When asked to write a blog post about my experience writing my dissertation, my initial thought was that I’d give a blow-by-blow account of my process. But, as I first sat to write, it occurred to me that our classes at UWM do a great job of preparing us for the writing experience. By the time we’re done with our doctoral level research classes, we know clearly that the key to successful writing is planning. Put simply, you have to create a schedule and stick to it. Reading “How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing” by Paul J. Silvia (2007) will tell you all you need to know about planning your writing and, most importantly, completing your writing.
That said, I figured that it would be a better use of this space to fire off some quick general learnings. That is, if I were just starting to write a dissertation now, what would I want to know? What could I learn from someone that has recently finished writing a dissertation? I make no claim that my approach and process is in any way correct or the best. However, it is indeed how I wrote and represents what I learned. You may have heard some of these already. Hopefully, you’ll find some helpful wisdom in some of these:
- Know what you’re going to research and write about well before you have to write a dissertation. I saved a ton of time writing my dissertation by writing about my topic from the time I entered the UEDP. When I started the program in 2009, I didn’t have an exact dissertation title, but I knew that I was interested in (1) how people use workplace technology, and (2) work-life balance issues. So, virtually everything I wrote for every class had something to do—even if tangentially—with one or both of these topics. Once it came time to write, I had a wealth of my own writing and ideas from which to draw.
- Like your topic. This sounds trite, but it’s important. To the degree that you can, find something that you’re really, genuinely interested in. In my case, I spent a decade of my career in the tech environment, so tech interested me. As a husband and father, work-life balance issues are real to me and impact me. So, during the course of my research, I drew from and learned about both topics. You’re going to spend a lot of time with your dissertation topic. A lot. You have to at least find it interesting.
- Set expectations, for yourself and for those with whom you live. On Sept. 6 of last year, I finalized my defense date of Nov. 19. Given the two-week lead time required for my committee to read my final draft, that means that I had 58 days to finish Chapters 4 and 5. At the time, I had revised Chapters 1-3, Chapter 4 was a series of sketches, and I had just started a new full-time job. So, I made a bargain with my wife and kids: you give me a few nights a week and 6-8 hours a day each Saturday and Sunday for the next 8 weeks and I promise I’ll knock this thing out and be done with it. I was clear that I would not be available as a husband or father for a significant amount of time during this period. My end of the bargain was that I promised to stay focused and finish the project. For me, getting my life back was the motivation I needed. It worked. My family gave me space and I wrote.
- Pick a process and schedule that works for you. As great as the advice is in books like the one I mention above, the reality is that not every approach works for every person. For example, Silva (2007) advocates creating a very detailed spreadsheet listing every single thing you’re going to do every day. I don’t work that way. I figured, if you have to write a dissertation about writing you dissertation, what’s the point? I simply kept a journal (or whatever you’d want to call it) as a Word Document. After each writing session, I wrote a couple of sentences about what I had just written and a couple of notes to myself as to where I needed to start off. The next session, I just picked up where I left off. It was a written dialogue with myself. It worked for me. It’s your dissertation – figure out what works for you.
- Join a writing group. I was fortunate enough to belong to a cohort of students that were all advised by Dr. Barb Daley. We got together just once a month over Skype, but these meetings were incredibly helpful. First, they produced a healthy amount of peer pressure that motivated me to write. At the end of each meeting, we all had to state our writing goals and what we’d accomplish prior to the next meeting. Second, my anxiety about the UEDP paperwork process was greatly reduced because we all learned from each other and kept each other in check. I was much more nervous about forgetting to turn in some random form than I was about completing my writing. My peers in the writing group provided the guidance I needed. In both of these ways, the writing group helped me to focus on my writing.
- Reward yourself; don’t kill yourself. Keep a schedule that is not entirely insane. I wrote quite a bit in those 58 days, but I wasn’t a hermit. I still made time for my family and other things. I still drank a beer every now and then. Think about whatever makes you happy and promise yourself that you’ll do that once you’re done writing for the day. It could be yoga, it could be watching stupid TV, it could be a beer. Whatever it is, find time for it.
- Done is good. This is not necessarily my gem of wisdom – I have to credit Dr. Daley for enlightening me. In short, just finish the thing. There’s an old adage about medical school graduates: Question, “What do they call the person that graduates last in their medical school class?” Answer, “Doctor.” It’s no different for us as doctoral students. Our dissertations are not graded; they’re either successfully defended or not. But, by virtue of our roles as doctoral students, we’re naturally ambitious people. We generally enter the dissertation process thinking that the ultimate product of our labors will be the profound acme of our writing careers. It won’t be. It’ll be pretty good. You’ll read drafts and doubt yourself. But keep writing until it’s done. That’s good enough to graduate. If you ask me how I feel about my dissertation, I will tell you, “It’s done.” To this point, I’ve successfully repressed the urge to edit it… for the six hundredth time. As Dr. Daley also astutely points out, the dissertation is the beginning of your research agenda, not the end. More and better work will come. Just finish the thing.
Kristopher Thomas successfully defended his dissertation, “Compelled to be Connected: An Ethnographic Exploration of Organizational Culture, Work-life Balance, and the Use of Mobile Workplace Technology” in the Fall of 2013 and graduated from UWM in December 2013. He currently works as a Leadership Development Manager at MillerCoors in Milwaukee.