When I was a graduate student, I frequently heard stories of English A.B.D.s languishing perpetually in a dissertation purgatory, paralyzed by the weight of their projects. I almost never heard anyone say, “The dissertation took months of hard work, but it was also manageable and even kind of fun.” So, if you’re just starting the process, I am here to tell you just that: the dissertation is totally do-able. And having recently finished my diss (clocking in at just under ten months!), I have some suggestions on how to make the project a little easier:
Know your work habits, and pick a dissertation chair with complementary work habits. My dissertation chair and I communicated our work habits before deciding we would work together. Turns out, we both really like deadlines. That meant that when I promised a chapter by March 1, I sent it on March 1; similarly, when she promised me feedback within two weeks, I actually got it in two weeks. I would have gone crazy with a chair who took a more relaxed approach to advising—whereas you might feel the opposite.
Remember that each dissertation chapter is basically the same length as a seminar paper. Telling myself I was writing five linked seminar papers felt a lot easier than telling myself I was writing a dissertation. By that point, I’d written plenty of seminar papers! When I finished each chapter, I celebrated it the way I would have celebrated the completion of a seminar paper: with a day or two to relax before moving on.
Don’t think of the dissertation as a book. It’s just a dissertation—a stepping stone to completing the Ph.D. In my dissertation defense, my committee and I talked about how I could turn the project into a book—what publishers might be interested, how I could expand the case studies, etc. But until that point, I thought of my committee members as my only audience, and I thought of the dissertation as this really long paper I needed to finish to get my Ph.D….not the monograph that would make me famous in the rhet/comp world. That comes later!
If you can, take some time off from, well, everything to write your dissertation. I know this isn’t feasible for everyone, but I really benefited from taking a semester “off” to write my dissertation. Having to explain to my non-academic friends and family that I was a full-time Dissertation Writer made me treat the project with the same reverence as any other full-time job. An awareness that I was choosing to forgo five months’ income also held me accountable every morning when I shuffled over to my computer and sat down to write. In addition, I had no distractions: no student papers to grade… no emails that “needed” attending… With this focused effort, I probably completed the project in a fraction of the time it would have taken me if I’d stretched it out alongside other work.
Of course, you’ll encounter hurdles in your writing process (my biggest ones were the fatigue and morning sickness of early pregnancy!), but the dissertation horror stories you hear come from loud outliers. Don’t let them scare you. It’s a dissertation, that’s all. All these people did it, so reach out to them if you’re feeling frustrated—but know that you can do it, too.
Jessica Estep received her Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition from Georgia State University in December 2017. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College.
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