Notes from the Dissertation Desk #1
I’m going to start a new series on this blog sharing my journey through the dissertation writing/revising/defending process. Partly to have it as a reminder/diary of this journey but also partly because I’m realizing this is such a crazy, daunting, intimidating process and the more of us who share our experiences the more it might help future dissertators. (I think I made that word up, or spellcheck just doesn’t recognize it lol.)
I passed my colloquy at the end April, just before the semester ended (just in time!) and then gave myself the month of May to do some additional reading to fill in the gaps of my lit review in my prospectus. During the colloquy we (my committee and I) made some changes to the project. We dropped a category of women (no more cinematic fashion icons) and also really questioned the inclusion of memory studies to the project. We started to realize I wasn’t really looking at memory specifically, it was more of a related aspect but not a focus. So I did a bit of extra readings in the areas I felt I needed more sources as well as some sources that I discovered after my comp exam that I knew would be important to this project.
In the beginning of June I hit a point where I knew I needed to start writing but I just couldn’t get myself to do it. I had purchased a new MacBook Pro (I love it!) and downloaded Scrivener and had a lot of fun setting up the project in there. I had a good start with material from my prospectus but I just couldn’t figure out where to start. My advisor had told me to not start with Chapter 1 but I didn’t know how to just start with Chapter 2, my lit review chapter. The lit review from the prospectus didn’t fully work anymore since I was dropping memory studies. I was so confused. So, I did the thing that I always struggle to do…I asked for help.
Tip #1 - If you’re up against a wall, ask for help. Reach out to your advisor, mentor, fellow dissertators, whoever would be the best choice for the problem you’re dealing with.
I emailed my advisor and asked if we could meet up to discuss my dissertation. I’m lucky to have such an amazing advisor, she’s absolutely brilliant! We met up at Starbucks and went over what I had done since the colloquy and where I was at now and what problems I was having. I shared some of the new sources and the beginnings of my theoretical framework. Together we sorted out the new direction for my lit review (arranging by theme rather than by research area like the prospectus had been) and narrowed down what my case studies would actually be analyzing. This gave me a much better idea of what the dissertation would look like and how to get started.
The rest of June and part of July was spent drafting Chapter 2, it took longer than I thought it would. My sources just weren’t coming together as easily as I thought, and explaining my framework was very difficult. I’m still struggling with it to be honest. The second week of July I finally had a complete draft to send to my advisor. I knew it wasn’t perfect but it was ready for her to look at. I knew it needed a ton of work, but I needed someone to give me honest feedback. I started moving on to Chapter 3, my first case study, and that’s where I’m currently at.
For my dissertation I’m looking at four fashion icons in two categories, “First Ladies” Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama, and “Royals” Princess Diana and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. The case study in Chapter 3 is looking at my First Ladies and presidential inaugurations. I have the biographies and basic descriptions for each lady and outfit I’m examining in this chapter but now I have to actually do the analysis, and that’s what I’m struggling with. Meanwhile, I also got the feedback from my advisor about my draft of Chapter 2. Thankfully, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. Don’t get me wrong, there were a million track changes and comments, but they were pretty much what I was expecting and hoping for. I’m slowly working through them while also working on Chapter 3. I need to keep working on the theoretical framework and I think that will help me with the case study analysis.
Tip #2 - You will be your own worst critic. Your work is never as bad as you think it is. So when you get a full draft done, send it off for feedback, don’t torture yourself to make it “perfect” before letting someone see it.
So far one of the things that has been really helping me is setting two different types of goals each day: work time and word count. Every day I aim to work for 3 hours and to write (at the moment) about 800 words each day. The work time goal is important because you need time to sit and think about things. That time is spent writing, but it’s also spend reading things, searching for information, going through my notes, revising, etc. The more time you spend each day working on your dissertation, the more work you’ll get done. Some days I can reach my word goal in an hour, other days it takes the full 3 hours, but either way, the time is always worth it.
The word goal is important as well, because it gives me visible progress. I’m currently writing my dissertation using the program Scrivener, which lets me set a word target for the whole document and a deadline for finishing it, I can also decide that I’m only going to write Monday through Friday, the program then calculates how many words I need to write a day to meet my project target by my deadline. It’s brilliant! I currently have my total word goal higher than I think it will be, just to keep my daily goal a bit higher. Scrivener will also adjust my targets depending on how much (or little) I’m writing. If I miss a day, my daily target goes up. If I have a really productive day and go over my goal, my daily target goes down. It’s pretty nice.
Tip #3 - Set both a time goal and a word goal for the day. The two go hand in hand and will help you progress faster.
I also don’t worry about how “good” my words are. So often we feel like we have to make things perfect and we torture ourselves by editing every sentence as we go along. I’m learning to engage in free writing a bit more. Think of it this way…if you can spit out 1000 words every day (I’ve already written over 1000 in this blog post lol). Even if only 200 words of your work from each day is good and stays in the final draft, by the end of one week you’ll have 1000 words of “good” material. At that rate, within five weeks you’ll have 5000 words of good material, which is about the length of a typical published chapter (at least in my field, based on my limited publishing experience). Obviously it’s a little harder than this when you’re actually doing it, but it shows how even writing several hundred words a day, or breaking things up into smaller sections of text, it all adds up. Writer’s block will hit you, so factor in some time for that in your writing schedule. And also create a plan for what you will do to get back on track. When I’m stuck, I go back to my books, I scroll through my Pinterest boards for the project, I work on the revisions for Chapter 2, or I just step away and do something completely different for a bit. I’m still figuring out how to battle writer’s block, but I’m getting better.
That’s where I’m at now. I’m about 1/4 of the way through Chapter 3 and struggling a little to start the analysis. I feel like I’m finally starting to do the work I’ve been waiting years to do and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t freak me out a little bit. I’m not sure how frequently I’ll do these updates, probably just whenever there’s something to update or if I have any interesting observations or problems to share or discuss.
Are you writing a dissertation or thesis? Or have you completed it already? Would love to hear your experiences or tips if you have any.