Writing a doctoral dissertation or a capstone project for a master’s program can be one of the most challenging and intensive parts of earning a graduate degree. This already difficult task has been heavily exacerbated by major global events, such as the Covid pandemic, systemic racism, and visa restrictions on international students. Members of the Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Humanities (CSGSH) share some practical tips and advice for working on and completing a dissertation or capstone project that can help graduate students complete their projects during these challenging times.
Didem Uca, Assistant Professor of German Studies, Emory University
DONE IS GOOD
Every semester before finals week at my undergraduate alma mater, Bryn Mawr College, we hung to-do lists on our dorm room doors with the phrase “DONE IS GOOD” and gleefully cheered each other on as we checked each item off. Once I reached ABD status in my Ph.D. program, I learned a different saying with a similar sentiment: “A good dissertation is a done dissertation. A great dissertation is a published dissertation. A perfect dissertation is neither.” If you are in a book field, you have to accept that you may not be able to accomplish everything in the dissertation that you hope to accomplish in the version that will eventually be published as a monograph. There are multiple reasons why this might be the case––perhaps you and your committee do not share in that vision; perhaps there are archival materials that you are unable to access due to COVID; or perhaps you simply are running out of time, funding, or patience. But pragmatism wins out over perfection. Done is good.
Backwards Create a Realistic Schedule and Set SMART Goals
Speaking of to-do lists, when you are working on a project that is bigger than anything you have ever completed before and that spans several years, it may be overwhelming to figure out your timeline and path to completion. Speak with your advisor and recent graduates or other students ahead of you in your program to make sure you understand what the precise dissertation or thesis requirements are for your program. Then, open your virtual or paper calendar or planner and begin to schedule your timeline working back from the date when you want to (or must) defend. The following example of an ABD beginning work on their dissertation illustrates this process: If you will run out of funding on June 1, 2023, you will likely need to defend, and in some cases, deposit your dissertation in time for the spring graduation deadline, which may be as early as April. You already have a dissertation outline and have reviewed relevant literature for your prospectus and have one chapter drafted based on a conference paper. After speaking with your advisor, you have learned that you are expected to write 4 chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion, and the three most recent graduates of your program wrote between 250-300 pages.
Using this information, begin to create SMART––Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound––goals to fulfill these requirements in time for your anticipated defense date. Make sure to account for the time it will take for your committee members to read and offer feedback on your work and any other academic and life obligations, such as needing to travel to an archive before working on a chapter, teaching service, or taking a week off before your wedding. Be realistic, build in extra time for the unexpected, and continue updating and revising your SMART goals throughout the process.
Gamify Writing––and Write Every Day
If you think you hate writing, may I suggest that you actually hate the anxiety of not writing? The mere thought of opening a blank document or returning to a particularly vexing paragraph can be paralyzing, and thus, we often choose to focus our energies on everything but writing. For me, this included reading Joan Bolker’s classic Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, in which she advises dissertators to “Do some work on your thesis every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes. (“Every day” is more important than how much time you spend, or how many pages you produce, or what quality of work you produce on any particular day.)” This advice was transformative at a time when I was plagued by writing––or, more precisely, not writing––anxiety and intense guilt. So I followed Bolker’s advice and began writing. For the first few weeks, guided by my SMART goals and completion schedule, I began to write 150 new words every day. I increased this amount to 200, 250, 500, 750…until I was reliably writing 1500-2000 words a day, managing to add 200 new pages to my dissertation in the final four months before my defense. Anything you write today is something you will not have to write tomorrow or two months from now. Future you will thank you for your diligence. If this abstract gamification strategy isn’t effective, consider that, like all living creatures, you are not above bribery; give yourself rewards for meeting your daily benchmark, such as, as soon as I finish my 350 words for today, I can watch the next episode of The Great. Speaking of which, I have to go work on my book proposal so that I can watch Sarah Cooper’s special on Netflix.
Amir Hussain, Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature, Emory University
I have three pieces of advice to offer.
First, think about and seek agreement about what kind of dissertation project you aim to do.
There are many different kinds of dissertation projects that one can theoretically do. But not every dissertation project can be done without the aspects and planning that so often precede the actual dissertation writing, such as the prospectus, language training, archives you may need to visit or approvals you may need to have to conduct your research, and committee support. While a traditional dissertation is typically conceived of as one large project with chapters that are in some way or other organically related, there are many discussions about traditional dissertations and discussions on other innovative configurations for the dissertation. So it is crucial that you, your advisor, and your committee are on the same page about the kind of dissertation you want to do, are expected to do based on previous discussions or on disciplinary training, and would be departmentally permitted to do. Seek input from your advisor and committee on this with the prospectus and throughout the project. And while it is possible that your project may develop as you work on it, there should still be a reasonable consensus and clarity about what kind of project you are working on and why.
Second, keep in touch with your advisor regularly.
Your advisor is not merely the main key between you and graduating with a Ph.D. degree. Rather, your advisor is your main and most vital source of help throughout your degree. Ideally, this help should come in many forms: input on your trajectory during the doctoral program, honest but supportive feedback on your dissertation and on application materials, and institutional guidance. It is crucial to get input on your work at crucial junctures, such as between ending one chapter and starting another, or on materials that you submit as part of your applications for fellowships or for jobs. If you are not receiving critical feedback on your work, be sure to ask for it. On the other hand, if you need more encouragement, it is fine to ask for that, too. Regardless, keep in touch with your advisor and avoid long stretches of time without any communication. This way, not only will your advisor know what you are working on, but you will also know if you are staying on track or if you need more feedback and assistance.
