.

2. Self Care – Changing my routine so that I stayed productive allowed me to feel like I was moving forward and not careening toward a deadline for which I was unprepared.  Still, as Bryna explained last week, writing a book-length piece of non-fiction is an emotionally taxing and stressful process.  It can exacerbate existing mental wellness issues, and tends to nudge even the most emotionally healthy people into occasional moments of self-doubt and panic. It’s so important to do those things which help us remember that  this dissertation is not our magnum opus- it’s just our first book-length work, hopefully of many. And the first is allowed to be the worst. In fact, it’s expected. That’s why they let you rewrite it when it’s time to turn it into a manuscript.

I think you’ll find dancing the jitterbug counts as self care. (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs division)

To help you keep that perspective, take advantage of whatever is available. If you are a student, you likely have access to a lot of  some free or heavily discounted  top-of-the-line services on and around campus that make your life easier during this process: doctor’s visits, gym, nutritionist, counseling, support groups, writing groups, dissertation seminars, art classes, and spiritual resources. USE THEM. Take a day to see what is available and give these things a try to keep up your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health during your writing marathon. Just having that kind of support can make all the difference.

When you graduate, having to pay the going rate for yoga classes or a nutritionist or a therapist is painful. You’ll wish you had gotten in on the ground floor when the getting was cheap. A lot of these types of resources are all about equipping you with tools that you  can apply to other areas of your life beyond grad school.  I still regularly meditate to relieve stress (I learned several great techniques through a  free mindfulness class at the counseling center), and do yoga  to get rid of the tension that comes with sitting a lot (I learned how through classes that were included in my reduced-cost university gym membership). Every day I benefit from everything I learned about editing from professionals at our Writing Studio who worked with me on the dissertation.  I feel like I made out like a bandit, to be honest.

In addition to that, self-care involves taking time out. When I wrote my dissertation, I gave myself two pre-selected days per week to not do anything dissertation-related. I figured a lot of other people with normal jobs get two days off, so I should, too. Use those days to do the things above, and to see friends, go out into the community, explore the area around where you live, participate in cultural events, volunteer doing something very different from what you normally do, etc. This gives you a healthy perspective and a life outside of the university, which in turn can make the dissertation writing process feel a lot less high-stakes.

3. Exit Strategy – The last bit of advice I touched on got a lot of laughs, but then when I explained it, everyone nodded their heads. You see, while I was in the thick of dissertation-writing, I applied for a job on a research station in Antarctica. I did! I didn’t do it because my lifelong dream is live in an isolated winter wonderland (though I admit, it intrigues), but because I needed an exit strategy that was 100% removed (both mentally, as well as literally) from my dissertating life.

If it was good enough for Captain Cook…

I needed to remind myself that spending all day reading and writing about piracy and the slave trade is a privilege, and a choice. I didn’t have to do that. There are billions of people on this world who don’t do that. And there are probably at least millions who would love to spend a few years of their life reading and writing about their passion if they could. Privilege.

So on the days where the dissertation was just not gelling and writing it felt like a punishment, having a silly exit strategy (yours doesn’t have to be silly, I’m just a silly person sometimes) really helped me to keep all that in perspective. I didn’t have to do any of what I was doing. I chose this life. Because I love it.

Now that I’m done with the dissertation, I am not finished with these three points. Psychologically, keeping a writing routine, practicing regular self-care, and always having an exit strategy continue to pay off for me in my everyday life. They went from being dissertation-tools, to becoming my general  life-tools, and you can never have too many of those.  

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