Mentor, Sponsor, Fan

In the darkest depths of my dissertation, when I was so close to done writing but totally done emotionally, my mom asked me why this process had to be so damn hard. Because I am who I am (i.e. obnoxious and long-winded), I went on a long ramble about academia as an apprenticeship model wherein the PhD candidate is an apprentice scholar to the professor, etcetera, etcetera.

My mother, who has worked for various unions most of her life, said, “But other apprenticeship professions, like machinists or pipefitters don’t work that way.” And that’s the moment I realized that, perhaps alone in the modern world, academia clings to a truly medieval model of apprenticeship and professionalism.

Within this model, the figure of one’s dissertation chair/advisor is crucial. Your dissertation advisor has an immense amount of power of your life. They can play a crucial role in whether or not you get funding from your institution, in your professionalization, and in your chances on the job market. That, of course, is all above and beyond the process of them actually helping you get your dissertation written.

In theory, we have dissertation committees to lessen what would be the advisor’s totalitarian grip over their advisees’ lives. The committee is there to provide other feedback and, if necessary, challenge the advisor on the student’s behalf from their more equal footing as fellow faculty.

In reality, some committees work this way and some don’t. I’ve had at least one faculty member tell me that, when she’s on a dissertation committee, she always votes the way that the chair votes because she figures the chair knows the project, and the field, best. On the other hand, I know of one person whose advisor developed a personal vendetta against them and tried to tank their career. The only thing that got that person through their defense was an outside committee member standing up to the chair.

I bring up this seeming aside on the power of committee chairs, and the varying efficacy of committee’s, because many of us go into academia thinking we will find a dissertation chair who will be a mentor to us. They will be the ultimate teacher and we their ultimate student. But that’s just not how it works the majority of the time. I, personally, have never seen that idealized type of relationship in person which isn’t to say that it doesn’t exist, just that it’s not as normal as movies would make you think.

In reality, your dissertation advisor may be a good fit for the subject matter of your thesis but not for you personally. The inverse is equally likely. I know of more than one case where a person went into a program and had a fabulous year working with their dream advisor when that person got a better job and left leaving their students with whoever was left in the department to pick up the pieces. The long and the short of it is that your dissertation advisor is, at the end of the day, every bit as human as you are. It’s unfair to expect any one person to be all the things we need–especially in a project as vast and varied as a dissertation.

I’ve become convinced that no one gets through their dissertation without having a balance of three types of support: mentors, sponsors, and fans.

In an ideal world you would have all three of these represented on your committee. But the world is often less than ideal.

Never fear!

Just because you don’t have all three types of support on your committee doesn’t mean you won’t have all three types of support.

So, just what are these types of support?

The mentor is the figure we’re all most familiar with. The mentor is someone we listen to and learn from. They’ve been where we want to go and they know how to get there. In my dissertation process my chair was an exceptional writing mentor. She never judged my progress, or lack thereof. She freely shared her own frustrations with the writing process and the tools she used to work around them.

It is likely, in your journey from ABD to PhD that you will need several mentors for different parts of the profession. For instance, during my MA I had an amazing teaching mentor. Because of what I learned from her I went into my PhD program prepared to teach and didn’t suffer a significant loss of productivity due to teaching while dissertating.

As important as mentors are, you will also need sponsors.

Sponsors are the folks who open doors for you. I had two significant sponsors throughout my PhD. One was the head of the program at the time I was admitted. Without her, I would never have secured funding to attend the program. She leveraged her personal relationships at the institution to help me find funding and make my dream of getting a PhD a reality.

The second sponsor was my undergraduate mentor who went out of her way to connect me to people and opportunities she knew would benefit my research.

Sponsors are harder to find than mentors but they are worth it. I’d love to give you advice here about how to find sponsors but I really don’t know. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have the sponsors I have and I sort of stumbled into them. All I can really say is work hard, follow your interests, be kind and someone will take notice and try to help you out. If anyone has a better idea of how to recruit sponsors please share in the comments below.

Finally, there are fans. Well, I call them fans, I think mentorship literature more commonly calls them “cheerleaders.” These are the people who celebrate your work and give you the strength to keep going when shit gets rough.

Throughout most of my PhD program the fans of my work were not professional academics but were, most often, my students and people in the community outside of campus. When I would share my work in-class with my students, or when I would share it at an event like 3MT, the encouraging comments I received helped me remember that my work was worth something to people outside of academia. Without that I think I would have walked away much sooner.

