How to Dissertate

Well, it’s a new year and in the spirit of developing better habits, I thought I’d share my resolution: to become a more effective dissertator.  Please note that this article is not titled “How to write a dissertation,” because to me, “dissertating” involves a LOT more than the writing process. I know (basically) how to research and I know how to write… but what I don’t think I do well yet is focus—at least not on completing (or let’s be honest, starting and diligently continuing) a project of this magnitude. So, here I’m sharing a few bits of choice advice I’ll be implementing over the next several months to make my dissertating more sustainable and successful.
1.  Dedicate a few full work-days a week to dissertating. On other days, give at least a couple of hours.  This semester, my Wednesdays and Fridays are dissertation days. Mondays are for CV-building academic service, Tuesdays and Thursdays are for teaching, grading, and lesson-prep. Saturdays are for catching up, and Sundays are for recharging the spirit. I’m hoping that this schedule will help me focus on each task as I’m doing it, and give me permission not to worry about the tasks of other days. Less anxiety, less guilt, more productivity. Awesome.
2. Get out of the house.  I made the mistake of not doing this today (yes, a dissertation day. These are goals, people! I’m not perfect yet!)… and so I graded a few lingering student papers, wrote some thank-you notes, ran some errands, felt guilty, and sat down to write this blog as a record of my shame and a re-dedication to a better future. Then I’ll probably do the dishes, because I’m still at home, and the precariously-stacked dirty plates are driving me crazy. Don’t let this happen to you! Have a dedicated work-space someplace else, and go there early in the morning. Settle in, and focus on your work.
3. Check email at the end of the day, not the beginning.  Special thanks to Kirstyn Leuner and Lori Emerson for this piece of advice!  We all know how fast a quick email-check devolves into hours of correspondence, followed by (*ahem* undisclosed amount) of hours wasted watching slideshows of the Golden Globes’ best-dressed list. Once your browser is open, it’s hard to close. So stay away, at least for the first several hours of the day.
4. Just say no to side-projects. If you’re anything like me, then you don’t have trouble devoting large chunks of your time to worthy causes, both academic and non-. I think it’s healthy and important to have a few, but set a limit and don’t go over it! Especially clear out the little stuff that’s eating up your time and doing little for your CV. I have limited myself to my main teaching contract, one small, paying job for some extra cash, one major CV-building academic activity, and one church/community service. Even that is a lot! It’s painful to say no to projects that sound totally awesome (I turned down a gem just this week), but do it. Just say no. Protect your right to dissertate.
5. Set small deadlines for yourself. Currently, I’m scheduled to complete a chapter every three months. (I’m told this is about right in English, though apparently it’s pretty slow compared to some other disciplines). If chapters are 50-60 pages, then I need to write about ten pages every two weeks. Totally doable, right? Part of me resists, reasoning that it’s too modular and that my chapter will have no continuity… but I remind myself that revision can come later. For now, it’s important that research be linked to production all along the way, in small manageable chunks. Plus, as a bonus, ten pages is the perfect length to adjust into a conference paper!
6. Join (or form) a dissertation support group. Share work regularly, and keep each other accountable. My university has a general group for PhDs of all disciplines, which I think I might attend… but I also think it would be nice to form a group with folks in my own department. The idea is that you meet once a month, and everybody gives an update on their work. One person might be nominated to share 10 pages with the group, or everyone could bring 10 pages, and pair up to exchange. As long as you have deadlines, and people to keep you accountable (and probably some treats and commiseration and laughter), the effort will be worthwhile.

I’m starting with these six ideas, but if you have any tips that helped you dissertate more effectively, please do share them! The more wisdom, the better. And to all of us who are striving to stay on the wagon and produce some butt-kicking chapters these next few months, I say best of luck! Happy habit-building, folks. We can do it.
-Kelli

2 thoughts on “How to Dissertate”

  1. Hey Kelli, thanks so much for writing this piece, which I think will be prove really helpful to me, both with completing the thesis and (hopefully, eventually) the diss.

    The sense of (totally unnecessary) guilt that surrounds feeling less than productive can definitely become a self-perpetuating cycle, particularly when our energies are always split between the main project and–in my case–some residual coursework, the joys of teaching, and service. Finding a balance always appears just out of reach.

    Scheduling full days of research-based work, with other days devoted strictly to the other tasks and a full day devoted to wellness seems like a really great way to bring things into focus, and become “more present” relative to a defined set of concerns in a day’s work.

  2. Kelli, I cannot stress how helpful these reminders are. The hardest for me, by far, is #4: turning things down. I find it agonizing. And I’m actually struggling with #2 right now: leaving the house. (My cat is in my lap right now, and I’m in my fleece sweats. How am I supposed to turn down morning affection at home wrapped in fleece for reading in a coffee shop sans kitty and in more presentable attire?) I do find, though, that the diss experiment is working: the diss experiment being starting *every* morning, teaching or not, with at least a little bit of diss work. (Morning that I teach, it’s only about a half hour of diss work before prepping for the 9am class. Other days, it’s large blocks of time.) I’m trying to create new habits and am really glad that you’ve opened this discussion that, I’m sure, every dissertating grad student can relate to. Thanks!

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