A Dissertation is a Thousand Cranes

Being from a working-class background, I grew up identifying “work” as something with visible, tangible results. My stepdad poured concrete. His work was a series of discrete tasks. That is not to say it didn’t take skill–it absolutely did–but at the end of the day, when his work was done, there was concrete where there had been no concrete. My grandfather was a machinist. When his work was done there was a thing where there had been no thing. My mom was a secretary and a large part of her job was archiving documents. She started the day with a pile of documents to archive and at the end of the day they were archived. That’s how you knew that work was done.

Academic work is not like that.

Writing, in general, is not like that.

You sit down at your computer and you start to write. Then you start to edit. You might end the day with more words than you started with. You might end the day with fewer words than you started with. If you track your word count over time you will see a steady increase, but even then there often isn’t a tangible product at the end of the day to show that you did something other than sit at a desk all day. And that’s on the good days! The days when you actually get to write. There are other days where you go down research trails that may or may not lead somewhere. (Well, they all lead somewhere, but they often don’t lead where you expect them to.) There are days where you are mired in meetings or days when teaching takes all of your energy and you feel like you didn’t make any dissertation progress.

Without concrete proof that you are moving forward, the ebb and flow of writing can feel discouraging and self-defeating.

To help myself fight this discouragement I made a seemingly small decision on a completely ordinary day. At the time, I was using this little post-it sized to-do lists I’d gotten at Target. I had enough space to write about five tasks on each one and, because they were square, they were perfect for origami. I decided that, when I completed all five items on my to-do list, I would fold it into a paper crane.

I had no idea how to make paper cranes.

I finished the to-do list and looked up a YouTube paper crane tutorial.

I made a crane.

There it was, sitting on my desk, a little reminder that I had completed the tasks I had set for myself.

The next day, I decided to try the same thing. I made a small to-do list. I completed it. I made another paper crane.

Now I had two cranes and two tangible reminders that I had completed all my tasks for the day. When I started there was no crane. When I finished a crane existed. This was a form of work that made sense to me.

I found that this method helped keep me focused on my progress rather than what I didn’t get done.

About a week into this I thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat to make 1000 cranes and turn them into streamers for my dissertation defense?” It’s said that, if you make 1000 cranes you get a wish. Maybe I could use them to wish to become a doctor.

Reader, I did it.

I made 1000 cranes.

They weren’t all to-do lists. I also used the hard copy drafts of my dissertation that I printed out to edit. (You can get about 4 cranes out of an 8.5×11 piece of paper, btw.)

Was it great to have my crane streamers in the room when I defended my dissertation? Absolutley.

Do I still have them? Of course.

Here’s what making 1000 cranes taught me.

  1. You will get bad advice. You will recover. Remember when I told you that I didn’t know anything about making paper cranes and searched a YouTube video to learn how? Well, the first video I found was not a good tutorial. I don’t think the maker of that video new how to make a crane either. As a result, my first dozen “cranes” aren’t, technically, cranes. They kind of look like cranes, if you squint. When I realized that these first cranes didn’t look right I found another tutorial which I followed religiously until I could make a crane with my eyes closed.
  2. You will feel crazy. Here’s the thing about making 1000 of anything. At first, it will be fun and cute. People will comment on it saying, “What a neat idea!” or “How fun!” Once you get about 30 of them and they are strewn across your desk people will stop commenting. They are no longer cute. They are messy and a little weird. When you have to get a box to store your first 100 cranes in you will start to wonder if you are crazy. Once you reach 500 it will feel like there’s no point in stopping. Once you reach 925 you will wonder if you *really* have to make it to 1000. Once you hit 1000 you will be so incredibly proud of yourself.
  3. It’s not about one crane. Remember back in step one when I said that my first dozen cranes were made incorrectly? Well, they weren’t the only ones. Even after I learned to make cranes there were still days when I made bad ones. The paper wasn’t perfectly square or my fold was off. The thing is, though, when you make 1000 of anything what each individual one looks like isn’t as important as what they look like together. Let me tell you, friends, those 1000 cranes together are a beautiful sight to behold.
  4. Ask for help. It may sound odd given everything I’ve said up to this point but making 1000 cranes was actually the easy part. I severely underestimated the difficulty of making streamers out of 1000 paper cranes. I’m also not what you would call a “crafty” person. This meant that I was about a week out from my dissertation defense and had no streamers and felt frustrated and overwhelmed. I reached out to see if any of my friends wanted to come over, watch movies, and make streamers. I will be eternally grateful to the people who came over and engaged in that ridiculous activity to make this dream come true.
  5. Celebrate. You did something difficult. Show it off! Be proud of it! Tell people about it! Do your favorite thing! You earned it.

