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!

Editing A Draft: A Seven Part System


You’ve completed your first chapter draft and are feeling that peculiar mix of excitement and nausea that settles in before sending something to your advisor and/or committee for feedback.

Before now and then, however, you want to make sure that everything is as perfect as it can be to reduce the nausea part.

We’ve already talked about editing twice this week. We’ve talked about why writing and editing need to be separate processes and how to use simple editing to jumpstart your writing process.

Simple editing, for our purposes, is the process of reading through a text and annotating it with your thoughts. This process is similar to what you do when you read an article or grade a student’s paper. It is, fundamentally, a critical process and though criticism is not always bad it can be difficult to criticize the things we love which can make it difficult to criticize our dissertations.

Today, I want to share with you the seven-part editing process I cobbled together, largely from the good advice of other people, that I used to edit every chapter and the dissertation as a whole.

These first three steps I learned in a Facebook Live video from Kellee Weinhold at The Professor Is In. I tried to find a link to this system but failed. However, TPII and Kelle Weinhold have great advice on productivity and I would definitely recommend checking them out.

  1. Read it.

That’s it. Just read it. Don’t make notes. Don’t even hold a pen. Just read it. Then take a break–do something else. For whatever reason, I always liked to do this part while walking up and down the long hallway outside my office. I felt like I had better editing skills when I was walking. I probably looked a bit odd but, hey, it got some movement in my day.

2. Read it again. Put checkmarks next to changes.

Just like it sounds. Read it again but instead of writing out full comments put checkmarks next to everything you want to change from punctuation to restructuring paragraphs. That’s it. Then take another break.

3. Read it again. Write comments.

This is the phase where you write in all those comments that have been brewing during the previous two reads. Change the punctuation, correct spelling, make a note to include that source you can’t believe you didn’t include and so on.

Weinhold argues that this three-part process build critical distance between you and your work. In my experience, that’s true. With each read through I picked up more nuance and was able to read the work as if I was providing helpful comments on a friend’s piece rather than criticising my own (intellectual) baby.

4. Start with the easy ones.

Once you’ve written in all your comments prop your notes up on one of these things (seriously, it will save you SO many neck problems) and start with the easy edits. Go through and put in, or take out, all the commas, fix all the typos, use a thesaurus to find a synonym for any words you noticed you were over using and so on.

PRO TIP: Every time you make a change, even a simple one, highlight it on the document. This seems like such an easy thing but it is a huge timesaver when you inevitably get interrupted while editing. Instead of reading back through the document and comparing it to the previous draft to figure out what the last thing you edited was you can just find the last highlighted portion and start right back up.

5. Repeat for the harder changes.

This is where you tackle adding sources, refining the argument, and all of those more nuanced changes. Be sure to highlight them when you’re done.

6. Listen to your draft.

Okay, this one is a game changer and I owe it all to my advisor who gave me this piece of advice.

Make Word read your draft to you. For Mac users: here. For PC users: here.

Highlight a section or two of text click the button and let the robot voice read to you. This will help you catch all kind of mistakes. It will certainly help you catch spelling mistakes but it will help you catch a variety of other mistakes. For instance, it will help you catch when Word has autocorrected a word you misspelled to another word that makes no sense in your sentence. It will also catch when you’ve fallen into the habit of obnoxiously overusing a particular word without realising it. Finally, hearing whether or not the rhythm of the sentence is off can be a huge help in catching punctuation mistakes.

Seriously. Do this. It is amazing.

Also, just listening to the document gives you a bit of time to do something mindless and relaxing like your nails or playing with playdoh. Personally, I liked to play Spider Solitaire while listening to my dissertation.

7. Celebrate!

You did it. Send that draft in and celebrate yourself.

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 PromisesEvery 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.


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:


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:


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:


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:


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.

The Struggle Is Real

On Tuesday I promised that I would share a post with you on Thursday about how to think about writing a dissertation because it is fundamentally different from almost any other writing project you can undertake.

However, if you check our archives that you’ll see there was no post on Thursday.

Started on Monday, now we here.

Yesterday, I had a bad mental health day. It was bad from the time I woke up to right before i went to bed and although there were some good moments in the day the overall day had a lot of unexpected curve balls.

As I was going to bed last night, finally feeling a bit more human, I contemplated just finishing and posting the draft I’d started for Thursday’s topic and hoping y’all wouldn’t notice that I was late.

Lord knows, as a grad student, I certainly used this tactic a time or two with my committee.

When I woke up this morning, though, I thought about all the times that my health had impacted my writing schedule when I was dissertating.

Sometimes it was physical health. Stop me if this one sounds familiar: It’s fall semester/quarter. Your students/classmates have the sniffles. You have grading to do and papers to write and a term to end. You are running on adrenaline and caffeine. You get to the end of the term. Hooray! Now, at long last, you can “catch up” on all that writing you put off while trying to finish things up over the last few weeks. But Lo! The minute you stop running off adrenaline you get sick. Your brain’s too foggy to read. You’re barely awake. You feel miserable and doing anything more active than laying on the couch with Netflix in the background is too damn much.

In interviewing grad students about barriers to their productivity I had dozens of grad students tell me that this exact pattern often ate up at least a week of their planned writing time while debilitating guilt and panic over the idea of catching up took out another week.

