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IF YOU ENJOY RESEARCH and writing, some of the greatest gifts life can offer you are time, space, and a good rationalization for devoting yourself to a project that truly interests you. But there are many other stances from which to approach writing a doctoral dissertation. Most of the students I meet in my work don’t often think of their dissertation projects with joyful anticipation. Instead, they’re overwhelmed by the size of the task, or they don’t consider themselves scholars, or they are scared that they’re not up to it, or they don’t even know how to begin. But even if you’re not a true scholar yet (whatever that is) or are feeling frightened, you can still write a good dissertation, using a process that minimizes pain and increases your chances of feeling engaged and satisfied with your work. And the first step is to imagine your dissertation.
The best way to begin a dissertation is not by positioning yourself in a library and writing “Chapter 1” on the top of a blank piece of paper. The best way to begin is by approaching your dissertation in your imagination, preparing to write in and about this thesis at every stage, and to become the researcher of your own work process. Imagining your dissertation allows you to develop passion, curiosity, and questions about your topic, as well as to think of yourself as someone who can make a commitment to scholarship. You may be given a topic. You may be so terrified you can’t imagine “passion” or “pleasure” as words with any relevance to your undertaking. You may be writing a thesis for strictly instrumental reasons. Nevertheless, it’s still worth imagining—choosing and playing with different topics and different types of theses, giving yourself some leeway to explore before you commit to a particular topic in a specific format. You can take time at this point to speculate about how it will feel to have done this work, to own a doctorate. Or you can think about the process by which you hope to research and write, and where you’ll try to do your writing. You can imagine how much company you’d like or will need—friends, coworkers, the active presence of your committee—during this project, and whom you’ll ask to be your advisor and your committee members. You may even want to consider seriously how you would feel, what might happen, if you were to choose not to write a dissertation.
People write dissertations for many different reasons. For some of you the goal is to meet a professional necessity, to accomplish an instrumental task: you want to spend your professional life teaching at a college or university, and you know that a doctorate is a prerequisite. Others want to learn the process of producing a major scholarly work, to begin a life of serious research and writing. Still others, before they go on to the next phase of life, want to finish a process they began some time back when they entered graduate school. And then there are the lucky ones who have a burning question that they want to spend time answering. One of the ways to begin, no matter which of these agendas is yours, is by learning to write your way in.
Writing Your Way In
Writing is at the center of producing a dissertation. This book will teach you how not to talk away your ideas or lose them in mental gymnastics. You will learn to write in order to think, to encourage thought, to tease thought out of chaos or out of fright. You will write constantly, and continuously, at every stage, to name your topic and to find your way into it. You will learn to write past certainty, past prejudice, through contradiction, and into complexity. You will come to write out of your own self, and, eventually, even though you may be afraid of what your reader will say, you will learn to write in a way that will allow you to be heard. If you’re to do all of this, you need to write every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes a day.
If you commit yourself to writing at every stage, the process will look something like this: Early on, even before you’ve chosen a topic, you might make daily, dated journal entries, all of them in a thesis book (which might be separate pages on a pad that then go into a folder, or a bound notebook, or a computer file) about your thoughts, worries, interest in various topics. For example,
12/16/95: Today I’m thinking about how intrigued I’ve always been by the question of the use of model systems in studying biological development. I’ve always been aware that there are real disadvantages that come along with the advantages of this method—I wonder if I could do something with this for my dissertation. . . .
When you first choose a topic, you’ll spell out your preliminary hunches, ideas, questions:
1/15/96: What difference might it make if we were to use not rats, but elephants, as the model? What are the qualities of model system animals that have made us choose them so readily for much of our developmental research?
As you start to accumulate data you’ll not only take notes, but also begin to work with the data—talk back to it in writing, ask it questions, let the material suggest questions to you, and then you’ll try to summarize your current understanding of it:
2/18/96: Organisms that share the desirable characteristic of having rapid embryonic development may share embryonic adaptations and constraints related to this trait—what difference does this make?
