The Big One: Writing a Dissertation

Davis: So first off tell me your name and use like whatever title you want, I guess you could say Dr. Karen Davis now…

KAREN: Oh my goodness. I don’t know if I can say that out loud if it’s so real. My name is– really, doctor, you want me to say that?

Davis: Yeah.

KAREN: OK. All right. My name is Dr. Karen Davis. I defended my dissertation one week ago today.

Karen was a consultant here at the writing center while pursuing her Ph.D in philosophy. Even though she tutored plenty of grad students in her time here, when she started grad school, she still didn’t know if she was even cut out for grad school life. Karen experienced something that a lot of students on Ph.D. tracks experience — she thought she wouldn’t finish.

KAREN: Honestly I thought I’m not up to this. [00:04:13] This isn’t for me. I can’t do this. And it seemed like nothing in my undergrad career had actually prepared me to do the kind of thinking and writing that grad school required of me. I guess I expected grad school to be like undergrad on steroids. And I treated it that way in my first year and then I realized the nature of the beast is just different. It’s not undergrad on steroids. It’s a completely different kind of learning endeavor.

And this was just in her graduate course work — Karen hadn’t even started writing her dissertation yet. But eventually the time did come for Karen to start writing, and, well, even though she thought she had some great ideas, developing a dissertation out of those ideas wasn’t that simple.

KAREN: “I started my dissertation project so many times I had to get it wrong many times before I got it right. And — because I thought I had this great idea, I thought I had it all figured out, and I didn’t at all have it all figured it out. So really it took me like a whole year of getting it wrong before I figured out even what my project was.”

Getting it wrong is part of the process. You don’t know what your dissertation will be until you, well, until you know. Karen is a humanities, and in that field there isn’t predefined data to work off of — you have to just feel around in the dark for a while before you land on the right fit for your research. That can be frustrating. Karen would write a proposal, show it to one of her committee members and then that committee member would point out something wrong with it, and she’d have to start all over.

Karen: “and that’s not even to speak of starting the actual writing process which is something else that no one has any idea how to do [00:15:12] Nothing that I had done in graduate coursework actually taught me how to write a dissertation. And it took me a long time to figure that out.”

Writing a dissertation is unlike anything else that we do as students. For most of our education we’re used to going to class, doing homework, having deadlines, but once you reach the dissertation stage of a Ph.D. program, that all goes out the window. Suddenly it’s just you, your ideas, and the blank page; no deadlines, no accountability, no structure. Many students aren’t prepared for the lifestyle change they need to make in order to keep writing in those conditions. Like I said earlier — this is something a lot of students in Ph.D. programs go through. In fact, nearly half of those who begin a Ph.D. program drop out before they finish their dissertation. Most of the time, candidates have completed all of the required course work, but they just can’t get through the writing. So that’s what we’re talking about today — dissertation writing. What is it? How does it work? And how can you do it better?

NICK: “Yeah so the dissertation is a pretty unwieldy beast of a document and it’s also a little strange in that it doesn’t actually resemble a genre that most people will encounter more than just when they’re trying to finish their Ph.D.”

That’s Nick Cenegy, an administrator here at the UWC. One of his roles is managing our Dissertation, Article, and Thesis Assistance program.

NICK: “Basically what I’m getting at is a dissertation is exactly what your committee wants it to be, and that is part of the challenge.”

Ph.D. candidates work with a committee — a group of professors and experts. They’re there to make sure your dissertation is in line with the expectations of your discipline. Part of writing a dissertation is showing that you’re ready to be scholar in the field that you’re writing in, that you can contribute to the larger academic conversation in that field. For people in scientific fields, that could look like running experiments or publishing several journal articles and compiling them into one document. For Ph.D. candidates in the liberal arts, dissertations may start to look like a book, whether that’s exploring a scholarly topic or working on a creative project. Either way, writing a dissertation shows that you’re ready to join the scholarly community. Here’s Dr. Candace Hastings.

CANDACE: “I’m the director of the Texas A&M University Writing Center.”

You may remember her from our first episode of Write Right when we talked about writer’s block. I’m talking to Candace because she’s known around the writing center as the dissertation whisperer. If you need help writing a dissertation she is the person to talk to.

CANDACE: “Part of a dissertation, part of writing a dissertation — and this has to do with writing articles and seminar papers as well — but part of writing a dissertation is really learning the academic rhetoric of a discipline is well. The shape of the dissertation is going to be reflective for the most part of what scholars in a particular discipline value regarding structure.”