You’ll notice, in the above examples, that I found two out of three of these types of mentors outside of my PhD program. While I’m convinced that everyone needs to have some mentors, sponors, and fans, they don’t all have to be on your committee, or even in a PhD program.

 

WTF: Advising

I recently shared that I have started a full-time job in academic advising. It will likely come as no surprise that I have something of a soapbox when it comes to advising at all levels. After all, what is this site, really, but an attempt to provide advice on how to get through a PhD program.

So, because, it’s something I’ve been wanting to write more explicitly about, and in a nod to my new position, we are going to spend the month of November talking about advising.

This will be a short month, in overall amount of posts, for two reasons. First, I’m still learning how to juggle a freelance writing contract, working 40 hours a week, and managing the site. I deeply appreciate your patience, and welcome your feedback, as I learn. Second, so much of advising is deeply particular to the relationship between you and your dissertation advisor that I can only sketch the broadest outlines here.

I would encourage anyone who has a particular question to contact the site and I will do my best to address it. I know that one of the biggest factors that prevents a lot of PhD students from seeking help in their relationship with their advisor is fear of professional reprisals. Therefore, if you have a particular question you desperately want to ask but wish to remain anonymous please use the site’s Contact page. I will edit personal details from your question and address it in general terms here on the site.

The topics we are guaranteed to cover this month are the three types of advisors (mentor, sponsor, fan) and their role in completing your PhD. We will talk about how to use the corporate practice of “managing up” to improve your life as a PhD student and, because I have seen it too damn many times, we will cover the options you have if your advisor is toxic or abusive. Finally, I’ll prioritize any questions you send in because, after all, this site is for you.

With that said, let me tell you a little story about the last year of my dissertation. I was cranking out chapters to get done. When I say “cranking out” I mean submitting one revised chapter a week to my chair. At such a bruising pace it’s probably not a surprise that both of us lost our way a little bit. I say that because I don’t think either of us did anything wrong yet it seemed like we couldn’t communicate with each other.

I wrote.

She gave feedback.

I revised (I thought) according to her feedback.

She gave more feedback saying, “No, not like that.”

It seemed like we were circling around the same issues and I was near losing my mind trying to figure out how to get her to understand what I was trying to say. (I’m sure she felt she was near losing her mind too. She was, after all, reading and revising at a fast pace.)

Not knowing what else to do I turned to a group of academic women I knew online and asked for help.

Then, an angel appeared. This angel was a very talented editor (among other things). I paid her to read my work with my advisor’s comments and she helped me see what I was missing. As a third party without a depth of knowledge in the area or any relational baggage (and even the best relationships have their baggage) she saw both the merit in my writing and the merit in my advisor’s criticisms. Most importantly, she put what my advisor was saying in a way that I knew how to work with. I worked with her for three sessions and, shortly after our third session concluded, I had a productive meeting with my advisor and set a defense date.

I share this story with you for a couple of reasons. First, because I think there’s a notion that PhD mentors can only come from within the academia and this notion is harmful. Some of my best PhD mentors did not work in academia. Some, like the angel mentioned above, did have their PhDs and could speak to the process. Others did not (shoutout to Bill Arnold who kept me going when I wanted to quit).

They were all instrumental in helping me make it to and through that defense date.

The second reason I’m sharing this story with you is because¬†advising just doesn’t work if you don’t know you can ask for help. For a long, long time I didn’t think I could ask for help. I’ve heard that’s fairly typical of first-generation students and our need to hide that we aren’t from the academy or (at least) a middle-class background.

But you can ask for help. In fact, you have to. What this month is dedicated to is making sure that you know who to ask for what kind of help and how to process the answers you get.

After all, I’m an advisor now ūüėČ

Better Than Fine.

I started applying for tenure-track academic jobs the year I thought I would finish my dissertation. So, you know, a little over a year before I actually finished my dissertation. I looked and applied for jobs from July 2016 through January 2018. Part of what attracted me to academia originally was the idea of a stable, middle-class life. As a first-generation, working-class student the idea that I could provide for my family while also pursuing the life of the mind was amazing.

My longings for financial stability were inseparably intertwined with my desire to be in academia. Because of this, I made myself a promise when I started my PhD program: I would spend two years on the academic job market. If there weren’t promising results then I would move on and do something else.

I wasn’t one of those people who applied for every conceivable job. I didn’t apply in places I didn’t want to live. I only applied to jobs I thought I would like at places I thought I could like. This may seem revolutionary in a culture where a lot of academic job advice is to apply for everything but choosing quality of life should be the norm, not the exception. That aside, I applied, over the course of eighteen months, for about 30 jobs. I got one conference interview. I did not get a campus visit.