A dissertation, it turns out, is remarkably similar to making 1000 cranes.

  1. You will get bad advice from faculty who think grad school hasn’t changed since they were in it, from abusive advisors, from bitter grad students. You will recover. Your ability to course-correct is unlimited.
  2. You will feel crazy. At first it will be exciting (and intimidating), then it will feel boring (and daunting). You will feel crazy. Then you will feel like you might as well keep going since you’ve gotten this far. You will feel crazy. Then you will wonder if you really wanna finish this thing. You will feel crazy. Then you will be done and feel glorious.
  3. It’s not about the individual words or sentences. It’s not that words aren’t important, because they are. It’s just that there’s no reason to get hung up on individual words or sentences that don’t sound “perfect” because it’s about the totality of the thing you are doing. It’s about the book, not the paragraph. Just keep writing. You might come back and find those sentences you agonized over weren’t so bad after all.
  4. Ask for help. Find people you trust. Ask for help. Do this often.
  5. Celebrate. Celebrate fiercely. Celebrate the little wins and the big wins. Celebrate.

 

The Dissertation Bottleneck

There are a lot of weird things about dissertations. Some of them are just inherent in the writing process (#writingisweird) but some of them have to do with the fact that dissertations are an especially difficult genre of writing.

If you are in a PhD program, or grad school generally, chances are your social media is filled with memes about the oddities of grad school and dissertation writing, but as much as grad students love to discuss how f*ing weird grad school is we rarely discuss the absolute weirdest things about writing a dissertation: The Dissertation Bottleneck.

The Dissertation Bottleneck is the term I’ve given to the fact that no single part of the dissertation process prepares you for any other part of the dissertation process.

We’ve talked about the many oddities of the dissertation process before, particularly because it is one of the few truly medieval processes left in modern culture. Even among the modern apprenticeships the PhD process is unique in that each separate part of the process requires a completely new skill set.

In an ideal world, your committee, and particularly your advisor, would be able to mentor you as you transition from stage to stage of the process. But this is not an ideal world and faculty are overworked and overwhelmed. In fact, when coming up with the idea for this website, several faculty said the thing that there grad students most needed was a guide on how to transition from coursework to exams to prospectus to dissertation writing to defense. So, due to the dictates of capitalism I have jumped into the breach!

Below is a brief description of each of the four parts of the process, from coursework through defense:

Course Work: This is the most familiar part of the PhD process. If you are in a PhD program it’s probably because you are a good student who likes learning. If you did a Master’s before your PhD program your two years of course work will feel similar to your MA program in many respects. If you’ve gone straight from undergrad to a PhD program, or if you are coming to a PhD program after working for a while, the course work portion of your PhD will feel most familiar to your previous experiences as a student. There may be some differences in the amount of material you are expected to cover and the metrics by which you are evaluated but this part of the process is learning in classes. You can do this, for sure.

The dissertation bottleneck effect is most pronounced near the end of coursework. The entire point of coursework is to prepare you to move beyond coursework. By your last semester of courses you’ll feel frustrated with reading other people’s work. You’ll have a broad sense of your field and where your work falls within it. You’ll be looking forward to starting your own research.

You will celebrate turning in your last seminar paper, and you should, but you will come to miss the structure and relative simplicity of coursework.

Prelims/Exams/Fields: In brief, your preliminary exams, or prelims are the time at which your committee assesses whether or not you are familiar with the fields in which you wish to contribute as a scholar. We actually had a whole series on how to prep for prelims and, though we say it ourselves, it holds up pretty well. If you want to know more about what prelims are we recommend this post.

What’s important for this post is that the entire prelim process is drastically different from what you’ve done before and is, typically, not explained well.

The biggest connection between prelims and coursework is that prelims can be partially understood as your own ideal course–the course you would put together for yourself to prepare you for your dissertation. Then you read all the books (not really) and take a test on their concepts.

By the time you’re done with prelims you should be able to articulate the major conflicts and themes in the fields you wish to contribute to.