That’s everything from your prose style and organization, all the way to your citation style and the type of evidence you use. Different disciplines value different ways of presenting and studying information, and that can be hard to learn. You really just have to read a lot and pay careful attention to the conventions most common in your field. Those conventions are a part of what’s called the ‘rhetorical situation.’

CANDACE: “If I were speaking to a five-year-old I would say: If you are speaking to your teacher and you wanted a piece of cake, how would you ask? Right. You would probably be more formal. If you were at your best friend’s house and you wanted a piece of cake, how would you ask for that piece of cake? We have many many different ways of communicating in different situations and and the rhetorical situation that you choose or the rhetorical situation that you’re going to operate in is going to be in the language of the scholars in your field.”

So not only do dissertation writers have to learn how to write in their rhetorical situation, but they also just… have to write. And that’s not easy, especially when you’re proposing a new idea or approach, as you’re often doing in a dissertation. On top of that, it’s your dissertation! It’s the thing that either makes you a doctor or not a doctor. In terms of academic projects, it’s the big one. The stakes are high, and the pressure? The pressure can mount. Here’s Nick again.

NICK: “This is a time for students when they’ve completed all of the sort of aggregation of knowledge, you know, they’ve actually gone through a bunch of classes, they’ve taken a big test that says that they have mastered all of these major concepts that sort of constitute a particular discipline and now they’re sort of off floating out in the middle of almost nothing, just out there in the ether kind of floating.” “It’s a very isolating experience. So I would say that’s one of the major themes that I’ve noticed at least in my work with dissertation students.”

Everyone I talked to — Candace, Karen, Nick — they all said the same thing: writing a dissertation feels like you’re doing something monumental all by yourself.

KAREN: “The worst part of my dissertation writing process was about a month maybe a year in where I fell into a deep depression. I had to get a lot of professional help therapy and medication and I just found the work very isolating and not rewarding. [28.7] I knew at that point that my heart was really in teaching and I had a dissertation fellowship so I wasn’t teaching, I was getting paid just to write my dissertation, and that’s when I learned about myself that I couldn’t just sit in my office and write and read books and write. I needed to feel like I was connecting with and helping other people. So that was a big part, a big, like, factor in how I experienced the whole dissertation writing process, and it was definitely the worst part. I thought that my dissertation was something I had to do on my own, and I don’t know what gave me that idea, because it’s insane! I could not do it on my own. It’s — the work itself is too difficult and too isolating. You need to reach out to other people and you don’t need to do it on your own.”

Often times Ph.D. candidates will form writing and support groups, sometimes by themselves, and other times through student counseling departments or writing centers. That’s why we have the DATA program and our writing groups here at the UWC — so you don’t have to write alone.

NICK: “That type of community can be really powerful. In the writing group that I do, which is a writing group that generally focuses on producing text for an actual manuscript for a dissertation, that’s one comment that I get a lot is that this group, over the snack table, got a chance to just talk and commiserate about feeling like they’re just off floating, you know, that they were building up to something really important and then all of the sudden the ground kind of fell out from under them and now they’re here having to write.”

Keeping yourself in a community of writers and scholars can help you feel less alone as you’re working on such a big project, no matter the discipline. Here’s Candace again.

CANDACE: “It’s easy to get overwhelmed especially if you don’t have a lot of guidance work you know you float off like a balloon and unless you have somebody holding that string it’s just easy to fly away.”

So that’s one strategy to completing your dissertation. Write with someone else, join a writing group. But even then:

CANDACE: “You know what, sometimes just showing up is good enough. Don’t always be superperson. Just show up. Show up and do the work.”

That’s the first step to getting anything done. You start doing it. You don’t have to have the whole project written in your head before you starting writing out onto the page.

CANDACE: “I think one of the strategies is what can I do today what what is it that I can do today and it might not be a big thing but if it’s a little thing that I’m moving forward” one of the things that I say that I swear by this technique is for some reason students want to they lay out all their tasks and they say this is the hardest thing so I’m going to do it first. No don’t do that. Of all the tasks you have and if you’re starting you know you’re not you don’t have any momentum built up you start with the easiest thing first that that is the only thing you think about: “this is easy I’m going to do this.” Then you find the next easiest thing the next easiest thing and pretty soon you’ve already done the hard thing right.”