As you go through, you’ll take some trial runs at writing some bits of the dissertation:
4/2/96: The model systems approach, clearly an extraordinarily powerful way to analyze animal development, is based on certain assumptions. One is that we can extrapolate what we learn from a few model species to many other organisms. . . .
You’ll keep track of the flashes of insight you have that are spurred by your reading, as well as any serious misgivings you have:
2/3/96: What am I really trying to say here, and does it make sense?
At first you’ll write in short stretches, and a bit farther on you may produce up to five pages a day (I’ll teach you how to do this in chapter 3).
Developing Your Own Work Process
Each of you reading this book is unique, and no single prescription is going to be useful for all of you. I want to help you figure out how to devise the strategies that best suit who you are and how you work. The only rules there are in the dissertation-writing process are the useful ones you make up for yourself. You own this dissertation, and you are the one responsible for getting it from conception to birth; you can get there by whatever process works for you.
You begin by learning to pay attention to yourself as a writer, by writing at every possible stage of your work process. You’ll note each day how your work has gone: how it felt, what you did and didn’t accomplish; you’ll ask yourself, in an internal dialogue that you record, what you think might have gotten in your way, what nagging question you’ve been trying to ignore, what you need to work on next, how you might have to change your work space, whether you like or hate your topic on this particular day. You will take your own work habits as seriously as you take the material you’re working on, and you will scrutinize them frequently to see if they need revamping. If you get stuck (you discover you don’t like composing on the computer, but you don’t know what to do instead; or you are having trouble making time to work; or your writing is coming very, very slowly—too slowly to make your deadline), you’ll seek consultation, first with yourself, in writing:
1/14/96 What is going on with my work? I’m having a terrible time clearing out my schedule. I’m doing favors for all my friends, and if I don’t stop giving myself these excuses for not working, I’m never going to finish my dissertation! How can I make sure that I write before I talk on the phone, before I meet Harry for tea, before I comb the dogs?
After that, you’ll consult with your advisor, or with a friend who has lived through the process successfully, or perhaps with a counselor whom your university provides for such times. But first you’ll confront the stuck place you’re in by writing about it, researching it, asking yourself when it began (was it after you had a disappointing meeting with your advisor, or after you drank too much, or after you heard about that article that you’re terrified will scoop your idea but haven’t gotten up the courage to read yet?). You’ll try varying your routine to see if another time, another place, another mode of writing works better. You’ll think about whether it’s time to make yourself a detailed outline or to play with another chapter for a while and give this one some time to rest. You may decide to consider the worrisome thought that you’re barking up the wrong tree with a particular idea. All of these issues are food not only for thought, but for writing. And writing about them, as well as about whatever static you are experiencing in your head, will serve to resolve most of the issues that are bothering you. Writing will also be an essential tool in choosing the topic of your dissertation.
Choosing a Topic
What do you want from a thesis topic? Writing a dissertation is very much like being in a long-term relationship: there are likely to be some very good times and some perfectly dreadful ones, and it’s a big help if you like what you’ve chosen. This particular relationship asks you to give up a lot of the other pieces of your life, to work like a dog, and to postpone gratification. There are people out there who seem to be able to make such sacrifices for a subject they’re not particularly thrilled by, people for whom dissertation writing is the means to an end, to getting a degree. I admire your grit, if you’re among them. If you choose your topic wholeheartedly, the writing process can be a wonderful opportunity for pleasure; if you don’t, it’s still possible to produce a good piece of work, and you may even surprise yourself and enjoy parts of the process.
Some people seem always to have known what they want to write their dissertations about. They are the lucky ones. They still need to find an advisor who will support their enterprise, but this is perhaps the easier task. Some, like me, have written their way through the same topic in various guises often enough so they know it’s theirs for life. Some of you may have topics handed to you.
Some of the most fortunate thesis writers are driven to investigate and try to answer a question that is both professionally and personally compelling. To begin, stay with, and bring to completion a project this large, it’s ideal to choose a topic that’s really going to matter to you, enough to keep it going even on the dark days that are an inevitable part of the thesis process. How do you do this choosing? You follow your curiosity, and, if you’re lucky, your passion. One person’s passion may look strange to others, but for now you only have to please yourself. I’ve known writers who were entranced by the relative proportions of seeds in an archaeological dig, because they could read from those data how agriculture was carried out thousands of years ago. I was once so captivated by the possible sources for Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Prologue” that I read in medieval Latin some of the most misogynistic literature in existence. These two projects would not necessarily turn on other people, but that doesn’t matter.
