Monday, March 2, 2009

How To Write A Dissertation

Last Friday I attended a workshop on how to write the dissertation. It was very general, in attempts to reach a broad audience. The speaker was from the humanities, where dissertation research is primarily done by going to different libraries. Still, some of the general points are good to keep in mind.
  • Choose your topic carefully. You will live with it for the rest of your life. It's possible to redefine yourself gradually over time, but as you go on the job market and prepare future research, your dissertation topic is going to determine your starting point, and thus your option.
  • Choose your advisor carefully. Remember that after a year into your dissertation, you will know your topic better than your advisor, and your advisor's role will be general encouragement rather than specific content knowledge.
  • Find out what dissertations look like. Look at one or two of the recent dissertations in your field, to get a feel for how long, how detailed, how close to a book they are.
  • Do something for your dissertation every day. Even in the midst of a busy teaching schedule, you have to make time to read that one paper or chapter you know you have to read. Doing something every day, even if it's small, will keep you focused on your topic.
  • Don't start writing too early. You have to have some idea of what you're going to say, or you're just wasting your time.
  • Don't start writing too late. The dissertation is not going to write itself; even when you know what you want to say, the mechanics of writing will still take time.
  • Don't start revising until you have a complete draft. You may find that sections you need to cut from an earlier chapter should just be moved to a later chapter. Having the big picture of what goes everywhere will help you figure out what needs to get tossed entirely and what just needs to be moved.
  • Broadcast deadlines and keep them. Asking your advisor to clear time in a given week to review a chapter draft is a great motivating tool to stick to your timeline.
  • Don't turn anything over to your advisor until you think you're done. Drafts where you know you need to work on a given paragraph or check for typos should not be handed out; the known problems will stick out to your advisor and you won't get feedback on the unknown problems.
Most of these instructions weren't particularly helpful at this point in my graduate school career; I'm very good at being organized and very practiced at revisions with my advisor. I do, however, take comfort in the instructions on not writing too early; that is now my excuse for not having actually written my dissertation proposal yet.

1 comment:

Clarissa said...

I find these pointers very helpful once in a while, whenever one is too engrossed in one's study, and needs to refocus.

I had problems writing my Master's thesis, and did not progress much until I sat down with my boyfriend (who was also writing his) in the library everyday to work on our theses.

You'd be surprised to learn how productive those days were, especially when somebody was there to motivate and cheer one up.