“Everybody is always worried about the big problems, the big things. It’s not the big things it’s not the big things; you take care of every little thing and that is the big thing.”

Karen told me she got much more productive when she started working this way. As she put it: you have to write small.

KAREN: “A lot of it was cyclical because I couldn’t keep the big idea in mind as I was trying to write each little part. So I would do my best with the little parts and then I’d have to reread the whole that I had come up with and reassess, “wait a second I’m heading in the wrong direction.” Or, you know, these couple of sections are not even relevant to what I’m trying to say.”

Again, you don’t have to write a dissertation alone. Karen found more success by bouncing her ideas off of other people.

KAREN: “And for most of that sort of cyclical process of working small and then thinking big and working small again I needed a lot of help. I worked with my advisor; I worked with a coach in the writing center. I had, you know, colleagues that I talked it through with. I had so many conversations about what are you trying to say, what are you trying to say and then sort of looking closely at what I had said and trying to make those line up.”

As students we’re used to summarizing and explaining other people’s ideas in relatively short formats, but that’s just not how a dissertation works — dissertations are about your research and your ideas, and it’s long. Like sometimes the length of a book. In a dissertation you’re taking on more material in more depth than you ever have before as a student.

KAREN: One of the biggest differences between dissertation writing and the other writing that I had done in graduate school is the context and the size of the project. It’s so big and you have to be careful to define your scope really well and keep the whole in mind the whole time you’re writing all the little parts and that is necessarily a back and forth intuitive sort of process where you’re thinking about the small parts and how they fit into the big idea. [46.4]

But even just taking on the writing process may come easier to some students than others. Students in the humanities are pretty used to longer form writing projects, though they normally don’t come close to a dissertation in scope. But students in the sciences often don’t think of themselves as writers. Candace says that can make it a lot harder to jump into the dissertation.

CANDACE: “A new habit I would suggest: think of yourself as a writer. Because a lot of people are scientists or social scientists or, you know, depends on what field you’re in but you think of yourself as a researcher but you don’t think of yourself as a writer. Writing is your priority, especially after you’ve gathered the data. Writing should be your number one, you know, beyond a lot of other things.”

So when Candace, Karen, and Nick told me about these strategies — not writing alone, thinking big and writing small, and thinking of yourself as a writer — I thought they were kind of simple ideas, even if they seemed to do a lot. But as I was wrapping up my conversation with Karen, she told me about something so simple that, personally, I think it’s genius.

KAREN: The last thing that I want to say that got me through my dissertation is a sticker chart. I gave myself stickers. I have stars and sea creatures and jungle animals. And I gave myself stickers on my calendar for you know accomplishing small goals like I worked on my dissertation for a full hour today sticker. And you know then I had a scale every so many stickers. I got a reward. Sometimes it was you know cake or a pedicure or new clothes just the sorts of things that graduate students deprived themselves of because they’re trying to be good people and not waste money. You have to reward yourself with those things when you’re writing a dissertation. And I have to say the you know going back to kindergarten and using a sticker chart got me through my dissertation.

So, yeah, dissertations can suck, but there are ways to get through them. Even as horrible as Karen felt as she started writing, she still came out on the other end. She is Dr. Karen Davis now and she feels proud! KAREN: Really I think the best part about taking my time and doing the dissertation a little more slowly is that I wrote something that I feel confident is the best thing I’ve ever done and it’s something I believe in more than anything else. And anyone who reads that dissertation Not that anyone will read it but anyone who reads that dissertation will know who I am because I put myself into that work and it is good. I you know I just I know it. And that feeling is incredible. You know usually when you write something it’s like at the end of the semester and maybe the night before probably you’ve had too little sleep and too much coffee and you feel like OK it’s good enough it’s done I’ll turn it in. With my dissertation like I’ve never felt this way about writing. It’s just it’s good. It’s mine and that feels really good. [96.0]

This has been an episode of Write Right, a production of the Texas A&M University Writing Center, a service of the Department of Undergraduate Studies. My name is Davis Land and I wrote and produced this episode. I had editorial help from Nancy Vazquez, Flo Davies, and Nick Cenegy. If you’re a Texas A&M Student we offer online and in person consultations about your papers, presentations, and anything else that involves communicating clearly. You can find us online at and on Twitter @tamuwc.