Thursday, June 01, 2006

How to Finish A Dissertation in Two Easy Centuries! (Part II)

Part II: So how did I get here from there?

I've actually spent the last few days boxing up all my dissertation documents (for now), and what a good feeling! So it has given me a chance to reflect on how I made myself finish the beast. Keep in mind that I wrote my entire dissertation while in my first three to four years of a 4-4 teaching load... It certainly was a learning process, something that is unique to each writer, but hopefully we'll have some ideas in common. Here are my thoughts about How To Finish, in no particular order:

Action leads to more action, inaction leads to paralysis. I think momentum is important in the larger sense, since finishing a chapter or two really makes you feel like you can do it, i.e. who would bother to finish 65% of a dissertation and not keep going from there? Getting over the hump in the middle is important. And when I look back on how long it took me to finish each chapter (usually 6 months per chapter), I was able to finish chapters in shorter amounts of time toward the end. Going downhill is a powerful image.

But momentum is also important on the day-to-day level. I'm the kind of person who could very easily sit down to work and find myself feeling incredibly anxious about the next task at hand. But I learned over the years that while I would have loved to avoid the anxiety-producing task (hence the years-long blockage I experienced) that I would, in actuality, feel better if I plunged ahead. Even while I was directly grappling with whatever made me anxious in the first place, I felt better than if I had tried to avoid it entirely. Doing something felt better than doing nothing.

Thankfully I learned that slogan from my advisor. I've known a few graduate students who were cursed (in my opinion) with advisors who set unrealistically high standards for a dissertation. Mine only wanted it completed. A related slogan could be: YOU ONLY HAVE TO PASS. That gave me the freedom to turn off some of the perfectionistic voices in my head and just stumble forward. I can think of hundreds of times when I reached a fork in the road and faced a choice between two options: one option involved doing more research or reading or writing until I felt I'd really, really, really covered that particular point. The second option was to, frankly, do a half-assed job of it and hope it was good enough. I figured that if I needed more historiography or more primary sources, my advisors would tell me. And they never said a word. So obviously what I felt was a "half-assed job" was certainly good enough to pass. Again, momentum. By reducing my expectations and giving myself permission to take frequent shortcuts, I didn't slow myself down.

A related issue here: for those of you teaching while dissertating, it can be incredibly difficult to apply this same logic to your teaching. Teaching is more immediate in terms of pressures and rewards, and I firmly believe that teaching expands to fill the space available. But again, you'll come to a fork in the road and you have to choose the path that results in less work. Assign fewer papers. Give the same crappy lecture again. Show a film. Etc. You're almost certainly still doing a better job teaching than most of the faculty and you'll keep yourself sane at the same time. Learn to say no.

This idea is clearly related to momentum again. Physicists might disagree, but for me, momentum was not a self-perpetuating state. It had to be started and re-started numerous times. Sure, it got easier the more I did it, but it was still challenging to start from a "cold start" each day, week, chapter, whatever...

So how do you make yourself work? In Dissertation Land, there is no time clock. In most respects, you're on your own to set the hours and conditions of your work. I think dissertators often choose between time-oriented and task-oriented solutions to this problem. For me, I found that requiring myself to work for a certain time period each day was not the solution in and of itself. For example, saying I needed to put in two hours of work on my dissertation often resulted in me trying to wait out the clock, daydreaming, etc.

But what did work for me was to divide the work into smaller and smaller tasks. At least for me, writing a history dissertation included a lot of non-thinking scut work. I'm a fast typer, so it was easier to type in the text of a lot of primary sources, add a few thoughts, and keep going. Later I would re-arrange them, add text, delete sources, etc, but again, typing in the sources was something to do. It kept me moving. It produced pages and pages. It convinced me that I had enough sources and, more importantly, I had something to say about those sources. And trust me, some of those early "drafts" were pretty rough, stream-of-consciousness kind of writing.

So all I had to do was examine the tasks at hand. Typing in sources? Putting sources into a coherent paragraph? Whatever it was, I would require myself to do X amount of tasks before taking a quick mental break. Type in 5 sources, check e-mail. Write one paragraph, hang up clothes on the floor. Etc. Sure enough, my chapters would grow and grow, little by little. And there's nothing more anxiety-relieving than to find yourself with 60 pages of writing. Sure editing can be tough, but editing is always easier than staring at a blank page.

And I do mean "whatever it takes." Don't be afraid to be silly and to reward yourself with whatever little rewards work for you. Sometimes I would bring up a pile of grapes or nuts or whatever and eat one after each task. I actually had a package of shiny star stickers (the kind your grade school teacher gave you) and I would give myself a star for each task. When I completed a pyramid of stars, I would earn something else, etc. It was a good motivation to keep going when I was tired of working, i.e. if I write three more paragraphs I can complete the pyramid.

This was probably the most important lesson imposed by having a Real Job at the same time. Perhaps ironically, I managed to accomplish far more on my dissertation while having a full-time job than I ever did when I had more free time to work on it. I always had jobs in grad school -- I never got awarded any fabulous fellowships that would have enabled me to write without any other commitments. So for a while I think I romanticized the concept of Being With Fellowship as the ideal way to write a dissertation and thus not having one became an excuse not to work. But after becoming Unblocked, I had no choice. I had decided to work on it. And work I did.

Some dissertators will tell you that they required themselves to work a little bit on their dissertation every single day. I didn't do that. For one, sometimes while teaching you just have to concentrate on teaching. You can't expect yourself to work on your dissertation during finals week. And I also firmly believed in the concept of Having a Life while dissertating. I often opted to spend Saturday cooking some fabulous gourmet meal. Sure, it probably added months to the entire process, and if you're facing a gnarly deadline you might have to make some tough choices, but in general I managed to nurture myself, my marriage, and my friendships while writing. (it goes without saying that making time to do things like exercise should be a part of your routine regardless -- finding ways to stay sane should be your first priority.)

For me, the key was to find a way to be productive during those "orphaned hours," and in fact, to create an orphaned hour here or there. For a few semesters, my teaching day began mid-morning. I'm not a morning person, so there was no way I was going to force myself to get up at 5 a.m., but I did force myself to get up earlier than I had to. I made myself sit down at my computer for an hour each morning before going to campus. Sure, that served to crunch teaching into a finite space (and often a very stressed and hectic space!) but hey, no matter how stressed I was later on, I had already done an hour of work on my dissertation! Those hours add up. If I could put in another hour in the afternoon, I'd have 10 hours of work under my belt by the end of the week, even in a busy teaching time.

So for me, there never was a perfect time. Sure, I had breaks and some time in the summers. And those uninterrupted times were much more productive. No doubt about it. But I think knowing the pressures of the school-year forced me to take advantage of every "free" week I had. And yeah, it did grow tiring to feel that I never got a true break, i.e. every "day off" from teaching had to be viewed as a great opportunity (!) to work on something else, but so be it.


There endeth my Deep Thoughts about finishing. It's good to write them down, because it is easy to forget some of the strategies I developed, i.e. I took a bit of a break after writing my introduction (almost the last thing I wrote) and writing my conclusion (the last thing I wrote.) So when I sat down to write the conclusion, all the same old demons reappeared, but I was able to dispatch them by using some of these strategies. And frankly, mixing scholarship with teaching only means more of the same. Might as well get good at it.

So what about you? What strategies have worked for you? What hasn't? How did you finish? How are you finishing?