I had a ritual for putting together my materials for an application. I would open all the tabs for the various websites I needed (e.g. faculty page, department page, course offerings page, etcetera), open my Word documents, and start an episode of Project Runway on Hulu.

I would listen to the episode in the background while editing my documents. When the runway show started I would take a break from working on my documents and watch. Maybe I would stretch a bit. Then, after the elimination, I would Google the person who was eliminated.

And you know what?

In every single case, from every single episode, in over a dozen seasons of Project Runway available on Hulu at the time Every. Eliminated. Designer. Was. Doing. Fine.

In some cases, my favorites, who were eliminated wound up doing better than the folks who won their seasons. (For example, Michael Costello.) In all cases, though, the folks who got eliminated were doing just fine.

I once heard someone say that Tim Gunn was the perfect PhD advisor.

It’s true. Gunn is always supportive but also honest. He always believes in the potential of the designers. He wants to support you as you, “make it work.”

The metaphor can be extended though.

If Gunn is the perfect advisor then the Judges are the academic job market.

They don’t care about the backstory that goes into your piece. Their criteria doesn’t always make sense and are overwhelmingly subjective. It’s the Judges job to winnow through way too many talented, qualified folks and pick the person they think is the best.

That person may or may not be the best.

But everyone comes out okay.

I’m telling you this today because today was my first day as an academic advisor.

Washington state has a program that allows qualifying high school students to attend college classes in their Junior and Senior years. I was in this program when I was in high school. It shaped a lot of my life. Now I’m the academic advisor for students going through this program.

I’m using the skills I honed during my PhD. I’m working with students, particularly first-generation students who tend to take advantage of this program. I’m getting paid a salary equivalent to many first-year assistant professors. I have benefits. I have kind co-workers.

I’m also working on an exciting book project on a freelance basis and I may start writing for some other outlets soon.

I’m happy and I’m excited.

I didn’t get the job I thought I wanted, but I’m doing just fine.

In fact, I’m better than fine.

So, why am I telling you this?

Because, dear reader, I know how difficult it can be to write or dissertate when you’re worried about what will happen after you graduate.

I can’t promise you that you will get an academic job. I can’t promise that tomorrow’s midterm elections will improve US politics, or make the US less volatile on the world stage. I can’t make any guarantees.

What I can tell you, however, is that sometimes your old way of life is ending so that your new life can begin. I believe in us and I believe that we can make a life and make a world that’s better than fine.

 

The Humanities Are Harder

Happy Halloween!

Our goal for this month was to make dissertating feel exciting rather than terrifying.

There is, however, a fundamental truth of dissertating which we may have mentioned before: It is hard.

Even if you love your project, even if you have the world’s best committee, even if you have a generous funding package–writing a dissertation is difficult.

As it should be.

The old adage about getting a PhD remains true: it’s 10% intelligence and 90% perseverance.

What I’m about to say next is a little controversial, but I believe it completely:

Humanities dissertations are harder than other dissertations.

There are a lot of reasons for why this is.

In general, humanities dissertations are longer than dissertations in other disciplines. A friend of mine in the social sciences had a ten-page chapter. Ten (10) pages. Another person I know had a four-page chapter. Four (4) pages. In fact, that four-page chapter was for a person in STEM where the dissertation was not new, original research but four published articles bound together with an introduction and conclusion. Those articles? They weren’t solo pieces. They had several co-authors and, of course, the reputation of the lab of which the person is part can play a significant role in their ability to get published in the first place.

Is this the standard in all STEM programs? Probably not.

Is it difficult to write a dissertation, even one with a four-page chapter? Of course it is. I’m sure my STEM friends would want me to point out that a lot of work went into that four-page chapter. It can summarize hundreds of hours in a lab and dozens of hours of research. I’m not trying to say that STEM dissertations are easy in any way.

What I am saying is that humanities dissertations are harder.

Aside from the general length of the thing, though, the formatting can be more difficult. At the beginning of this month, I encouraged you to read a couple of dissertations related to your field to get a sense of the genre (and, importantly, remind yourself that you are definitely good enough to do this thing). We also noted that you can find a dissertation you admire and use it as a model for your own dissertation. One of the reasons you might want, or need, to do this is because there’s no formula for a humanities dissertation.

In most social science and STEM programs the structure of the dissertation is quite rigid. Many of them follow some version of this outline: introduction (chapter 1), literature review (chapter 2), methods (chapter 3), results (chapter 4), conclusion (chapter 5).

