I just completed the final draft of my dissertation and as a teacher who promotes reflection, I should practice what I preach for my own benefit and hopefully others as well. While I will never write another dissertation, it is likely that long-term research projects and writing books based on those projects is in my academic future. I know that a dissertation is not a book and vice versa but enough parallels exist that I should record the lessons I learned from this experience.
Writing a dissertation is exciting and exhilarating and fun – at times. There are also times when it is hard physical and mental labor that leaves you drained and twitchy. Writing a dissertation is a mixture of discovery and drudgery. Even though I received a great deal of advice, I was still unprepared for the process. I don’t know that you can ever be truly prepared. You can receive training and preparation and advice, but in the end you need to get your head in a certain place and no one can control that except you. But enough of the zen and more of the practical.
If I had to sum up the most important lesson that I wish I understood going in one word that would be: recursive. I was told repeatedly that a dissertation is a recursive document but until I understood that writing the dissertation is also recursive I still struggled. It is not a linear experience but rather a tightening spiral with your final dissertation message as the epicenter. I am sure that if I had realized this sooner in my process then the writing and revision of my dissertation would have been much less painful. Think of preparing your reading list and preproposal and taking your qualifying exams as a large loop that then gradually loops inward as you plan your research and craft your proposal. The collection and analysis of your data creates another inward loop until finally you reach the central point, lesson, or finding of your work – your take-away message. After you have worked through your results and analysis and worked out that take-away it is much easier to go back and work through the other chapters. Maybe doing so would save you some of the wheel-spinning and revision that I had to do by thinking too linear.
A more practical (rather than conceptual) piece of advice that I cannot stress enough (and a primary reason I was able to get through this process in a timely fashion) is that timing is everything. Give yourself time. Dissertation writing, in my experience, requires large chunks of prime time, but of course, mileage may vary according to the driver. I needed large chunks of time to read-think-process-write. During course work I frequently had large projects/papers but nothing on this scale and I learned early on that the work habits and practices that moved me through course work would not work for dissertation work. Writing a dissertation is different from writing a paper or article. In my opinion it is better to carve out one or two large time blocks a week than five smaller time blocks a week because I found that in small time block it took me too long to get to the place I needed to get (by reading, thinking etc.) to be productive. Mileage may vary for those who have chunks of time during the day to productively think (runners, for example, or commuters) without distraction, but as family and work demands fill all my waking hours the only time I could really focus was during the dedicated blocks of dissertation time. I aimed for three or four large time blocks a week. Sometimes I got them and some weeks I couldn’t. Fortunately, my family was supportive of this endeavor and I was able to adjust my work schedule to accommodate dissertation time. Finally, as I mentioned early on you should strive for locating those chunks of time for your prime time. When are you most alert, focused, and at your best (mentally and physically)? For me this is morning. As I teach primarily online (at least that is what I requested during this process) I was able to perform most of my teaching functions in the afternoon and evening and could then dedicate my mornings to dissertation work.
I’d love to hear about others’ experiences to see if their recommendations and advice compare or differ.