On Dissertating

Justus H. Hunter provides tips for successfully surviving the dissertation process.

October 5, 2017
 
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Two years ago I successfully defended my dissertation at Southern Methodist University’s graduate program in religious studies. It took me just under two years to propose, draft, revise, submit and defend. I was also teaching, conferencing, spousing and parenting two young boys.

That was my experience. It is in no way normative, nor is the following list of thoughts that I found helpful. But in hopes you, too, will find some useful principles in them, I have written them as forthrightly as I can. Here are some things I learned along the way.

Avoid the temptation to overread. This is a scholar's death. You will never read everything. You will never chase down every possible connection. If you become tantalized by such possibilities, you will never write. So embrace your finitude. Read just enough to keep writing. Work like a through hiker on the trail: get just enough in your pack to make it to the next stop. After you run out of material to write about, then you will read more. And then you will read with more and better purpose than you can now.

There is no substitute for slow, steady work. Avoid frenzied writing -- unless the frenzy arises from steady labor. Clio the muse is restive. She isn’t going to descend Parnassus because you promised your adviser a draft in three days. But you can lure her with steady toil. And she will repay the effort. Of course, not everyone toils in the same way. Dissertations aren’t built on an assembly line. I was workmanlike, at my desk from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, pounding out prose. A classmate worked huddled in coffee shops, sketching arguments again and again until they were ready to write out. But we only finished because we toiled, slow and steady.

Even the terrible pages you throw out -- the false starts, the disasters -- are another obstacle out of the way. I don’t hang on to things. My mom loves to talk about the time I threw out my high school diploma. And yet I still have documents marked “Varia 1,” “Varia 2” and so on cluttering my Dropbox. For every 10,000 words in my dissertation, I cut at least as many. Your writing is controlled when you throw things out. Decluttering is making choices, taking ownership. At the end of the day, you have to show your committee you’re a decision maker. Writing through and writing out mistakes is how you become one.

It's the last of your student writing, not the first of your professional writing. When dissertating, you are often told to write a dissertation that is not a dissertation. Instead, you are told to write a book. The advice is good-hearted and probably grounded in wisdom about academic publishing. But it’s bad advice. Of course you want a book on the other side of this. And of course you want a wide audience for your work. But first you want to be done, and that means writing for your committee. Focus on the committee. You’ve spent several years learning to write for them. You know how to do that.

You should certainly avoid bad writing, whether in dissertations, books or greeting cards. Confusion about your audience leads to bad writing. So don’t try to write for everyone. Just write for the committee.

Write to learn, not to show you have learned. I studied with a remarkably productive young professor. Two books a year was normal for him. And he did it with humility. He would invite students to join him at lunch to discuss classic texts. His reason: “so that I can learn from you.” When we went to lunch, that was his goal. He was always learning. He lived to learn. And his writing was productive because he wrote to learn.

Writing is a rigorous form of thought. It’s thought on paper, staring back, naked, at you. Thought on paper is easier to evaluate. When thought is on paper, you can find problems with the argument and the holes in research. Too much time is spent flailing about without a clear sense of what’s gone wrong with one’s thinking. Write it down to find out. Then get to work to fix it. When you write to learn, the writing is more enjoyable, the results more surprising, the satisfaction greater, the progress quicker.

So write a dissertation to learn your subject. Write a dissertation to learn yourself.

Make a community. Form a writing group. Find the best researchers and writers you know (and like to be with), and share your work. Our model was simple and effective: meet biweekly. One person brings a bottle of wine and a piece of writing. Everyone else discusses.

If you follow that model with four or five writers, your work will be up every other month. Don’t give extensions, don’t miss deadlines, don’t reschedule. You will learn more about how to write by watching others write. You will learn more about your project by getting inside other projects. And you will feel less lonely.

Purge advice. You will receive advice. Some of it is useful. Much is not. And the useful bits will need to be modified for your situation, field, habits, project and so on.

Every writer is distinct. Conventional wisdom is the slow accretion of many particular lessons, abstracted and packaged in cliché. Make of it what you will; it must be made into something. The only rule is, try to make it into something of your own. If an idea makes sense to you, give it a try. Then revise it for your needs.

Be confident. You can let the advice go. When the inevitable hiccup comes along, the advice will always be there, waiting.

You will probably have to revise your process several times. But at the end, you will know what works for you, or at least what worked this time. Scholars don’t write books. They write this book, and then this book, and so on. Find a way to enjoy the frustration as it waxes and wanes. Savor your discoveries.

So get busy. Take and toss my advice.

Bio

Justus H. Hunter is assistant professor of church history at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

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