Surviving the Dissertation Long Haul

You have completed your field work, your data collection, your archival research. You now have a significant chunk of time to complete your analysis, consider secondary sources, enter into conversations, draw stunning conclusions — in short, to write your dissertation. You may even be fortunate enough to have minimal other responsibilities during this time. What do you do? My friend and colleague Amy recently asked me: “What advice do you have? How should I structure my time? How can I establish a healthy and sustainable writing process?”

Here is what I shared:

1. Organize a chapter conference. During a chapter conference, your entire committee meets with you (ideally at the same time) to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the first chapter that you write. My graduate program required this, and I am forever grateful for the wisdom of that requirement. Having the chapter conference was invaluable because, early in the writing process, I had to commit to a deadline by which I would complete a chapter. The conference with my committee members offered a rich discussion about what was working in the chapter, and (of course) the areas that needed improvement. With this immediate feedback on the first chapter, I gained some idea of what I should keep doing with the rest of the chapters, and what I needed to change.

During the conference, my committee also asked me to articulate how I saw that chapter contributing to the project as a whole, and their prodding — those questions — shaped and stimulated my thinking on the next chapters. (Honestly, I couldn’t answer some of their questions at the time, but I don’t think they expected that. What was more important was that they planted seeds for future thinking.) Your committee members may not read any other chapters until you’ve written the entire thing, but at least they will have weighed in on that first chapter and — hopefully — guided you well.

2. Accept that the first chapter you write is the hardest. I was skeptical when my friend Helen told me this. After all, I had written chapter-length essays and articles before. But Helen was right. You may have written 10,000 or 12,000 or 15,000 words about something before, it’s true. But not as one chapter in a larger project — one destined (you may hope) to become a book. I cannot overstate the mental gymnastics it will take to get your head around writing one chapter that will be a piece of a larger project, contribute to a larger argument, and, simply, not stand alone. When you start writing, you will feel like you have to do ALL THE THINGS and AT ONCE. It will feel like this one chapter has to present all the arguments and answer all the questions. It does not. Do not think to yourself, “I am starting to write my dissertation.” It’s just too overwhelming. Think, instead, “I am starting to write this chapter.” It’s only a chapter. The first chapter will be the hardest, and it will probably also be the worst (until you go back and revise it, potentially, hopefully, with great mirth). It will probably be too long, and rather unfocused, and a little rambling. That’s OK. Write it, share it — it’s not as bad as you think. Having a chapter conference (see point 1) tremendously facilitates this entire process. And once that first chapter is written, the rest are exponentially (yes, I promise!) easier.

The first chapter is also the hardest because you are working out your style: how you analyze your data (or your sources), how you make notes to yourself, how you write everything up. I encourage you to take the time to experiment, and to figure out what works for you. Do you like to work completely digitally, reading on screen and taking notes on screen? Do you like working on one screen or two? What software works for you? Do you like Scrivener or Word or Evernote? Maybe you like taking notes by hand? It is worth spending the time figuring this out early on. Do not fetishize it, though. Just be aware of what’s working for you, and what’s not, while you are actually doing your note-taking and analysis and writing. When I was working on that first chapter, I started out doing all my reading on screen, and taking notes on screen, then writing on screen. Only gradually did I realize that I just work a lot more efficiently when I read on paper and take notes by hand (or, less optimally, read on screen and take notes by hand). The first chapter I wrote took me almost four months. Subsequent chapters took a month or less. The learning curve can be that dramatic.

3. Get thee a writing group. These are the people who will help you make and meet deadlines. These are the people who will reliably read your work. These people will support you and laugh with you and cry with you. They will help you when you are on the job market. They will help you after you get a job. My writing group has four members: I’m a historian of science and technology communities. Mary is a historian of China and medicine. Emily is an anthropologist who focuses on biosecurity. David is a historian of science and empire. Our interests are close enough that we can meaningfully read and improve on each other’s work, but not so close that we feel bored, stifled, or in competition. We began when we were writing our dissertations, and we aimed to meet every other month or so. Some groups may want to meet more frequently; I don’t think you’d want to meet much less frequently. Every other month or thereabouts worked for the four of us. Figure out what works for you and your group. We each shared a chapter, or a significant chunk of a chapter every time we met. If it wasn’t a chapter, then it was a conference paper, or — later — postdoc and job applications, or book proposals, or book chapters. We all pre-circulated our writing a few days before we met. We started out meeting in person; over time, we’ve done some combination of in-person and Skype or Google Hangouts. We meet for about two hours — enough to spend about 30 minutes discussing each person’s writing. Sometimes we’d send along our comments and corrections in writing; sometimes not. The group was (and is) the thing. The accountability to peers mattered — a lot. It still does. When I had a campus visit, they listened to my mock job talk. And Emily knew my work well enough to say: “Where’s the gender stuff? That’s really interesting. You should put it in.” And I did, and that’s what most engaged my audience. I could not have done it without them. Simple as that.