Using my own dissertation as contrast, I went through that process above (intro, lit review, methods/documents, results/argument, conclusion) in each of my chapters while trying to weave the broader connections between my arguments together so that the overall dissertation followed that same pattern in a wider arc.

Again, I’m not saying other dissertations are easy. I’m saying humanities dissertations are harder.

Finally, humanities dissertations are harder because of the types of questions we deal with. The types of questions you are asking in a humanities dissertation don’t have easy answers. They are questions of ontology and epistemology that have been argued and fought over for as long as humans have been around.

As someone who has worked in both STEM and the humanities I find it incredibly disappointing how often my STEM colleagues forget that many of their heroes did not perceive a rigid division between science and metaphysics. Descartes was both a mathematician and a philosopher whose work on intersecting planes is part of introductory study in both fields today. Newton was an alchemist, and not a proto-chemist-alchemist, but a turn-lead-into-gold-and-find-the-secret-to-immortality-alchemist. Sure, he wrote the Principia which is a great achievement but it was also part and parcel of his questions about how to understand human life.

What I’m saying here is that many of the great minds in both the sciences and the humanities did not percieve a difference between the sciences and humanities. Moreover, while they contributed greatly to our scientific knowledge they didn’t come up with a lot of concrete answers to the humanities part so don’t feel bad if you don’t either. Those questions are just harder, at least in part because people and societies have the alarming tendency to change much more quickly than the physical properties of the universe.

Writing a dissertation shouldn’t feel scary but it is hard and humanities dissertations are harder.

Don’t make the process harder than it has to be by being hard on yourself. The work is hard enough; treat yourself with kindness and, if appropriate, half-off Halloween candy ‚̧

 

 

A Gift

We hope that this October series on writing a first-draft of your dissertation has been helpful. We are, by no means, done. We have a couple more tips and tricks to share before the month is out.

However, to thank all of our followers and to help you write, or revise, your draft we have a little gift for you.

Big Three Productivity Enhancer

Download and print this little beauty to help with your productivity.

There are three tasks because that seems to be an optimal amount for productivity.

We ask you to write down the task and commit to a time. Then, we ask you to make a contingency plan for your top three to-dos.

For instance, I might plan to grade during my office hour at 11:00 a.m. However, in case something disrupts that plan then I have a contingency plan to grade for an hour after I teach, from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. in my office.

Let us know what you think!

Start With Editing

So far this October we’ve given you some of our best tips to make dissertating feel doable and, dare we say it, exciting!, rather than terrifying.

If you are an astute reader (and of course you are, you smart cookie) then you’ve probably noticed that we haven’t talked much about writing at all. Certainly, we’ve talked about how to approach your writing with an understanding of the genre, unlearning unhelpful writing habits, and focusing on momentum. However, we still haven’t talked about how to sit down and write the thing.

Truth be told, the advice we can give here is limited. You are the expert in what your committee and department want just as you are the expert in what type of writing system works for you (e.g. mornings, midnight, in silence, on a bus, and so on).

However, there is one piece of advice we can recommend to all of you: start with editing.

It is a truth universally acknowledged by writers that editing an existing piece is 1000% easier than writing a piece into existence.

Starting a project as massive as a dissertation can be incredibly overwhelming. It’s hard to know exactly where to start. By now, you’ve certainly written enough things to know that you always write the introduction last but knowing what comes last just isn’t enough. What should come first?

Make it easy on yourself and start with editing.

Since this month’s focus is on writing¬†a first draft you might be asking yourself, “Editing what? I haven’t written anything yet!”

Except that you have.

You’ve written seminar papers and prelim exams and a prospectus.

You’ve written lots of things that are, in some small way, related to your dissertation.

It doesn’t matter whether or not the document you are starting with is on exactly what your dissertation is on. It just has to be sort of, kind of, maybe, a little related.

This is the brilliance of editing.

After some failed attempts to start writing the dissertation I began to make real progress when I went back an edited an old paper from my Master’s which was on the Adolescent Family Life Act as a piece of Cold War legislation. My dissertation is a comparative study of virginity as a form of sexual regulation in World War II and the War on Terror in the United States. I wasn’t looking to write about the Cold War at all, much less about the rhetorical history of Cold War legislation. All of that is to say, the paper I was editing had very, very little to do in subject or time period of my dissertation.

