Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What is a Dissertation? Part 4

In this post I will offer a few thoughts about how to imagine your dissertation when you are in the middle of writing it.

Before I proceed, let’s acknowledge that the design of a dissertation is heavily influenced by the conventions of your academic discipline. Dissertation writers in education and the social sciences, for example, usually follow a standard five-part chapter sequence: Introduction, Literature Review, Methodology, Results, and Conclusion/Discussion. Dissertations in fields related to English Studies, let’s say American Lit, might include an introductory chapter, a theory chapter, and then 2-4 additional chapters that offer close reading or interpretation of specific texts. In my own discipline, Rhetoric and Composition Studies, dissertation writers have greater leeway when it comes to design and chapter sequence, but it just depends on the topic.

Regardless of academic discipline, the point here is that if you are currently drafting the dissertation I’m going to assume you have an idea of chapter sequence, which is to say you probably have an outline for the dissertation you are writing. (You did get that prospectus approved, right?) This might be a very rough and tentative outline, but you should have one.

Now for another thesis about writing your dissertation as a kind of inquiry: Many of your best ideas emerge when you are engrossed in the writing itself, so make sure you are actually writing.

Okay, this isn’t really an argument because, well, most of us would probably agree that we often have to write in order to understand what we want to say. Simply put, we can only plan so much. And writing, the actual work of putting words on the page, is itself a way to discover things. The outline is a conceptual map, a rough list that tells us what to write before we begin. But the writing itself is the real work, because the writing itself is what leads to the completion of drafts. And at this stage in the process, getting drafts of chapters finished is your most important job.

There’s an aphorism with which most of us are familiar, and it goes like this: a good dissertation is a finished dissertation. Perhaps this saying is reductive and too simplistic, but on a strategic level I agree with it. To slave away on a dissertation with no end in sight is pointless. Dissertations serve a number of purposes, of course, but if you are currently writing one, I imagine your primary goal is to graduate…to finish!

And the only way to move closer to a finished dissertation is to produce pages. And the only way to ensure that pages get produced is to have a writing schedule to which you are committed.

I’ll be a bit more direct here…

You need to complete full rough drafts of chapters so that you have texts to revise. As we all know, it often takes a couple drafts to properly articulate complex ideas and observations, and then it usually takes another revision or two to get the prose itself right. This means you shouldn’t spend too much time at any one point in a draft if it means you have to push back the schedule. Put a bit differently, don’t be overly concerned with getting everything right in a draft; instead focus on getting things right enough so that you can stay on schedule to finish the draft. You can focus on clarifying ideas and sharpening prose later, when it is time to revise specific chapter drafts.

When it comes to imagining this work, I like the image of a finish line on a track. The track here is the combination of your outline and the schedule you are following, and the various drafts you need to produce and revise are the hurdles. Again, I’m sticking with this aphorism that a good dissertation is a finished dissertation. So finish the “race” (I don’t like this metaphor but I guess it comes with the territory), set out a schedule for yourself, and make sure you are steadily moving towards the finish line.

As an example, here is a rough outline of the writing schedule I followed.

April 2010: Finish 1st draft of Chapter 1
May 2010: Finish 1st draft of Chapter 2

June 2010: Finish 1st draft of Chapter 3

July 2010: Finish 1st draft of Chapter 4

August 2010: Finish 1st draft of Introduction

September - October 2010: First revision of full dissertation

November 1, 2010: Dissertation Defense

November 2010 - February 2011: Second revision of full dissertation

March 2011: Submit polished draft to Graduate School

You might see that my timeline is a little unconventional because I defended my dissertation during the fall of my last year, which was a deliberate attempt to make myself more marketable on the job front. I also wasn’t teaching in the summer, so I could write full-time. Regardless, I gave myself about six months to have a full draft of the dissertation. Yes, it would be (and it was!) a rough full draft, but by that point I had a clearer vision of what my dissertation was about (because I had a full draft), one much clearer than the vision I had before I started writing.

Anyway, in those summer months is when I really had to force myself to write. Here’s what those schedules more or less looked like:

Week 1: Organize notes, prioritize sources, draft a detailed outline for the chapter.

Weeks 2 & 3: Draft, draft, draft.

Week 4 (first half): Organize writing, revise, and edit text into a working draft; send to committee.

Week 4 (second half): Do nothing and relax.

Once you get a rhythm like this going, it really is possible to meet deadlines and cross those finish lines. For me, when I was in the thick of drafting I had to constantly keep one eye on the finish line, which evolved as the draft evolved. First it was that date at the end of the month when I was scheduled to send chapters to my committee. Then it was the date at the end of August when I would send them my first full draft, then it was the date of my dissertation defense.

Let me add one final idea before I close this post….

Don’t drag the process out. With a firm schedule and a good outline, you can write faster than you think. The goal is to get each draft to a place where you can go back and revise, so doesn’t it make better sense to make a schedule that allows plenty of time for more revisions? Yes, it can be intimidating to think you may be giving yourself only five or sixth months to write a first draft, but remember, you want a finished dissertation. That’s the goal, right?


Will Duffy teaches in the department of English at Francis Marion University. He writes about rhetoric, composition theory, and public discourse. Learn more about his work at www.virtueeater.com


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