4. Trust that your argument will emerge. Believe in your analytical instincts. If you have a sense that you want to organize your chapters in a particular way, go with that. You may not yet be able to explain why, but as you write them, it will become clearer to you (and to your readers). You do not have to know exactly what your argument is when you start writing a chapter, any chapter. You know this — often you figure out what you were arguing only when you get to the end of an essay (in this case, a chapter). That’s OK! This could very well happen with your dissertation as a whole, too. Maybe you have an argument up front, and others emerge along the way. That’s OK, too. Maybe your argument changes completely. It’s alright. Keep writing those chapters. Share them with your writing group. They will help you see the arguments, too. My adviser told me — at my dissertation defense, no less — to think of it as a “voyage of discovery.” Honestly, when I heard that at my defense, after completing the whole darn thing, I felt deflated (to say the least). But now, with time and space, I agree that it was — and continues to be — a voyage of discovery, in the best possible way.

5. Anticipate the job market black hole, and plan accordingly. By this, I mean writing cover letters, research statements, and teaching statements, keeping track of recommendation letters, and (hopefully) preparing for interviews and campus visits. This will eat up weeks (or months) of your life. Depending on the field you’re in, you may be swamped with applications from mid-August or mid-September until mid-November. This is its own form of intellectual work. You have to try on many different hats as a scholar, and you have to test many different hats on your dissertation in progress. When you are in the middle of it, the market is the worst. Managing Interfolio and tracking letters of reference and creating a 15-page writing sample (for example) — all of those things aren’t terribly creative or interesting, but they are terribly time-consuming. I had a hard time doing any work on my dissertation while I was on the market. I applied for jobs, and then I applied some more. I wrote a few conference papers. But I had also anticipated this, and I had worked hard the summer before to finish the bulk of my writing. The more you can write before the job market hits, the better off you’ll be. (Also because then you will be that much closer to finishing your dissertation, which helps your postdoc/job chances.)

6. Take breaks. The dissertation long haul is stressful, and exhausting, and an emotional roller coaster. It can be isolating and unforgiving. Find your own meaning of balance; find your own ways to nurture yourself and stay healthy and well. Maybe it’s a daily walk. Maybe it’s a month-long writing session followed by a week of reading novels and watching Netflix. Maybe it’s a weekly chat with a faraway friend. But remember, this is the long haul. And to survive — and thrive — in the long haul, you have to create a sustainable pace for yourself. Yourself. Know that your pace may be very different from that of your peers, and your other grad school friends, and even the members of your writing group. That’s OK. Figure out what works for you, put your fingers on the keyboard, and…

7. Keep writing. The previous suggestions don’t matter much unless you’re writing. Writing should be ongoing: take notes when you’re reading your sources or performing your analysis. Take notes when you read secondary literature. The act of putting your thoughts into words helps you figure out exactly what you are thinking. It may be tempting to do more analysis without writing, to visit another archive, or to keep reading new books and articles. But the sooner you begin writing, the smoother the process will be. I found useful Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Some of my friends set a writing word count goal per day. Others swear by the Pomodoro Technique. Different approaches may work for you at different times. Just keep writing.

A few closing thoughts: I am a historian. While this advice was written primarily for those in the humanities and social sciences, I hope some of it will be relevant to those working in other fields. I also believe that greater transparency in the graduate school process improves the entire experience for everyone involved, and I have written this with a desire to help those who are currently grad students. To that end, I invite others to weigh in with constructive advice for surviving the dissertation long haul. I offer thanks and gratitude to Amy Johnson for inspiring this essay, and to my writing group — Mary Brazelton, David Singerman, and Emily Wanderer — for making the time to read and offer suggestions on this (and so much else).