You want to try to find what it is that you get excited thinking about, the academic subject for which you have substantial curiosity. As I’ve noted above, you can do this through writing. There may also be important clues in your academic career. Here’s an example: As an undergraduate I was fascinated by questions of voice and authority; the subject of my senior thesis was the Fool in King Lear. As a graduate student in English I became interested in the sources of authority in Chaucer’s work. The more general theme of authority gradually joined again in my work with the subject of voice—questions about who’s the speaker, who gets to speak, what does it mean to have a voice, how does one grow one? Over the next fifteen years, my obsession with these issues led to a finished essay called “A Room of One’s Own Is Not Enough,” to work on memory, and to a dissertation on teaching writing in such a way as to promote the development of voice. All of this is visible, of course, only in retrospect: If you’d asked me twenty, or fifteen years ago, why I was writing on any of these topics, I wouldn’t have known how to answer.
I’m not recommending that you necessarily try to understand your own pattern before you choose your thesis topic, or even that you necessarily have one; I’m suggesting you consider that such a pattern may exist, and allow yourself to go on a fishing expedition. This is how you will find out where your interest lies, where your curiosity leads you.
How do you do this? You think and write about the work you’ve done over the course of your academic career, and you remember which particular projects best held your interest, or excited you, or allowed you to have fun. See if these projects have anything in common. Even if you don’t find such a pattern, you may still unearth some useful data. You may find out, for example, that your best papers were surveys—say, of all the novels by a particular author, rather than an analysis of a single work; or that you did your best thinking in papers that were comparative studies; or that you were strongest in heavily theoretical work; or that the lab projects that required the greatest attention to detail were the ones in which you had the greatest success.
Look not only at the subjects, but at the type of project—defined in a variety of ways—that you’ve succeeded at and enjoyed. My own dissertation, for example, is complicated organizationally, weaving together theoretical material from three different fields, but it is anchored by quite concrete case studies; my mind works best when I can continuously tie my theories to data. I’ve consulted with some people whose dissertations ranged from thoroughly grounded, in-depth studies of a single question and with others whose work involved multifaceted, theoretical explorations that cut across fields. You need to figure out which sort of undertaking best suits how you like to work.
Another good way to narrow your choice is to ask yourself what kind of writing and research by other people you find most interesting and enjoyable to read. You may like highly detailed work or more general treatments, or inductive versus deductive presentations; you may prefer many examples, or none, when you read theory; or you may opt for short chapters or long ones, a terse writing style or a more expansive one. All of these preferences are useful clues to the sort of dissertation you want to produce. And works by other people are also potentially useful models.
My thesis advisor knew how helpful a good model could be. One of her most useful suggestions was to point me toward a dissertation in an area related to mine that was a model of a doable thesis. This dissertation was mercifully short; it was also fascinating and well written. I knew that it was shorter and denser than my own would be, but throughout my own writing two essential things about that work stayed with me: I’d read an accepted thesis that was only 144 pages long, and it felt possible for me to produce that number of pages; and, quite as important, I could enjoy reading that dissertation. Ask your advisor to suggest some models; you’ll probably learn something from them, and you’ll also discover that some people not so different from you have managed to write dissertations.
Your advisor can also help you choose your topic by acting as a sounding board, limiting your grandiosity (“Do you really want to take on all of Henry James’s novels in your thesis?”), helping you to clarify your main question, and talking with you about the politics of choosing a topic. Why do I use a word like “politics” here? Because your choice of topic can be central in determining your professional future, beginning with whether or not you’ll get a job in the current market. I’m not suggesting that you choose your topic solely, or even primarily, on this basis. If you do, at the worst you could wind up feeling like you’ve prostituted yourself, and you may not produce a good piece of work. But you also risk ending up with neither a piece of work you can be proud of nor a job.