Third, take your time with the dissertation.
The authors of The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy argue that the rapid pace in academia and in contemporary society is not conducive for the long form of research and scholarly writing. Their view applies directly to dissertators as well, who are often interrupted by competing demands and pressures to publish their work quickly. But being slow and deliberate with the long process of research, writing, and revision can allow dissertators to get sufficient feedback from an advisor or committee, to revise, to produce stronger work, and to aim for quality over quantity. And on a related note, taking your time on a dissertation relates to how one thinks of graduate school more broadly. Applying for dissertation funding or teaching opportunities during this crucial stage can allow you to spend this time now to write and get feedback during your graduate school years.
Viana Anette Hara, Ph.D. student in Romance Languages, University of Oregon
On Taking Care of Yourself
I have no idea the amount of mental, physical, and emotional energy that the ultimate goal of writing a dissertation requires. I remember attending a workshop on how to initiate your dissertation by organizing material, choosing your project’s topic, and the importance of communication with your advisor—all of these are crucial steps. However, it was not mentioned that physical and mental health are pivotal to accomplish this goal and that life also happens.
While writing my master’s degree thesis, my beloved dog of 16 years old died. I was already stressed, physically, and mentally. This event caused me great sadness, and I hit a wall on my thesis. Life can happen to all of us in many ways. So what do you do when you are mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted? And, what do you do when life happens while you are writing a thesis or dissertation?
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to these questions, but I’d like to share with you some humble suggestions that worked for me and could work for you:
Seek help: It is vital to have a support system, whether it is a family member or someone you trust, or a healthcare professional. Seek help. It is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign that you are human, and not only a graduate student.
Sleep: Sometimes, there is so much to do and not enough time to sleep. But remember that sleep is essential for brain function. Rest makes a difference in mental, emotional, and physical states.
Eat: I am not referring to a diet, but instead, to the mindfulness of nourishing your body. The act of eating away from distraction, including your dissertation is important. Focus on taking care of your body by fueling it with food.
Walk: The act of walking helps the body physically and mentally, and you are moving. It lightens the mood, and it helps support sleep. It is not a strenuous exercise, and it can be done anywhere.
Meditate: I was very skeptical about meditating, but it helped me greatly–physically, emotionally, and cognitively. It is not really about quieting your mind. After all, we are graduate students. We are always thinking. Instead, it is observing those thoughts calmly while being aware and connecting to your body. Great ideas can flourish unconsciously in meditation.
Do it all over again: There is no formula to deal with life’s curveball. Making a habit of these small practices could help you while writing a dissertation or thesis, which you can carry over in other life stages.
I’d like to offer some suggestions regarding the MFA thesis project. I completed my MFA in Creative Writing last year with relative ease of mind, and I hope you can learn from whatever small fragments of wisdom I picked up along the way.
First of all, start early.
If you begin writing your MFA thesis during your final year, you are probably going to find yourself far more crunched for time than you expect to be due to one small problem–human inclination to change our minds. Every single person I was in the Master’s program with changed our minds at least two or three times about the topic of our thesis, and often also the genre, timeline, and basically every other significant detail. This is to be expected, but these are not the kinds of questions you want to be asking yourself while going into your final month of your second-to-last semester of your MFA program. These are the kinds of questions to be asking yourself in your third-to-last semester of your MFA program, and to resolve over summer break. That way, when it comes time for you to write your thesis, you can actually write your thesis, instead of spending that time and brainpower trying to make decisions about who is going to narrate your story, and by the way are you going to write a memoir or a hybrid work?
Second, and this is advice I learned the hard way, keep a separate draft for just yourself, and show this draft to no one.
Look, every class you take in graduate school is an academic class. Your advisor is not G-D, she is a professor, and it is her job to help you with your writing. Listen to what she is telling you. However, if you have only just written the last thirty pages of your draft, and by the way you decided on nonfiction after all, and so you are literally editing stories about your parents and sister…you need a spare draft. Trust me. Mark up the draft you hand in to your professor, make the edits your Thesis Advisor and Reader asked you to make, but hold a draft back for yourself. That way when you inevitably change your mind about story or direction later on, you can refer back to the original copy without finding yourself drawn astray by your need to make the grade. It is necessary to make whatever edits your professors require of you, in order to earn a healthy GPA. It is not necessary to edit your life’s work based on someone else’s feedback that you accept under the duress of GPAs and graduate school aspirations.
Finally, do not kill your darlings, move them.
Whenever I sit down to write a long paper, I keep two documents. One document is my working draft of my paper. The other document is my “extra” draft, which has every line I wrote and loved but don’t quite have a place for. This is good advice whether you are working on a book or a Literature paper. Write your essay, but hold onto the ‘extra’ you love but can’t use right now. You might come back to it later in your paper, or you might use it to write a different paper altogether. But don’t throw away your words just because you don’t know how to use them quite yet.
Everyone take care, and don’t take this all too seriously.