However, in editing an older piece of work that was tangentially related to my dissertation topic I started to ask myself questions and make writing notes. Examples include but are not limited to:

  • Does this source also talk about World War II?
  • Are budget re-authorizations a good place to look for legislative changes?
  • How is this different from World War II and War on Terror? How is it the same?

In looking up and writing out the answers to these questions I suddenly had that most magical of substances–new material. From the answers to those questions and others, all inspired by editing an old draft of a kind-of related paper, I had material I could work with. I then began to edit the answers to the questions into a more coherent piece which, over time, became the iteration of the problem–why it was necessary to compare World War II and the War on Terror–rather than do a more traditional longitudnal study.

It’s important to note that when I started this process I wasn’t trying to shoehorn old work into my dissertation. What I was doing was looking at my old work to find the gaps between already articulated questions and the questions I had yet to articulate for my dissertation.

Moreover, I didn’t go through this process one time. Since editing a seminar paper felt like it gave me some much needed momentum I went back and edited my prospectus as well. What had I said in the prospectus? How would I say it better now that I knew more? Had new questions arisen since I defended my prospectus? Was my list of archives up to date?

Through editing these older works I was able to reduce the question from “how the hell do I write a book on this?” to “what questions did I leave unanswered in these older pieces and how can I answer them in the dissertation?”

The second question is much more manageable than the first.

Come back tomorrow when we’ll be talking about our favorite editing strategies.

Writing vs. Editing

When I was in coursework I often had 3 seminar papers due around the same time at the end of the semester. Combined with teaching responsibilities and the rigors of trying to be a person (e.g. cooking, cleaning, showering) I often wrote these papers at the last minute.

What I mean by that, is that I would often have some books, some notes, some ideas and no words on paper. I would sit down at 7:00 a.m. the day the paper was due and write as many pages as possible before the paper was due at 5:00 or 6:00 or 11:00 or whenever.

This process got me through my MA and all of my PhD coursework.

Although there are undoubtedly people who are more prepared for their lives many of the graduate students I knew, operating under the same constraints, used a very similar process.

Similarly, your prelims exams are timed and whether you have a day or a week you are cranking out a large amount of writing in a condensed amount of time.

In each of these situations, you are going from having next-to-nothing (or nothing) and turning in a finished product. The consequence is that you combine the writing and editing processes somewhat. As you write you’re thinking to yourself, “Does this tie-in with what I want to say in my conclusion? Does this make sense here?”

While that’s not ideal, it’s certainly workable in a project that is (a) under 50 pages long and (b) not the foundation of your future scholarly career.

Dissertations, however, are significantly longer and more important to your overall career making a habit that was functional for previous parts of the process a detriment to your dissertation writing.

One of the most important things to do when writing a dissertation is to un-learn writing habits that got you through previous work but will work against you in a dissertation.

I speak from personal experience. when I started writing the first draft of my dissertation I would make a claim–not even a particularly bold claim or a claim central to my argument–just an ordinary claim. I would then, trained from years of writing and editing simultaneously, ask myself how that claim fit in with the dissertation as a whole. In the rare cases where that question alone was not paralyzingly overwhelming, I would then ask myself how I would defend that claim if I were asked about it in a job talk. This would then lead to an afternoon spent researching the literature and experts related to that one simple claim and no writing would get done.

I have an anxiety disorder so my brain tends to perceive everything as a slippery-slope anyway and for the longest time I perceived this as a problem that was mine alone.

Until, one day, my friend Marc confided that he had a similar problem when he started writing his first draft. I asked Marc how he dealt with this problem and he said one of the most brilliant things I think I’ve ever heard:

I think of my dissertation as a sort of Frankenstein’s monster. I’m trying to bring this thing to life but first I have to make all the requisite pieces. I used to get derailed from writing thinking I needed a heart, an arm, a specific thing at a specific place. If I wasn’t making what I thought I needed in the moment I would get paralyzed wondering where, exactly, the paragraph I was writing would fit–would it be a toe or a nose or what? Now, I’ve given myself permission just to write and to trust that everything I’m writing is like making a piece of the monster. I don’t need to know where it goes right away. I’m just building a critical mass of pieces and I trust when it comes time to assemble them I’ll be able to figure that out.

If the idea of your dissertation as a Frankensteinian monster, while seasonally appropriate, doesn’t make sense to you then feel free to substitute whatever building or growing analogy does. Some other examples include:

  • Each sentence you write is like a brick for the grand edifice that will be your dissertation but before you can start building you have to make all the bricks.
  • Each sentence is like planting a seedling in the ground and editing is your harvest. You have to plant your seeds and give them sun and water and space before you harvest.

