The Seven Lessons for Writing a Dissertation

Posted: November 21, 2012 in Uncategorized
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I’ve been working pretty hard lately, and the pages are starting to add up. Sometime over the next week or so, I’ll hit a third digit. I’m in the home stretch, as they say. Which is terrifying in and of itself. But while I’m here, I thought I’d look around and write down the observations I have in the form of advice. So think of this as advice from me to someone who is just getting started with their dissertation.

So, you’re ready to get started. Great. Let me put a few things out there for you to keep in the back of your mind:

1. Calm down. Seriously. I know it feels like what you have in front of you is the most important thing you’ve ever done and the most important thing you’ll ever do. You probably think you have to write a book, or the seminal piece in whatever field. You’re about to become an expert, and you don’t see how you’re going to do that. Chill out. Take a breath. You already are an expert. You wouldn’t be at this point if you weren’t. Your adviser has made sure of that. And what you’re writing isn’t the be-all end-all. It’s just another paper. A longer, more in depth one, but still just a paper. This isn’t a book. Maybe, after you finish, defend, and get a job, you’ll take some of it and make a book, but this isn’t it.

2. Seriously, you’re an expert. I know you feel like you’re not. You feel like there’s so much out there you don’t know, so much you haven’t read. It’s still right there in your mind, all those memories of times you had conversations with people, colleagues or professors, and they would name some author you’d never heard of. It made you feel like you didn’t know anything, like you didn’t have the research you needed. But think about it. Really think. In those most recent memories, how often have you named an author other people don’t know? How often have you known the author they’re talking about? You’re an expert. I promise.

3. Don’t worry about how many sources you have. I know you’re panicking. You looked at a book and found that in 300 pages, there were 350 sources. If you’re going to write 200 pages, that means you need 233.3333. Well, first off, stop doing that kind of math. It’s not precise. There isn’t a formula. Second, that’s a book. You’re not writing a book (see number 1). And third, you’ve probably got more sources than you think. Back when I was at 90 pages, I had 64 sources, and that wasn’t counting attributing all the pictures I used to illustrate points.

4. Write what you want to read. If you’re not a qualitative researcher, don’t do that. Write the kind of work you can feel confident about, the kind you can enjoy, and the kind that you would want to see added to the world. The rest will come. I promise. You won’t be able to write without adding in quotes. You’ll say something, and then you’ll realize that it should be supported. And, more importantly, you’ll know what to support it with. That’s because you’re an expert. See?
5. Pick an audience. I know we talk about audience a lot, and that’s because audience is important. Know who’s going to read your work. But I don’t mean that in the literal sense. Think who you want to read it. Your intended audience. Know who that is, and you’ll know what you need to explain and what you don’t. You’ll know what people bring with them when they read it, and you’ll know what lingo you have to define for them.

6. Your prospectus was just a guideline. All the stuff you said you were going to write may feel like some kind of binding, but it isn’t. Even if you outlined chapter by chapter, you don’t have to stick with it. That was just to show your committee where you were at the time, where you thought you were going. As you get deeper and deeper into the project, it’s okay that things started to change. That’s normal. Check in with your adviser and make sure you’re not too far off track. Mainly, though, go where the research takes you. Write what works for you.

7. Make sure your adviser is a lion. The right adviser will do more than just give you the advice above. The right adviser will also fight on your behalf if anyone on your committee disagrees. They’ll assure the other members that you did what they wanted, and they’ll remind the other members that your adviser’s opinion is the one that matters most.

There we go. That’s the best advice I can think of right now.

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