Dissertation advice?

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I've got a question for some of my regulars. I'm feeling pretty exhausted lately, as I'm nearing my 3rd dissertation defense in 12 days. One of the things I'm convinced we need to do a better job of, probably in the field as well as individual programs, is helping our students understand what to expect from the process. I'm close to this topic for a variety of reasons: I'm trying to finish up my first book manuscript and recalling the lessons I learned back in the day, I'm on several committees here, and of course, I'll be taking over the position of grad director in my department next spring.

While there are some pretty good sites on the web that give advice, the problem I'm finding is that each person's experience is different, enough so that generalizing to the level of advice is a tricky proposition. Like writing itself, it's rare that there are hard-and-fast rules for actually accomplishing the dissertation. Here are some of the things I'm thinking about (below the fold), but I'm especially interested in hearing from some of you who have gone through the process--what advice made a difference, and what do you wish you had known (or simply taken more seriously) when you were dissertating?

I. Know Thyself

I have to admit that I'm pretty amazed sometimes by people who don't have an idea of their strengths, weaknesses, and habits as writers, and this in a discipline that purports expertise about the process of writing. The dissertation is a learning process, to be sure, since for most who do it, it's the first book-length work they'll have attempted. Nevertheless, many of our writing habits scale right along with that length.

A. Understand/Embrace Your Habits

We all write differently. For instance, I write best at night, for solid 3-4 hour stretches, usually punctuated by short breaks to collect my thoughts and plot out my next stretch. I'm a better writer than I am a planner, so it's important to me to have 10-12 open books around me to draw from. I also almost always switch directions as I'm writing, so that it's frequently difficult to predict ahead of time exactly where a chapter will go.

B. Break Your Habits

I know, I know. With the paradoxes already. But it's important not to become a slave to your habits. It makes no sense to waste potential writing time because it's not night or not morning, or you only have 1 hour instead of 3. Don't fall in love with your quirks and let them keep you from writing.

C. Who Do You Want to Be?

Creative writing programs do this far better than most others, for obvious reasons, but we need to get better at it. I'm talking about learning how to read as writers, learning to appreciate the craft of writing as other writers deploy it. Learn who your favorite writers are, figure out why you like them, and figure out how much of their own craft you yourself can incorporate into your writing. I'm a fan of the flow of Stanley Fish, the intricacy of Derrida, the joy of Burke's reverse gridlock and the experimentalism of Barthes, among others, and often, I can tell which of the various styles I appreciate I'm veering towards in something I'm writing. Use those styles as measures for your own, and as inspirations for your own writing.

II. Reading, Writing, Revising

This is a tough one to generalize, but I'm pretty sure that most of us don't get it right. For years, my advice has been to "write, read, and write," as a corrective against the very natural tendency to put off writing by intimidating oneself with all the work out there on one's topic. It's hard to know how much reading you'll need to do, until you're into the topic. Likewise, without reading widely, it'll be difficult to know where to make your contribution. Even so, I think one of the unspoken purposes of the proposal is to get dissertators writing as early as possible, and there's an important lesson there.

As important as the reading/writing ratio is, lately I've come to think that there needs to be equally explicit consideration of the writing/revision ratio. This is one of the crucial differences between a dissertation and all other writing you've done up to that point. Seminar papers and exams involve a great deal of pre-draft work, culminating in the submission of a piece of writing. The average dissertation chapter, on the other hand, goes through several stages of revision, and it's rare in my experience that enough time is allotted for those stages. In other words, the chapter is a piece of writing that initiates a great deal of work. I don't think I'm spilling any secrets when I say that the single biggest shortcoming of most dissertations (my own included) is insufficient time allowed for reader comments and thoughtful revision.

III. Practicing, Preaching

This is specific to my discipline, which supports graduate students almost exclusively through teaching assistantships for composition courses. I'm often surprised by how we don't practice what we preach in those courses: the importance of multiple drafts, soliciting a range of peer responses, awareness of one's strengths and weaknesses, negotiating with genre, the social, collaborative nature of all writing, etc. We have a unique advantage in that our teaching subject is the very thing we're doing when we dissertate--our practice/preach ratio should be very close to even, and if it's not, then either we're lying in our classrooms or lying to ourselves as writers.

IV. It's Your Topic, and Our (Discipline's) Genre

This is another one of those balance/paradox issues. On the one hand, each of us has to live with our topic--it's part of how we will be identified as scholars for years to come--and so it's ultimately an individual decision. On the other, we also have a responsibility to explore that topic in a way that meets the expectations of the field, localized in the form of the dissertation committee. If the committee's a good one, they will recognize the difference between these two ideas, and respond to your work accordingly. If you're a good dissertator, you will recognize the difference, and develop your work accordingly. Personally, I tend to think of the difference as that between what you're saying in the dissertation and what you're doing. The line is a fuzzy one, but it's there, and it's possible to do well at one and not the other.

I've got others, but I'm slowing down a bit, losing momentum. So I'll stop here, and invite feedback. Feedback?

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This is old news, and I'm sure everyone's already seen it, but Jill Walker has put her dissertation online. It's titled Fiction and Interaction: How Clicking a Mouse Can Make You Part of a F

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My director told me: it's a practice book. And I still think that's some of the best advice I got. It's rare to find the "perfect" diss that will be published soon after graduation. Nobody should expect the diss to be perfect. That does't mean it can suck, but it will be critiqued in the defense so that it will be better later. So don't fret and get bogged down thinking it's no good.

When you slow down, keep going. Don't get tangled up b/c one chapter isn't working great. No big deal. Start the next chapter, come back to the first later.

Don't try and write 10 chapters. Four - Five is fine.

While work hours differ, you do have to work. Take it seriously. It's your job. I used to write from 10 am to around 6pm - with breaks, of course. But never at night.

If you write a page a day, you can finish in 250 days. If you average two pages a day...DO THE MATH. It shoudn't take longer than a year.

Practice what you preach. Unles the program doesn't allow it, teach the stuff you're working on. That will make the writing better (and you a better teacher).

Nobody wants you to fail. Everyone wants you to succeed.

The dissertation doesn't demonstrate expertise (I know everything in the world) but poses a problem.

I wrote about survival in a PhD program at this post way back when. Some of that advice might apply-- get through it as quickly as you can, do the work, remember that everything is connected, etc. I don't advise PhD students at this point in my career, but I guess the one thing that I would add to your list and my list is whatever your practices, write every day. Even if it is a question of writing just for a half-hour on days when you have other things to do or when you feel less than "inspired," writing every day is really important. It's something I forget myself in my own scholarly writing too often.

Oh, and one other thing: a good dissertation is a DONE dissertation.

I'm still in prelims, so not speaking from experience here, but a helpful professor once gave me a tip for expediting the approval process. She said that when you get the committee's comments on a chapter, make a bulleted list of them. Then, after you revise, go back to that list and, under each comment, write a paragraph on how you addressed the comment in your revision (or if you chose not to, why). Take the list of comments and explanations of how you addressed them, and attach it (as a memo) to the revised chapter when you submit it to your committee. This way, the professors aren't left puzzling over exactly how you addressed the comments or hunting for whatever it was they'd asked for.


You know, I'm thinking that this would be a great wiki project. Maybe it's something I'll get going this spring.

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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on August 8, 2004 4:42 AM.

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