On Dissertating

Mar 01 2012 Published by under Academia

It seems to me that my Twitter feed has filled, a little more than usual, with young scientists writing the dreaded dissertation. This always takes me back (ok, it was like 1.5 years ago. Whatever) to that dreaded time when I, too, was writing the dissertation and wishing passionately for an end to the PhD.

Dissertating SUCKS. It's a group of people, older and (you think) wiser than you, all wanting to know just HOW much you can do, HOW well can you reason, and WHY can't you reason well ENOUGH? WHY didn't you think of that control back in your second year?! HOW could you have never read the suddenly incredibly important tiny work of literature that was never important before? Is that a misplaced "that/which" distinction?!?!?! All this culminates in a defense of your work while the committee in front of you does their best to (you hope) give you a thorough critique, but really it kind of feels like they are trying to squish you like a bug. Heck, there's even a snake fight.

Gather round, my friends.

It's a time which has many people on the constant edge of panic. When the emails from your advisor can actually induce physical shakes and nausea. It's an isolating time, as you hide in your office (some groups give you an office for this), a coffee shop, your house, wherever you can find a semblance of quiet. You work for hours and hours, making tiny increments of progress as the terrifying specter of the due date hangs over your head. You think of nothing but your dissertation. You talk of nothing but your dissertation. You BREATHE IT. You DREAM IT. You write poetry about it. You grow pale as you hide from the sun, and nervous and unhealthy as you subsist on coffee and free food.

But fear not, all ye who dissertate. Sci has been there. If I can do it, so can YOU. And I have some advice. It may not work for everyone (anecdotal advice, not data), but it worked for me, and it's helped some my friends. So here are some tips on

Surviving, and thriving, during your dissertation

1) Find a writing buddy. It could be someone you know online. It could be a friend who is writing as well. They don't have to be writing a dissertation, they could be writing a paper, studying for quals, whatever. It could be someone writing a NOVEL (heck, my dissertation was about that long). The important thing is that this is someone who helps you be accountable. Sci wrote her dissertation in the company of a dear friend who was writing hers. We were in totally different fields. That didn't matter. I wasn't there for sciencey speak (what do I know about microbiology?!). I was there for companionship. Seeing another face close to a laptop screen can help drive you to focus as well. There's someone next to you egging you on. There's someone to laugh with when you're crazy with caffeine. And there's someone with you to go for burritos when you can't take it anymore. A writing buddy made all the difference in my mental health. I won't say dissertating was FUN, but it...wasn't completely horrid.

2) Take a BREAK. You know that moment you get when your head in going in circles and you can't remember that citation and crap where did i put that comma and all the wordsareblendingtogetherohgod? Take a break. If you have a pet, go spend time with it. If you have a hobby, go do it. Sci's running partner kept her going out many days. Break the cycle of panic. Do something else. An hour or two of going out with a friend for dinner, going running, or reading a novel will not sink the ship of your dissertation. And it WILL help clear your head when you need it most.

3) Get good food. I'll be the first to admit the majority of my dissertation nutrition base was burritos and Reese's minis. I think I ate SIX BAGS of Reese's minis. And every other day was a burrito. At least. But I also stopped by the salad bar. Sometimes, when you're feeling crappy, a salad really DOES help, at least you feel a little healthier. And eating badly is only going to make your stomach go nuts, which will only make for distracted dissertation writing. It won't be easy, but try to mix it up.

4) Seek support. This is key. Dissertating can be VERY isolating, and things like emails from your advisor take on a lot more salience than pretty much anything else. Seek support to help you put it in perspective. Call your friends, talk to people who defended before you. Talk to your significant other. Email. See if previous grad students can start a tradition of thesis care packages. Remember, a meetup for coffee or an hour on the phone will not kill your dissertation, and it may be the thing you need to clear your head and keep you going. Don't be afraid to seek support!

5) Prepare and plan. Most of this takes place long before you begin writing. Sci recommends organizing your thoughts in a Bible, like so. Regardless of how you organized before, it is just as important to organize NOW. Make a timeline. All the way up to the turnin date. What's a reasonable amount of time for each section? Or how many pages do you need to write per day? Make sure you leave time for edits. Sci wrote out her timeline and did her best to meet her deadlines. I met most of them. It made a BIG difference.