The analogy you use isn’t the important part. The important part is that you begin to train yourself to think of writing and editing as separate processes and, in so doing, set yourself free simply to write without wondering if it “fits” the larger project.

A measure I developed to do this was my Wild Promises document. Any time I was writing I would have up a separate Word document titled Wild Promises.¬†Every time I made a claim like “I will revisit this issue in chapter three,” I would hop over to my¬†Wild Promises document and make a note to myself saying “Be sure to revisit topic X in chapter three.”

This did several things. First, it removed the worry that I would forget to revisit topic X in chapter three because I hate nothing more than when an author makes a promise in a chapter to revisit something and then never does. Second, it gave me permission to delay thinking about how topic X threaded through multiple chapters and just focus on what I was writing about topic X in the moment. Finally, if I got stuck working on chapter three I could revisit Wild Promises and see what I had said I was going to write about to jump start my brain and alleviate writer’s block.

I’ve shared this method with several dissertating folks and they’ve reported that it has aided their process immensely and I hope it helps you as well.

Come back tomorrow when we’ll be talking about some of our favorite editing processes.

It’s Called A Trash Can

 

Last Wednesday, we asserted that “dissertations are a trash genre.”

We stand by this statement

However, we’ve also received some great feedback from people who have written dissertations that we wish to add.

The most important thing to reiterate is that you absolutely have to write a dissertation. It is the only way to get your PhD.

And that means that you have to be a trash can and not a trash cannot.

With that in mind, here are some tips to help you be your best dissertating self.

  1. Read other dissertations.

Okay, okay, this doesn’t really count as a new tip since it was what last week’s post was about but it’s important and it bears repeating.

2. Read other dissertations from your department/program.

Do this if at all possible. Many departments still follow the tradition of keeping recently defended dissertation manuscripts in hardcopy form. Ask your departmental admin if you can check out one or two.

If your department no longer does this because they are all digitally deposited then ask for the names of people who have recently deposited and look up their dissertations in ProQuest.

Looking at dissertations from your own program will give you a guideline for what you are expected to do. If at all possible, skim a couple of dissertations from your program to get a sense of the average page length and chapter layout.

One caveat here is that this will not work for all programs/departments. The larger your department is the more likely this strategy will work for you. However, if you in a smaller program, especially if you are in a smaller, interdisciplinary program, there may not be a lot of recent dissertations or dissertations similar to yours. Which brings us to our next point . . .

3. Find a dissertation you like.

This may seem contrary to our previous post about dissertations being trash but it’s not. Finding a favorite dissertation is a bit like having a favorite reality TV show. We all know the genre is terrible, but we also all have our favorites. (Mine are “Say ‘Yes’ to the Dress” and “America’s Next Top Model.”) Find a dissertation, or two, you like better than others and use it as a general guideline for writing your own dissertation. This is especially helpful at the first-draft stage when you’re striving to figure out how writing a dissertation is different than writing several seminar papers.

Tomorrow, we’ll be talking about the difference between writing and editing and why it might be more important than you think.

 

The Best Kept Secret About Dissertations

Gather round, my friends, and I will tell you the best-kept secret of dissertating.

giphy9

This is a secret I only learned in the last semester of my PhD as I was putting the finishing touches on the dissertation and sending it to my committee.

It is a secret I wish to God I had known much, much earlier because it would have saved me so much time and so many headaches.

If I could only give you one piece of advice for writing your whole dissertation it would be this secret, but not hidden, truth about dissertating:

DISSERTATIONS ARE A TRASH GENRE!

No, I’m not kidding.

Most dissertations, and I very much include my own in this, are awful.

They are not awful because you are a bad writer or a bad researcher.

They are awful because the genre is terrible.

A dissertation is a very specialized book that no one ever reads. You will read it. Your committee might read it. Your chair will probably read it.

That’s about it.

Imagine, for a second, how truly terrible your favorite book would be if it was written for an audience of five people one of which was the author and the other four were paid  to critique it.

Now imagine if that book had to tell its own story while simultaneously referencing most of the books in related genres and explaining how its story was different but still important.

On top of that, imagine if that book did not have the benefit of a professional editor and had to conform to a bizarre set of formatting standards.

See what we’ve done here? We’ve taken your¬†favorite book and turned it into a trash fire.

When you write a dissertation, that is the genre you are writing in.

One of the biggest hurdles to sitting down and writing the first draft of your dissertation is the haunting question, “Will it be any good?”