Mental health issues are just as debilitating but often more difficult to prevent or treat. For instance, I don’t know why I woke up already in a bad headspace yesterday. I do know that this time of year always exacerbates my anxiety and depression. It could also be residual exhaustion from the Kavanugh hearings and/or the ongoing stress of moving. I don’t know why it happened. I do know that I did all the right things: I used my UV spectrum light to help mitigate the effects of the weather. I took my escitalopram. I did restorative yoga and I called in sick to work. I took care of myself in the best way I knew how and, you know what? It was still just a bad mental health day and the writing did not get done.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Well, first, because if you are in a PhD program and deal with a chronic illness of any type I want you to know that you are not alone and that your dream is not impossible. During my PhD program, I was diagnosed with anxiety and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. I had likely had them for some time before my PhD but they became increasingly debilitating and, therefore, increasingly noticeable throughout my PhD.

My own illnesses were, in fact, part of what inspired this business. I didn’t want people to go through their PhD program thinking they were failing at all the things when they were sick.*

Second, the adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is so incredibly true when it comes to health and writing.

Most academics I know tend to think of their bodies as giant meat suits they use to carry books from the library to their office.

But that’s so far from the truth. The origins and perpetuation of that myth are a whole other set of topics. What’s important to know here is that feminist, queer, and disability studies have all clearly proven that our bodies are critical in working with our brain to shape what we perceive and what we think, how we process and how we make meaning.

The thing is, I can’t tell you how to take care of your health and I know there can be some structural barriers to doing that in grad school (like difficulty making an appointment with CAPS which is underfunded absolutely everywhere).

I can tell you that taking the time, daily, to do what works for optimizing your mental and physical health is a long-term investment in your writing.

For me, this often means ensuring that I get between 8 and 10 hours of sleep and doing somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes of yoga.

I can also tell you that even when you are doing your best there will be days when you just can’t write. There will be days when the thing you most need for your health is to stay far away from writing and that’s okay. Those days are, also, an investment in your long-term writing success.**

In summary, if you want to write well then do everything you can to be well–including practicing compassion towards yourself.

*PhDepression is something I foud via Twitter. They are doing some great work talking about mental health in grad school. If you know someone struggling to balance mental health and grad school I would recommend checking them out.

**Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy is a sign of depression. If you find yourself needing to take a lot of days off from writing it might be time to have a loving conversation with yourself about whether your health is in jeopardy or if grad school is still the right path for you. All the answers are ok and you are brilliant no matter what you do.





Do It For Love; or Dissertation Advice Conveyed Primarily Through GIFs of Elle Woods


You were admitted to a PhD program, you completed your course work, you survived your prelim exams, you defended your prospectus and now you are, at long last A. B. D.

That moment can feel like this:


Embrace it. Celebrate it. Take at least a week.

Then, right before you feel really ready for it, begin dissertating.


It is impossible to describe to you just how difficult writing a dissertation is. Within this difficult process the most difficult part is writing the first draft of the dissertation. Within that difficult process the most difficult part is writing the first chapter.

This is true no matter who you are. It’s true if you’ve written a lot. It’s true if you’ve been published before you start writing your disertation. It’s true if you like to write. It’s true if you’re good at writing. It’s true for everyone.

Previously, we’ve discussed how your prelims are the last big exercise you go through as a consumer of knowledge. Your dissertation is your first big exercise as a producer of knowledge. Nothing in your academic life can quite prepare you for it. You have, after all, spent well over a decade as a student and now you are being asked to create new knowledge. It’s a little bit of magic and a whole lot of difficult.

You may enter with an Elle Woodsian sense of confidence but throughout the process you will feel like this:


And like this:


Feedback from your committee will have you like:


And that is all not just in the realm of normal but damn close to a best case scenario.

You will want to quit.

Statistically, many people do quit.

There are many good reasons to quit and no part of this business exists to shame people who leave graduate school. What we are here to do, however, is to help people who want to get through their programs minimize unnecessary difficulty.

To that end, there is one thing you can do before you ever start dissertating that will help you cut through all the bullshit that dissertating will throw at you:



I know, I know! It seems cliche and unhelpful to simply say that love will get you through dissertating, but it’s true.

There were many, many moments throughout the dissertating process when I wanted to walk away. What kept me from walking away, every time, was the love of my project. Simply put, I wanted to be the person who did my project. I didn’t want to bequeath my research to someone else and go do something else.

On particularly bad days the thing that I always turned back to was my project. When I was writing the rest of the BS just seemed to fade away.

Being able to pick a project you love, or a project that has elements you love, is one of the great privileges of the humanities. I’ve spent a lot of time with STEM and social science grad students and their projects are often dictated by what lab or research group they get in which is, itself, dictated by what lab and research group get funding which, of course, is influenced by a whole nexus of factors.

While I loved the topic of my dissertation I’ve known people who have a genuine love for the practical applications of their research or the methods they’re using or where their archive was located or the population they were working with.

You don’t have to love every element of your project but I can promise you that your dissertation journey will be a helluva lot easier if you love something about it.

Loving something about your project will make you happy, even in some of the darkest moments of dissertating and


Well, that, and they’re much more likely to finish writing their dissertations.

Now, it’s possible you reading this and thinking, “Fucking great. It’s great to know this now but I already defended my prospectus and there was nothing in there that I loved so how the heck am I supposed to love something about my dissertation?!”

It’s a fair question.

Remember, your dissertation is supposed to change between when you defend your prospectus and when you defend, well, your dissertation. Even if your committee has already approved a prospectus on a project that feels doable but doesn’t have elements you love I promise that there are still ways to add a little of that most magic of ingredients to your project.

Again, it doesn’t have to be the subject material. It can be a whole host of things. It can even be the sheer challenge of it.


On Thursday we’ll be discussing how to think about writing–a crucial step into turning that ominous blank page into a first draft.

Until then, think about what you love about your project and remeber