Rebuilding Momentum in the Middle of Your Dissertation

You’ve had a break over Christmas, been away from university, had other unit essays and exams over the past couple of weeks, and suddenly your thesis is rearing its head again…

Don’t panic. It’s entirely understandable that you have been focusing elsewhere for the past couple of weeks. But the early part of this term - when your other units are still at the introductory stages — is the ideal point to make some headway.

Also remember why we are doing research in the first place - besides getting a qualification…

‘“It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives. I think sometimes that the best reason for writing [dissertations] is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word.”

The novelist Zadie Smith was actually talking about novels, but it’s the same for research projects! The feeling of fulfilment when you are immersed in research and after submission is indescribable. But how to get there?

A. Organise yourself by knowing yourself — and your field

First, begin by organising your thoughts.

Then, develop some self-knowledge about the kind of researcher and writer you are. Again, Zadie Smith has written really well on this, distinguishing between the ‘micro manager’ who build their written work detail by detail, and then perceive the whole; and the ‘macro planner’ who perceives the whole from the outset, has an amazing plan, and delivers it point by point. Are you a micro manager or macro planner?

Read: Zadie Smith (2008), ‘That Crafty Feeling’.

Once you turn back to redraft your literature review or begin your methodology chapter, observe her ten rules of writing.

Read: Zadie Smith (2010), Ten Rules of Writing.

With specific regard to academic writing, you also should think about how to zoom in at the right level of resolution, and how to keep your critique of your own material and others’ moderate: otherwise you will set yourself a standard you cannot ever reach.

Read: Patrick Dunleavy here on ‘Fair Comment in Academia’.

B. Rethinking and taking stock if original plans just will not work out

Fieldwork can be hard. If you cannot find interview subjects via your first list of contacts, and your emails go unanswered, try different approaches — perhaps via friends of friends; talk to us for ideas; or make direct approaches or contact via other media subject to your ethical clearance.

Keep your emails simple. People often have a lot to do, and you are asking for some of their time. Make it easy for them to say ‘yes’.

If you feel you have too few interview subjects and are really struggling in the face of non-response, think about supplementing your evidence base with evidence from other sources and methods: digital ethnography (also known as digital social research) may be a good Plan B.

If you feel that what you are finding out is interesting in different ways to what you had originally expected, reframing may help. Again, Dunleavy is invaluable here: ‘Originality and innovation can be achieved by moving an ‘obvious’ idea from one context and applying it in another’. He stresses that new knowledge is incremental, and arises through ‘the discovery of new facts’, ‘the exercise of independent critical power’, or both. To be original, make new connections: pick up familiar ideas and put them into different contexts. This still takes work, but is eminently do-able.

C. Beginning to structure your dissertation

Work on different chapters in separate Word documents. Word is terrible for working in one large file, even though you will have to integrate the separate chapters at the end. This article suggests that Word is much less useful for research papers than Google Docs, so you might want to give it a read. For my own part I just do lots of scrolling up and down and rely on Ctrl^F to navigate my documents as they get larger.

Some writers swear by the software Scrivener, designed to help you work on long and difficult documents, and in particular to get you to the end of the awkward first draft. It has a free 30-day trial period and costs $40 otherwise . Of course, working in Word or relying on Google Documents will hardly stop you doing a fine thesis.

As stated in the first lecture, you will probably not go wrong with the conventional introduction-literature review-data&methodology-analysis/interpretation structure. However, we don’t like to be too prescriptive, or stipulate that you follow this template, for a number of reasons. Students making a novel methodological contribution may need to have a heavier methodological section and smaller literature review, which they fold instead into a longer introduction. Students pursuing a more historical or theoretical thesis will often use a critical analytic narrative approach, where they primarily integrate theory and narrative throughout two to four ‘substantive’ chapters. Methodology then is something to be noted and explained but may not need a full chapter.

Our main concern is that you pursue an original and independent project in a way that suits you and your material best, and shows off your scholarship to its best advantage. Indeed, PhD dissertations in the humanities increasingly involve multimedia submissions. In your case, the word limit is only 10,000 words, so it would be safer to use a more conventional dissertation structure and format. Nevertheless you might be interested to note precedents for published papers presented entirely in poetic verse (hat tip to the wonderful Maria Popova of Brain Pickings):

J.W.V. Storey, ‘The Detection of Shocked CO Emission from G333.6–0.2’, Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia (1984). A 38-stanza poem.

Mary E. Harrington, ‘Feedback’, Journal of Biological Rhythms (2001).

In the workshop on ‘library based dissertations’ Tom Osborne clarified that ‘the structure is entirely up to you — whatever works best’. We can help, but rather than looking for a template and filling it out, try different structures first. You may find that in the last days before submission a radical chapter restructure works wonders. Remember the wisdom of Dr Karen from The Professor is In, discussed in Lecture 4: ‘The goal is not to produce “cookie-cutter” [dissertations], but to discipline your writing’.

D. Motivation

More broadly, how do you get motivated for what may feel at times like an unstructured project, where you are working in what often are low-consensus fields?

There are many resources available, particularly at the British Psychological Society website, and I’ve selected two here:

1: Building good habits: you are not your thoughts! There are many links available in this article on habit-change which will help you plan your time and get things done.

2: Making better decisions: visualise yourself in the middle of researching and writing, when you enjoy it — not the difficult bit of getting started (too much of a hurdle), or the euphoria of finishing (too distant).

E. Time management

At this time of year we hear many students — and colleagues — talking of being ‘behind’. We all have the same 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, though of course some of us have more standing commitments (jobs, caring responsibilities, volunteering and so on) than others, and a number have health concerns. Nevertheless, at this point in your final year your work is probably your current priority. My own advice:

1. ‘Batch’ similar jobs together when you can and do them in one go. Unitasking is more efficient than multitasking. Make a list when sitting down to a batch, and then tick things off the list. When you have finished, stop.

2. Eat and sleep properly. Many of us think we work best at 2am, or reward ourselves with lunch or supper ‘once I’ve finished’ and end up working light-headed. If you go to bed and eat at sensible times your motivation tends to become replenished, and the break or rest helps you see problems differently.

3. Take full days off, ideally weekends, so that you don’t feel like you are working all the time, and when you come back to work you actually have an appetite for it.

4. Recognise that some of the feeling of being behind is just a feeling and isn’t necessarily true.

My most productive friends and colleagues work strictly 9 to 5, getting what they need to do done, and done properly. Around that, they eat breakfast, go to the gym, have a social life, and keep hobbies going. When they work, they get stuff done, and then they enjoy doing other things.

If you are ‘always on’, continually chained to your laptop, then you tend to do less per hour, and end up feeling like all your life is spent skim-reading, browsing and making notes for future reference rather than actually doing research and writing it up with time to spare.

What The Economist has just noted is that short periods of deep immersion works best in terms of getting things done. This is in an article against the workplace trend in favour of more collaboration — nevertheless it cites some really interesting ideas and new books for our purposes: ‘Deep work is the killer app of the knowledge economy: it is only by concentrating intensely that you can master a difficult discipline or solve a demanding problem’. The Economist, ‘The Collaboration Curse’, Jan 23 2016.

And finally, this list of hacks is all very sensible, particularly the suggestion to do less (and do it better) and schedule proper breaks.

Good luck!

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