This is not the right question. In fact, a lot of the most prolific authors openly talk (or talked, if they’re dead) about how the first draft is awful. You may have seen the following image, from time to time, on our site:

Quote-Ernest-Hemingway-first-draft-anything-shit

When you’re sitting down to write a first draft don’t concern yourself with whether or not it’s good.

How would you even know?

Unless you’re Bruce Banner, you probably haven’t done this before. That’s part of why you have a committee! Their job is to tell you what’s working and what’s not. In reality, committees do this to varying degrees with wildly different success rates, but that’s a post for another time.

I said at the top of this post that I had one very important piece of dissertation advice for you. Here it is:

In the early stages of your writing carve out times to read dissertations in your field.

Search for 3-5 of them and read the introductions then, maybe, skim an interesting chapter. Don’t devote a whole lot of time to this but do devote some time to it.

I didn’t do this until the absolute end of my dissertating process when I was revising the pop-culture chapter and I wanted to see how dissertations in media studies were citing TV shows.

The first dissertation I tried to read was, shall we say, disappointing and, also, seemed to have no consistent way of citing the TV shows they were referencing.

I figured I’d just gotten a lemon so I found another dissertation that seemed relevant and read part of it. It was also not great (e.g. obvious spelling and grammar errors, some logical slight of hand) and it cited sources in a completely different way than the first dissertation.

At this point, I needed a tie-breaker so I found a third dissertation which cited their TV sources yet another way and was also generally bad.

At around this same time a guest lecturer assigned a dissertation in their field to my class to familiarize them with the material they would be covering. That dissertation was truly awful. Not only did it have the spelling and grammar errors I had come to expect but the person was less conversant with the strains of feminism she claimed to be critiquing than my 200 level students were. That guest lecturer had to cancel at the last moment and my students and I engaged in a “deconstructive exercise” where we tore that dissertation apart.

I also personally know someone who deposited their dissertation with a typo in the title, so . . .

At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “But my dissertation will be different! Mine will be special–a joy to read.”

To which I would ask you, “Why, tho?”

I say this to you as someone who wanted my dissertation to be beautiful . . . to be delicious in the way that good writing can be both beautiful and delicious. I say this to you as someone who had some moderate success in this realm. I am proud of the work I produced and I love my dissertation.

I also say this to you as someone whose dissertation has been read by fewer than 10 people and that includes people who have only read portions of it.

There is a subtle, but important difference, in your dissertation being a joy to write and a joy to read. Your book should be, ideally, a joy to read. But your dissertation is not a book and it will not be read by a wide audience.

Let your dissertation be a joy to write but don’t worry about whether or not it’s a joy to read. To master the difference the absolute best thing you can do is skim 3-5 dissertations in your field to get a realistic idea of where the bar is for what your reader is expecting. After that, as much as you can, have fun with it.

Dissertating: A Tale in Three Parts

Part the First: You Are A Good Writer

Those of use who make our living by writing seem to love nothing so much as talking about how difficult it is to make the words go.

If you are ABD in the humanities then you have likely written a research prospectus, your prelim exams, several seminar papers, and dozens of papers for your undergraduate course work.

It’s likely that many of the things you wrote were quite good. Good enough for a professor or two to look at undergraduate-you and ask, “Have you considered going to graduate school?”

Good enough for an admissions committee to say, “Yes! We need this person to be part of our program.”

Good enough for your seminar professors to pass you and good enough for your committee to declare you done with All But Dissertation.

So, then, why on earth would you need advice on how to write? Not only have you written quite a lot but it’s all been good enough to get you here.

Be that as it may, almost every academic I have ever met has an unhealthy relationship with writing.

There is a reason this is one of the most popular images in my academic social media:

alltheworkwhile-crying-2

The hell of it is, the writing process described in the graphic works for an awful lot of projects. It’s possible (not advisable, but possible) to get through one’s MA thesis and prospectus this way.

It is not, however, possible to get through a dissertation this way.

Part the Second: But That Doesn’t Mean You’ll Be A Good Dissertation Writer

You know what I really, really, really hate?

I hate when people say that life in academia isn’t real life.

I wish I could say that I only hear this malarky from people who don’t work in academia but that’s just not true. I’ve heard it in near equal amounts from people who work in academia as those who don’t.

I once had a newly tenured professor tell me that graduate school is an extended adolescence.

With all due respect to that person: LIKE HELL.

In graduate school I: was diagnosed with a new mood disorder, was diagnosed with autoimmune disease, ended a long-term relationship, got married, buried my stepfather, and sat by my mother’s hospital bed when she almost died–twice.

