What I’ve Learned From Writing My Dissertation . . . So Far

Leonid Pasternak, Throes of Creation
Leonid Pasternak, Throes of Creation

I’ve been actively writing my dissertation for just over 4 weeks now. I had done a significant amount of research and translation of primary sources (oh, the translations – I have a single-spaced document with my own translations of all of the relevant primary sources that currently stands at 57 pages) prior to beginning the writing phase. Also, this 4 weeks includes taking off almost a full week of writing when family came to visit.

As of writing this post, I have over 15,000 words written. The combination of text and footnotes puts me currently at 48 pages. I’m not sure how that compares to the pace of other writers. I know that it’s quite a bit slower than my normal pace of writing, but it’s going well. I’ve read a lot about how one should write – enough to know that there is no single answer (aside, of course, from sitting down and actually writing). Should I write 20 minutes every day or 2 hours? Should I write every day or only during the week? There is no shortage of those who are willing to offer their answers as gospel, but what I have learned over a decade of post-high school education is that the best way for me to write is my way.

That looks different than some and I often break many conventional rules. For instance, I edit, look up sources, and input footnotes during my writing [GASP!]. The nature of the chapter I’m currently writing means that every day or so is a new mini-research project that requires the acquisition of new sources. Some will say that I should simply put in [CITATION] where one is needed or come back during a distinct editing time to drop in that quote. For me, though, that just seems to create more work for later when it will take me much less time to do it now than later when I have to go back to where I was, remember the quote I wanted, determine if I worded the surrounding text appropriately, etc.

My writing strategy is nothing special.  Contrary to the rumors a friend of mine is apparently spreading, I am not “basically done” with my dissertation. I came into the summer with a healthy amount of research and a well-thought-out outline. I made a goal to write X number of pages over the summer and promised myself – and, by extension, my wife – to only write on weekdays (I have a life outside of academia that I love and I want to keep it that way). As a result of my progress so far, I have been able to increase my summer page goal. I have one day where I wrote almost 3,000 words. I have another day with only 39. And that’s okay for me. An arbitrary daily word count only ensures that I will keep writing just to write when a day’s task has already been appropriately completed.

My experience in academia has not been as long or varied as many, but it has been long enough to see the ubiquitousness of particularly mindset: as an academic You should always be working/writing. There is a pervasive mentality that academics should not take time off. They should work every day, even weekends. Vacations should be done so that research can happen concurrently. Many (especially graduate students) offer humblebrags about how late they stayed up, how many all-nighters they have pulled, or how they never take a day off. I got in to academia and I research early Christianity because I love it, true, but it’s also a job (if you can call what I have now a “job” – and I hope it leads to a “real” job in the not-too-distant future). I have a wife with whom I enjoy spending time. We often eat 3 meals together in a day. We watch (probably way too much) HGTV. We’ve started playing tennis. I like to travel. I like to run. I like to ride my bike. I have friends. Work is important, but it’s also important to set boundaries, even more so when your work is also a passion.

You’ll notice that this mentality among academics differs with what most non-academics think of academics; namely, that they teach 2 or 3 classes and then hang out at a coffee shop for the rest of the day reading Karl Marx. This, even as new research is simply confirming what we have always know: “Professors work long days, on weekends, on and off campus, and largely alone.”

So, what have I learned?

1. My way of writing works for me; it may not work for others. It’s amazing how much you can get written when you sit down and write instead of reading other people tell you how to write.

2. Setting boundaries has meant that I’ve been productive and been able to take much needed breaks to go to the beach or a baseball game.

3. Good time management is essential. This has always been a strong suit of mine (I’m leading a roundtable/workshop on it at AAR in San Diego in November), but it’s even more important during the summer when I have all this “free time” and have to make my own schedule, be my own motivation, set my own deadlines, etc.

4. Writing a dissertation can actually be a fun process. To hear some academics speak, you’d think the dissertation process necessitates that one come through it with scars, a horror story, and talk of a life-changing experience. Maybe it’s because I’m only 15,000 words in, or maybe it’s because I like what I’m writing about (hint: I write a lot about sex), but I’ve quite enjoyed my writing so far. To be sure, some days are less enjoyable than others, but on the whole it’s been fun so far. This may change. Stay tuned.

What do I have left to learn about this process? What did you learn?

Bonus: You can get occasional insights into what I’m writing on on a given day or during a given week, if you follow me on Twitter.

2 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned From Writing My Dissertation . . . So Far

  1. My writing strategy is nothing special.A goal to write X number of pages over the summer and promised myself – and, by extension, my wife – to only write on weekdays. Information collecting blog is very helpful and nice.

  2. I recently defended my graduate thesis. As I was actually writing the thing, I struggled to find a method that worked for me.

    At times I went with the popular academic idea that “YOU SHOULD ALWAYS BE WORKING”. I found that this mentality works spectacularly well for me . . . for approximately a week and a half. After that I am so stressed out that I can’t produce anything. (And truth be told, the work done in the last half-week is worthless!)

    Over the long haul, I find it is important to prioritize personal activities, shooting for at least an hour or so a day. Spending time socializing, exercising, and playing is important not only for personal life enjoyment, but to maintaining the ability to work effectively. I’m sure some psychologist somewhere could tell you why – all I know is it works for me!

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