Then make a list. A big one. Of what you have to do on your dissertation. Say it breaks down like this:

Introduction (review of the lit)
Paper 1
Paper 2
Paper 3

Take that list and put it somewhere where you don't have to look at it. Because if you look at that list and realize that each chunk represents 30 or more pages? Well that's when you panic. Instead, take that list, and break. it. up. Into manageable chunks. Break it up by week, or by day, or by section. Break it up so it makes sense to you. Some people may choose to tackle all their methods sections or all their references at once. Some may choose to do it a paper at a time. Make a list that looks MANAGEABLE, and cross things out as you finish. Don't try to put everything on your list for one week, look at your timeline you made up there. Prioritize accordingly. Put the stuff that needs to get done on your list, and start crossing stuff off. Every once in a while, you'll realize you've finished one of the big items on your list! This continues to work even as you go through edits, you can break down the edits into sections so it doesn't look so daunting. As you cross them off, you can feel a little bit of productivity that makes you feel like you're getting somewhere.

6) Don't JUST WRITE. I can't emphasize this enough. Don't hide yourself away until you go nuts and start crying when you see lint. See your friends. Work out. Play with your dog. Do something OTHER than writing, every single day. It may seem like you're wasting time, but that time you spend relaxing will translate to much more focus when you work. Don't. just. write. Do something mindless for a while, and your brain will thank you. Some people have to do this, as they have families and plenty of other obligations to break up the writing. If you do, try to make sure you have a little time to yourself as well, to spend with people who make you feel better.

And remember. You can do it. They let you get this far, and they'll let you defend. By now, you are the expert in this little tiny slice of your field. This is your chance to show what you know, and what you can contribute. And you CAN. And you will.


12 responses so far

  • You missed the most important thing: - Rewards! Set goals on Sunday with promised rewards on Friday or Saturday. 🙂

  • DJMH says:

    7. If you're writing at home, the most critical thing is to find a way that both the cat and the laptop can fit together in your lap. I recommend a barcalounger.

  • Jacquelyn says:

    This is so helpful, you have no idea. Okay, you probably do, and I wish I had something more salient to say than "OMGTHANKYOU," but...I've been dissertating.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Sure, there's the science and the writing and all the intellectual stuff. But you know what will happen if you're not careful?

    Formatting will kick your ass.

    Thesis formatting requirements are apparently created by the most obsessive compulsive individuals who were associated with your campus at any time in the previous century. They are stringent and finicky and enforced by people who are not on your thesis committee and care not one iota for how many pipette tips went into the making of this tome.

    For instance, instructions usually call for complex combinations of pagination that include unnumbered pages, pages numbered with lower case Roman numerals, pages numbered with Arabic numerals... in some cases centered at the bottom and in some cases in the upper right corner.

    And don't get me started on indices.

    You will plumb depths of your word processing software that you never knew existed. So take time to learn the ins and outs of creating sections, headings, footers, and so on.

    • Scicurious says:

      OMG I can't believe I forgot this. YES THIS.

      I scheduled in THREE DAYS for formatting. I needed all three of them. Let this be a lesson unto you all.

      • Zen Faulkes says:

        I did it as I went, learning and solving problems as they occurred.

        I always want to see it in as close to final format while I'm writing, because text feels different to me when it's in different formats. Weird, I know, but I've seen other writers talk about it, so it's not just me.

        • PBG says:

          I did it as I went as well, and I also think it helped to feel like a section was truly "done".

          I was very proud when the formatting critique came back and I had missed one indentation and one comma. Had it not been 8 am, I would have gone out for a beer. Instead I bought myself a fancy coffee drink.

  • M A Greenstein says:

    Golden ABD Mantra:

    "5 hours or 5 pages. Now take a well deserved body break."

    This got me thru a 439 page dissertation on mind - body integration 😉

    Ps Great and key suggestions offered by the author!!!

  • Emily DeVoto says:

    My university had a free dissertation support group. There were 8 or 10 of us who met every week, I think, led by a counselor, to set goals and check in on them. Writing a dissertation is one of the most isolating things you can do (see #4 above), so it's brilliant to know you're not alone in the process, even if it feels that way.

  • I... did not follow a single one of these "rules". I hope that doesn't bode poorly for my defense...

    Although, I think the requirement that I still had to show up to lab everyday made a big difference. I suspect things are a lot different if you're writing at home and don't leave your apartment for two weeks.

  • PBG says:

    I wrote a thesis rather than a dissertation, but most of these guidelines are helpful for that as well. My partner required that if I was going to work on my thesis every day, at least one night a week, I had to do something else. Watch a movie, hang out with friends, read a book, something. It really helped with the burnout.

    I will add one thing that seems plain but many don't do it: Back up your data! For the love of Darwin, back up your data. You do not want to be in the situation where you lose an entire rough draft because the thumb drive failed. I backed my writing drafts up to three different places, but forgot to back up my graphs. That meant when the graph files corrupted themselves, I had to redo them all. Not a stress I needed at that moment.

    Oh, and definitely eat right. I made it through with a copious amount of Nerds, but I also ate lots of fruit and veg.

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