Real life doesn’t magically stop for you just because you are in graduate school. Life continues to happen and through it all (unless you are on fellowship) you are not only expected to work for your graduate stipend but to write a book in an extremely specialized genre on top of it.

In addition, dissertating is a fundamentally creative process. And, like many creative endeavors, it can be difficult (almost impossible) to draw firm limits between what is work and what is life.

I can tell you with 100% confidence right now that every humanities graduate student I have ever talked to is doing their dissertation because it is deeply related to their personal life in some way. Sometimes the connections are obvious: I grew up adjacent to evangelical purity culture and I wrote a dissertation on virginity. Sometimes the connections are a little deeper such as someone writing about a favorite childhood comic or working on something related to a disease a family member had, but if you scratch the surface those connections between the scholar and the scholarship go deep.

Which is why, one of my favorite cartoons describing life, also very accurately describes what it’s like to write a dissertation:

Dissertating

Part The Third: Momentum

So, what can you do?

The writing skills that have gotten you so far can’t take you much further and real life keeps happening with no respect for your dissertation deadlines.

In addition, the nature of writing a dissertation is completely different from all of the writing you’ve done up to this point.

When writing papers for your course work, or even your prelim exams, there was a recommended amount of pages that a complete work should be.

That doesn’t exist with a dissertation. It needs to be thorough and well-argued and it takes as many pages as it takes. The most concrete¬†advice I ever got in the way of how long a dissertation should be was at an after-hours event where a faculty member confided that they were reading a dissertation which had seven chapters, one of which was 100 pages long. “Don’t,” they said while looking at me very seriously, “ever write a 100 page chapter. That means you’re doing it wrong.”

And that was it. That was the most concrete advice I got on page length from faculty.

Much more helpful was when I asked recent graduates in my program, via a general Facebook cry of desperation, how long their chapters were on average. (The answer, if you’re interested, was 40-50 pages which I thought was very intimidating at the beginning and not quite long enough by the time I was done.)

Moreover, your other writing projects have had a firm deadline. Even if you could kind of fudge those deadlines, say, by getting a seminar professor to extend a deadline for a paper or taking an incomplete for a class, there was still a finite point by which the thing must be done.

That simply doesn’t exist with dissertations. It never has to end. As long as you can keep paying the school to stay registered for research hours and any fees associated with staying on the rolls you can dissertate¬†forever. (Let me tell you right now¬†if you want to dissertate indefinitely then this site is not for you.)

Last, but not least, for the reasons mentioned above and others, dissertating is significantly less structured than the types of writing you’ve done previously. Your committee likely will not hound you and that’s not because they want to see you fail but because they are people in their own right with busy lives and a lot going on.

What’s a grad student to do?

You can’t think of writing a dissertation the way you would think of writing a seminar paper or your prelims or your prospectus. So, how can you think about it?

Momentum is the answer.

Thinking in terms of page limits or deadlines isn’t helpful for many people because it’s difficult to enforce those on yourself and, at the dissertation level, no one else is going to enforce them for you.

On top of that, there are so many parts to doing a dissertation that don’t neatly fall into the traditional category of writing as sitting down at a desk and writing.

The advice to write every day is good advice, and you absolutely should write most days. However, I noticed early on for myself that I couldn’t write for half an hour if I hadn’t given myself at least 2 hours to read, an hour to type up my notes on the reading, lunch, and an hour to just kind of process things. That’s about 5 hours of stuff that genuinely contributes to the dissertation but is not writing, per se, for every half hour of writing.

Instead of writing every day I believe that people should focus on maintaining momentum every day.

Momentum can be a lot of things. Momentum can be networking at a conference, reading, typing up notes, organizing notes, formatting, editing bibliography, searching for a book/article. Momentum can even mean taking a day off for your overall health and sanity.

I believe that the concept of momentum is what people are really getting at when they track their overall word count. Even if it goes down on some days when you cut chunks the overall word count goes up over time showing that you are maintaining your forward momentum.

I would encourage you, dear reader, to set aside questions such as: did I meet my word count today, am I on track to my deadline, did I do enough, what is enough, etcetera.

Instead, replace them with two simple questions you can answer at the end of every day: Did I maintain momentum on my project today? And, how can I maintain my forward momentum tomorrow?

Pro Tip: I would often start the day with a list of three things I could do to maintain momentum on my dissertation. That way if my plans do to one thing, like write 200 words, didn’t pan out I could shift gears and focus on one of my other options, like editing the appendix, to increase my odds of having a successful day.