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

Congratulations!

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:

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

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

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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:

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And like this:

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Feedback from your committee will have you like:

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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:

Love.

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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

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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.

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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

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WTF: Dissertating

The dissertation.

If you want to go from ABD to PhD, or abd2phd, then you have to write a dissertation.

You can do all the other things we’ve discussed from prelims to teaching to service work and if you don’t write the damn dissertation then you don’t get the damn PhD.

As my partner and I transition out of academics into other types of jobs I’ve become acutely aware of the fact that academics often refer to umbrella categories rather than specific job duties.

Take our September topic of teaching as an example. Teaching can include but is not limited to: project management, training, presentations, content creation (Blackboard or Moodle or other), curating content (putting together a course pack), and procedure writing (creating syllabus policies). Yet, we refer to it all simply as teaching.

Similarly, what we normally refer to as “dissertating” involves research (which may itself involve grant writing, travel planning, and so on), writing, editing, revising, and, ultimately, defending.

For our October series on dissertating we will specifically be focusing on how to write a first draft of your dissertation. This assumes that you have completed enough research to start writing.

Topics we will address are what enough even means in the context of researching and writing a dissertation draft, how to deal with the anxiety inherent in the process, and what to do when the words won’t go.

We will also address how to break down the overwhelming imperative of “Write an original book” into doable steps and share all the best practices and things we wish we’d done sooner in writing our own dissertations.

If you have a particular dissertating topic you want covered and don’t see it listed here then leave a comment or use the Contact page to send us a message!

Mindfulness

Some days rest is easy: the sun shines, the breeze blows, and your inbox is empty.

These days are magical.

And Rare.

If you’re a typical PhD student your days are more likely to be spent in a small, windowless office shared with several other graduate students.

Other graduate students in your field, and the connections you form with them, are a vital part of success, and sanity, in your later academic career.

But they can be a heckuva inconvenience when you really need to get some writing done and all of your officemates are catching up on departmental gossip or meeting with students or doing anything else that makes your office feel like Grand Central Station.

This can be truly devastating to your productivity given that it takes over 20 minutes to recover from an interruption in your work.

For me, the spiral of thwarted productivity goes something like this:

Officemates in our shared office; living their lives.

Interrupting me.

Me: [Gets annoyed.]

Me: [Feels bad for being annoyed.]

Me: [Tries to work.]

Me: [Is distracted.]

Me: [Doesn’t make progress.]

Me: [Gets mad at myself for not making progress.]

Me: [Gets annoyed at officemates for thwarting my progress.]

Me: [Is annoyed and distracted and makes no progress.]

Me: [Leaves office hours.]

In the face of this destructive cycle mindfulness can be a lifesaver.

Like flow, mindfulness isn’t so much a form of rest as it is a way of approaching an activity whether that activity be rest or work.

Chances are, you’ve heard about mindfulness before. It’s been touted as a treatment for an impressively wide range of problems and seems to have several different definitions ranging from being present in the moment to observing your responses without judgment.

While there’s nothing wrong with being in the present, we’ll stick to the latter definition of mindfulness: observing your responses (thoughts and emotions) without judgment.

Let’s replay that earlier scenario with a mindfulness practice:

Officemates in our shared office; living their lives.

Interrupting me.

Me: [Gets annoyed.]

Me: [Feels bad for being annoyed.]

Mindfulness: [I’m feeling bad. Why am I feeling bad?]

Mindfulness: [I’m feeling bad because I’m annoyed at my officemates for talking even though this is their office and it’s not their fault.]

Mindfulness: [Is there anything I can do to improve this situation?]

Me: [Yes, I can enter attendance now which doesn’t take much attention and reschedule writing for after I teach.]

Me: [Takes a deep breath.]

Me: [Feels better.]

The power of mindfulness is that it cuts through that voice in your head saying “I should be doing X!” That voice, while meant to be helpful, is actually a distraction that prevents work from getting done. Mindfulness helps silence that voice and actually get work done.

A mindfulness practice is, well, just that–a practice. The goal isn’t to do it perfectly but simply to do it. Over time, a mindfulness practice can help you feel, if not rested, a sense of peace in even the most chaotic of environments. And after all, what is a grad student office but the most chaotic of environments?