Thursday, June 16, 2011

How To Write (And Finish) A Dissertation In 9 Months

I started writing my dissertation in August of 2010 and I finished the first draft February 2011 and submitted the next to final draft in April of the same year.  The April submission was the one I defended one month later in East Lansing, MI to an audience of 12 or so people.  How did I do it?  Simply put...I sat my ass down in a chair and wrote.

And I wrote and wrote and wrote until my behind grew a bit bigger and the pages increased in numbers.  But, there was a game plan to my madness that I found worked for me and maybe it can work for you (depending on your committee and requirements).

I decided to stay in the UK to write as I had a job as a researcher and social policy analyst.  My partner was also with me having given up his job in the US and obtaining a 3 year work permit.  We wanted to make a new life in the UK and I had no intentions of returning to the US (well at that time).  Come the summer of 2010 I discovered one my committee members was leaving the university at the end of the 2011 school year so I knew I really needed to get my dissertation in before he left or risk putting someone on my committee who I did not know at a late stage in my degree.  This ended up happening anyway - and lucky the person who came on was amazing and didn't try to change anything.

Given all of this I made a work plan and stuck to it like white on rice (cheesy but effective).  After doing an outline of the chapters and what should go into them I focused on a chapter a month.  Really, this is do-able if you have transcribed your interviews along the way and written out your field notes (this I HIGHLY recommend you do). 

Each chapter was reviewed by my major adviser the following month and we had a phone meeting scheduled in each month to review the submitted chapter.  This meant a continuous write, hand-in, phone meeting, revise routine. But this allowed me to be accountable to someone and to get feedback early enough in the process to stop me from going in the wrong direction.  I wrote chapters out of order as the theory and methodology chapters were much easier to write then the data or introduction.  And really, the conclusion won't come until you have done multiple drafts of the other chapters. 

But, I was not just writing full time. I also had my job.  This meant my brain and fingers were always going and my ass was always glued to a seat.  Not my ideal situation, but it made me keep to a schedule as I had no time to just wallow solely in dissertation misery.

Seven months later I had enough of a draft to send out to the full committee.  By March 1st I was sitting in my home office on Skype with them to discuss my work.  I was full of hope since I had been revising along the way but that hope was quickly crushed by the onslaught of critique I endured (mainly from members of my committee who had refused to give me feedback along the way).  Multiple things were not up to par for members of committee- primarily in the way I wrote up my findings.  I was not strong enough in the delivery and too timid in the use of the information I presented.  I agree with most of it - I was too tired to argue much and I just wanted the damn thing passed.  I said give me a month and I will give you want you all want.  Everyone was skeptical I could turn it around in time to defend.  I wasn't though  -I wanted to be out of school and working so I took a month off of work and just wrote.

I wrote and wrote and wrote, working 12 hour days in my office.  Rockstar energy drinks and popcorn became my new best friends and I was permanently in sweatpants and t-shirts.  I focused on the critiques I was given and made sure to address them in my revisions.  I added two new chapters and fixed the hell out of my others.  In 31 days I produced the document that would allow me to defend. But - and this is KEY - I also submitted with the dissertation a one-page document outlining the 5 major issues the committee found with the first draft. I then said how I addressed each of those issues and gave the exact location in the dissertation where those changes could be found.    This made my committee happy and as they all say - happy committee happy life.

So there you go - writing a dissertation in nine months, or less, is do-able.  But before I go I just want to impart a few lessons I learned along the way, some of which  you might (or most likely) have heard already. 

1) The dissertation is NOT your life's work - it is the BEGINNING
        I think too many times grad students think that dissertation has to be perfect and is the culmination of your life's work.  That is ridiculous - you have never written a dissertation before (unless you have already received a PhD and then if so you are ridiculous for getting another).  This is a learning process and the dissertation is evidence that you know how to conduct a research project and write up the results in a suitable manner for you field.

2) Your dissertation topic DOES NOT HAVE TO BE your life's work

        After spending anywhere from 3 to 10 years on one topic you just might become sick of that topic. It's normal and apart of life.  Your future research, if you choose to still remain in research, does not have to be on the same topic(s) as your dissertation.  Again, the dissertation is about showing you can do research and the skills you learned should be transferable.

3) You DON'T HAVE TO GO INTO ACADEMIA if you don't want to....and you are not a "failure" if you don't

      This is a topic that comes up again and again amongst people I know.  When you started as a grad student you were most likely full of energy and hope.  You had some amazing vision of sitting in an office with books all around talking with students and coming up with theories.  This was heaven and you were working towards it.  Fast forward 5 to 10 years later and you are tired, annoyed, and trying to just finish your degree before you debt becomes astronomical.  Then, when you are done you realize you might not want to go right into the academy.  Maybe you want to take a few years and work in the public or private sector, for an NGO, or just bum around the world.  You know what - that's OK.  Again, how are you to know what you will feel in the future?  So, if your plans change roll with it.  But, don't allow others opinions to influence your life decisions once you have the diploma in hand.  Take what you learned during your studies and find the path that is right for you. 

4) You are MORE THAN your dissertation

     It's funny how easy this is to forget.  You are you and you is a multifaceted being.  What you research is just that - what you research. It is not who you are.  It's simply what you do, and only one aspect of what you do.  You also may sing, paint, run, read, tell funny stories, drink, smoke.  But your dissertation and graduate school is simply one aspect of what you do.  Remember that the next time someone is bragging to you about all the articles they have drafted while writing up 4 grants and reading Foucault on the side for fun.  Tell yourself that's what they do and be happy you do other things. Most of the time the talk is all for show. 

5) Check your EGO at the door

      Let's face it - if you want to complete a PhD you need to check your ego at the door.  You will be critiqued, critiqued and critiqued some more.   I found that you have to separate your personal feelings from the task at hand, which is to learn the necessary skills that will allow you to say you are an expert in a particular academic field.  This means you have to learn when and how to pick your battles and let your work, and not always your mouth, speak for itself.  Now, I have heard horror stories of committees not getting along and advisers not passing students.  I had my fair share of committee drama during my Masters defense.  But, if you can navigate the egos you will encounter in these processes then when you are done you can navigate just about anything.

So, this is just my two-cents on how I navigated the dissertation write-up.  Feel free to share your own experiences.  But to all those writing up I wish you well.  Keep truckin and remember...