Always be Working (On that Dissertation)

My dissertation writing buddy. She doesn't care about word limits. Just walks and treats.

My dissertation writing buddy. She doesn’t care about word limits. Just walks and treats.

I had the opportunity last night to share my dissertation research with MTSU’s newest group of doctoral students in their Introduction to Public History class. I recalled sitting in their seats my first semester three years ago, when the thought of doing a dissertation was far from my mind, although I knew it was something I would have to figure out at some point. Over the weekend, I hit another dissertation writing milestone when submitted my last draft chapter to my chair. While I am far from finished, I thought now might be a good time for a post on dissertation writing, particularly because November is Academic Writing Month.

First, I should point out that MTSU’s Public History Ph.D. program is unlike most traditional history programs where it takes students almost eight years to complete a doctoral degree. Our program cuts that time in half.* As other programs are struggling to reduce time to completion, MTSU public history faculty are pretty adept at mentoring students who produce high quality scholarship in just four years and then turning them out into the world.

I am one of those people trying to finish in four years. Fortunately, I have a fellowship that allows me work on my dissertation full-time this year, but it also requires me to graduate in May.** I found that I had to be pretty strategic in the courses I selected and how I designed my residency to maintain that timeline. I had a rough idea for a dissertation in mind after my first year of coursework, and used my time in the classroom to figure out my framework before settling on my topic: Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. I turned three seminar papers into four draft chapters. If I had a motto at the time, it should have been “Always be Working (On that Dissertation).” By the time I started writing in August, I had drafts for all but two chapters.

I began writing full-time in August. Like I said, I had drafts, but they weren’t very good. I had written one draft two years prior and a lot of my thinking had changed by then. So those chapters I had already written needed considerable revising. The two chapters that I started from scratch were a bit easier to do because I was not trying to rework a structure I did not remember devising a year or two ago. I kept a pace of finishing two draft chapters a month, and immediately sent them to my chair for comments. I found that I liked working on two chapters at a time. It was a manageable amount of work and I could switch easily between the two. My chair is pretty quick at returning draft chapters with her extensive comments. Upon receiving them, I read through her comments briefly and then put them aside until I have finished drafting all my chapters.

Graduate students become adept at spitting out a twenty page seminar paper in a couple of days, but dissertation writing is a different process if you are doing it full-time like I am. Graduate seminar paper writing is a sprint. Dissertation writing is a marathon. All of a sudden, you have weeks devoted to writing (rather than a weekend) and you are the one setting the deadline (not a syllabus). I know colleagues that are really good at just sitting in a room and hammering out a thesis or dissertation in a matter of weeks. Not me. I prefer slow and steady. I usually try to write about 750 words a day. I start in the morning, go to the gym at lunch, and then pick up again in the afternoon. I take time to walk my dog, cook dinner, and spend time with loved ones. I rarely work on weekends, unless I am trying to meet one of my self-imposed deadlines.

A note on deadlines: You should meet them. Always. It is easy to push it back, but very difficult to make up the time. If you are late on one, then you are late on them all. I was few days late meeting my October deadline, but that was when a chapter turned out to be fifteen pages longer than I originally intended. I can’t be too hard on myself when that happens.

I have to say the isolation of the dissertation is very real. MTSU has a poor graduate student culture, in general. Most of my cohort is no longer on campus, although we try to check in with each other every once in a while. I have tried to start writing groups to help with accountability and combat isolation, but with little success. Recently, I have started attending a faculty writing group once a week at MTSU, but I don’t see many people there. I usually go just for a change of scenery. This group also provides forms that we can fill out each week to mark our progress. They then give the forms back to us at the end of the semester so we can see how much we were able to accomplish. However, I have found excellent support through Twitter, where I can reach out to my network at any time of the day or week. Also, going to the gym every day at noon forces me to interact with other (sweaty) human beings. My gym has a strong sense of community, which has helped me throughout my doctoral program.

The only fancy tool I use to help me write is Scrivener. It is a program designed for writers. I prefer it to Microsoft Word, because it is easy to switch between chapters and notes. Your footnotes are conveniently on the right side of the screen. I tested Scrivener out on smaller papers before using it on a 200-page report last year. I suggest doing the same before using it for an important document like a thesis or dissertation. I still track my time using Harvest, which I wrote about in my project management post.

My final bit of advice to students getting ready to tackle their thesis or dissertation is to just write. Don’t worry about perfection. You can’t get feedback on a blank page.

My goal for this month is to complete the first round of revisions based on my chair’s comments so I can send the revised chapters to the rest of my committee. I set my #AcWriMo2014 goal to revise ten pages a day. Honestly, I do not know if that’s an attainable goal, but it is worth a shot. Ask me in December how it worked out.

In the meantime…always be working!

*Public history faculty have designed the program to be completed in four years. However, that is only possible if student is doing the program full-time and does not need to take on an extra job or experience any major life events during that period. However, many students do finish in four years.

**There is no greater motivator to finish your dissertation than running out of funding.

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