Prospectus: Personally, the prospectus was my absolute least favorite dissertation task. The prospectus itself isn’t terribly long–often shorter than a seminar paper–but it is hard. The prospectus is like planning a road trip to a place you’ve never been. What you’re trying to do is think ahead to what the journey will look like while simultaneously being frustrated by the fact that you have no idea what variables will inevitably fuck up even the most perfect plan. Don’t let the seeming paradox of the prospectus–drawing a map of a place you’ve never been–daunt you from the task. The big gap from the prelims to the prospectus is that, while the prelim exams make you aware of the gaps in your field of knowledge, your prospectus is your plan for how best to fill one of those gaps.

The thing is, knowing that a gap exists is not the same as knowing how to fill it. Anytime you’ve called a plumber, an electrician, or your apartment’s maintenance person you know acutely that identifying a problem and being able to fix a problem are very different skill sets.

Coursework is your training on what things should look like. Your prelims are training on how to identify problems in your field. Your prospectus is your plan on how to fix a part of those problems. The progression of steps makes a certain logical sense but require different skill sets and different training. Knowing what things should look like does not inherently prepare you to fix problems in the way things are anymore than enjoying ice cream prepares you to manage a restaurant.

Finally, after all of that there is the final stage in your graduate program.

Dissertation: Writing a dissertation, like writing any book, is an experience that is hard to describe. Just as learning how to identify a gap in your field doesn’t necessarily equip you to fill that gap your training in how to identify and critique the manuscripts of others does not inherently prepare you to write a manuscript of your own. It is necessary, but not sufficient, preparation. There are a lot of very successful editors who wouldn’t want to be authors.

Our October series is going to be a deep dive into how to manage the writing process.

Our point here is that, if you have felt lost and confused as you move from one stage of the process to the other then You. Are. Not. Alone.

No part of this process is clearly explained and, what’s worse, some of the skills you need to get through one part of the process are actually antithetical to other parts of the process. I know a lot of grad students who were very good at coursework. That is, they were very good at showing up to class on time, prepared, and writing seminar papers synthesizing other people’s work. In every case I can think of, the better someone was at coursework the more they struggled to write the dissertation. While coursework rewards your ability to follow a schedule that’s been set for you through the syllabus writing a dissertation requires you to be able to set, and stick to, your own schedule while also identifying all of the relevant materials and why they are relevant.

In contrast, I know a handful of graduate students who absolutely slogged through coursework or prelims because they were more interested in generating original answers to intriguing questions than reading what everyone else had to say about their topic. Several of these students put off the prelims process for over a year because it was so antithetical to how they worked. Once these students were allowed to build their own schedule and do their own research they flourished, often finishing their dissertations quickly.

It’s not that any of these people were dumb. They just had skill sets that didn’t work at parts of the process. In fact, part of the genesis of this website was a moment when, over drinks with a dear friend (who is now a PhD) I confessed that I had no idea how to start writing my dissertation and had tried to Google it late at night. I was completely surprised when this scholar I respected immensely told me she had done the same thing at every part of the process! Our confession made, we discussed how frustrating it was that all of the clear advice on how to move through a PhD program was geared towards STEM students. In that moment, abd2phd, was conceived.

At this point you might reasonably be asking yourself what this long diatribe has to do with our September focus on letting go of perfection to be productive.

A lot, actually. A lot of PhD students have always been very good at school. Their PhD program might be the first time they have significantly struggled. Combine this with the lack of clarity on the parts of the process, the fact that the skills for one part of the process aren’t the same as the skills to get you through the other parts of the process, and a perception that everyone else knows what they are doing and you wind up with grad students mired in shame.

Shame that they don’t inherently understand the steps of the process. (Who would?!)

Shame that they aren’t doing as well as everyone else. (You are!)

Shame that they are no longer “good at school.” (Because you aren’t “in school” anymore! You’re a young professional!)

Shame that while they did well in one part of the process they are struggling with another. (That’s normal!)

Underlying all that shame is a deeply held sense that we need to be perfect on the first try. But that’s ridiculous. And impossible.

It’s this shame, rooted in the idea that we need to appear perfect, that keeps us from asking, “What the hell are prelims?” and, instead, googling, “What the hell are prelims?” at 3:00 a.m. and then going to bed crying because none of the answers are helpful.

If you want to get through this process you need to understand that you will not be good at every part of it. That doesn’t make you dumb. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t cut out to be a scholar. It means you’re human, and that’s ok. At least, that’s what my therapist spent five years telling me and she always kept it 100.