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Journey Through the Dissertation

Earlier this semester, I attended a writing workshop organized by Jacqueline Stimson, who is not only my cohort-mate in the Department of Classical Studies, but also a very skilled writer and someone who has thought (and continues to think) deeply about the process of writing. She organized this panel with two of her colleagues from the 2016 Rackham/Sweetland Dissertation Writing Institute (DWI)—Sarah E. Erickson (Communication Studies) and Kelly E. Slay (School of Education). As an aside, I can say from personal experience that the DWI provides wonderful support and training for people in the dissertation process. I participated in the program in the summer of 2015, and I benefited a great deal from the structure, collaboration, and feedback that I received. As a further aside, for those of you who are not familiar with the DWI, it’s a wonderful program known fondly to many of its graduates as the “Dissertation Dungeon”— you’re given private office space (for many of us, it was office space in the basement of North Quad — hence, “dungeon”) and a stipend. You’re also organized into interdisciplinary workshop groups in which you workshop a chapter or section of someone’s dissertation each week. I don’t know the precise numbers on this, but anecdotally, DWI certainly seems to be one of the best, most reliable ways to make some serious progress toward a dissertation defense.

Journey Through the Dissertation Flyer

Journey Through the Dissertation Flyer.

All that being said, Jacqui finished her stint in the Dungeon and realized how much she had learned about the dissertation writing process and wanted to spread that knowledge more broadly. There is, as many of you no-doubt know, a great deal of anxiety around the dissertation process, and by the time most of us have figured out how to navigate this process, we’re about ready to defend, and we take that hard-earned knowledge with us. That’s one of the reasons that this panel was so useful—and it was apparent that there’s a need for more of these kinds of conversations. As an audience member (and one who’s already defended), I had a somewhat removed perspective on the discussion, and I was struck by how hungry graduate students are for this sort of advice and mentorship.

A few themes emerged right away from this panel. The first was that interdisciplinary feedback is extremely useful for dissertators. We often think about the content of our dissertation above all else, for obvious and understandable reasons, but that can lead to a myopic focus on content over style. Workshopping a chapter with graduate students from other departments can be one of the most effective tools for making stylistic improvements—interdepartmental readers are not generally qualified to speak to the content of our writing, so they are primarily focused on the organization, style, and persuasiveness of the writing.

Another theme that several panelists addressed was the phases of a dissertation. Sarah Erickson talked about the four phases of a dissertation: "let's do this," "burn-out/slog," "everything is garbage," and "claiming ownership." As you might guess from these titles, she was talking about the emotional rollercoaster that a dissertation can often be. Speaking with the benefit of hindsight, Sarah honestly described the highs and lows that she experienced in the research and writing process. The transition from initial enthusiasm to burnout and despair can be a disheartening one for many dissertators, and because we don’t often talk openly about the emotional toll that this can exact, we end up wrestling with feelings of doubt and discouragement. By talking frankly about this process—and how she emerged on the other side, ready to claim ownership of her own research and ideas and move forward with her work—Sarah shed some light on a common struggle that so many graduate students face. Most importantly, she reinforced that this experience is common and that having these feelings in no way means that you or your research is a failure.

Kelly Slay spoke about another thing that (in my opinion) we don’t discuss enough in academia: the importance of doing work that you really care about. The dissertation process is long and hard and if you don’t have some passion driving your work, finishing a dissertation will be incredibly difficult. Many fields place, to my mind, far too much emphasis on the “critical distance” and on being objective, and this focus can make us shy away from the idea of a personal, emotional investment in our work. Kelly’s comments here were very refreshing!

Jacqui also spoke encouragingly about how the dissertation process speeds up. Like any skill, we get better at writing with practice, and while the first chapter of a dissertation is a long, difficult process, she reassured the audience that each subsequent chapter tends to take less time and be less challenging to write. This is such an important thing to remember, because the first chapter (and everything that has to happen before you even feel ready to start writing that first chapter) can seem so overwhelming that it can almost be paralyzing.

All three panelists spoke openly about the dissertation in a way that addressed the significant challenges that graduate students face. All three talked about what to consider when assembling a committee and the unexpected difficulties that can arise on this front. We heard that not every committee member needs to share your exact research interests, but that finding people who are compatible with one another and with you is extremely important. They talked about the difficulty of getting started and ways to combat writer’s block. They talked movingly about anxiety and other mental health challenges they faced in the dissertation process. We also heard about their different experiences with their advisors and what they each learned about how and when to ask for help (rather than, as so many of us do, trying to power through a research slump all on our own). They also shared a series of helpful lessons they learned along the way. Kelly, for instance, reminded us all that “any writing is good writing” and even if the writing doesn’t make it into the dissertation, it might be useful for a grant application or something else, down the road, or it might just help focus your mind and lead to better writing that will belong in your dissertation. Jacqui and Kelly both talked about finding out that one of their ideas had been “scooped” and how to react in that situation (“getting scooped” is when someone else publishes or otherwise presents the ideas you’re developing, often inducing a mild panic at the thought that all your ideas are no longer original or viable). We also heard about what it’s like to be in the terrifying position of having an advisor leave mid-dissertation. They talked about the importance of finding and creating structure in your writing life and the value in sharing work early and often (even if you might be embarrassed at the roughness of a very rough draft).

As someone who has finished my dissertation, I was in the minority in the audience, but that also gave me the perspective to think about what I learned about writing and collaborating over the process of my own dissertation. I would have loved to hear this sort of thoughtful advice when I started my own writing process. All three women had clearly reflected on their own scholarship and were unafraid to share the failures they experienced on the way to their dissertation success. I feel confident that this panel will help many of the graduate students in the audience navigate their writing process in a smoother fashion. They will still face the inevitable obstacles along the way, but the discussion that took place at this panel should help them develop strategies to overcome those challenges. I hope that this is the first of many collaborations of this sort between Rackham and Sweetland, because there is both need and demand for more of these conversations.

Below is a Storify I put together with images and my impressions from the panel as it took place. I encourage you to take a look!