Friday, September 14, 2007

How to Survive a Dissertation: Part I



Now that I am a bonafide PhD, I do not claim to know anything and everything about writing dissertations. (Nor do I resemble anything close to the above figure). I do know what helped me. Writing it here does NOT mean I always followed my own advice, but when I did, I reaped the rewards. I decided to consolidate my dissertation experiences into a helpful guide (I hope) and this idea has already received an enthusiastic endorsement from several friends who are dissertators. This post will offer some general advice that is applicable to any long writing project, not just a dissertation. I hope you find it useful!


1. Carry a moleskine, small notebook, whatever suits your purpose. Have another one on your bedside table, and another at your home work station.


Ideas have a bad habit of appearing at the most inconvenient times. As any good GTDer knows, the Ubiquitous Capture Tool (UCT) is of the utmost import. This is especially true for the dissertator. If you think you'll remember to write it down, you probably won't. Don't take chances. (Moleskines or a notebook with a pocket are especially helpful if you run into a dissertation contact who hands you their card). While PDAs can be good UCTs, generally they get a little overloaded if you have a flurry of inspiration and your idea translates into an entire paragraph or two of workable material.

2. Envision the end. Use your imagination.

When gravity is seemingly pulling you toward the molten core of the earth, stop what you are doing and allow yourself to daydream. For me, it helped to think about calling my college mentor and introducing myself as "Dr." For you, it might be something else: telling your parents, eating that pint of Ben & Jerry's you promised yourself, whatever. Allow yourself to fantasize. There is a whole lot of data out there about the positive effects of envisioning your goal. Close your eyes and let yourself really feel whatever emotions you'd like. This may sound cheesy, but it really does help when you feel isolated and like no one really cares if you finish.


3. Beware the Vices and the Stress

Watch the drinking, smoking, caffeine, (insert your own vice). Life will continue after the dissertation and you'll want to be healthy enough to enjoy it. Graduate School takes enough of a toll on your health without you helping! That said, I am not suggesting you become an ascetic. Just watch yourself. If you notice that you are using alcohol (for instance) as a crutch, something has to change. I promise that your dissertation won't get written any faster if you drink a martini, or two, or three. I can attest to this (lest you think I'm a hypocrite).

Make time to exercise. You've got to. Even if it is only a half hour of stretching, working on a Liszt piano concerto, whatever. While I didn't graph it, I'm fairly sure there was a direct correlation between the days I exercised and the days I was most productive.


Meditate. I don't mean that you have to sit on a mat in the lotus position and hum. That is an option, however. Just take some quiet time alone to concentrate on your breathing. This can be in your house, or in some nice outside locale. I recommend this especially before you sit down to write.

Take breaks and take them often. Do not even attempt to do three hours of uninterrupted dissertation work. If you have three hours of work in you, it will happen on its own. Set a more reasonable goal, even if it is only fifteen minutes (see book recommendation below). USE A TIMER. A general rule, however, is that the break should be shorter than the work time.

Posture. While this may seem like a no-brainer, most people who sit at the computer all day have terrible posture (myself included). This really will affect your emotional/psychological well-being and your ability to focus. Make sure you have a good chair with good lumbar support. Your abdominal muscles should be supporting your spine. Your arms should be supported on your desk when you type. Better carriage gives you more energy. I forget my posture at almost an hourly rate, so I have a post-it on my computer that says "POSTURE." Your chiropractor will thank you.

4. Fifteen Minutes a Day

I've read quite a few books on how to write a dissertation and I'll be reviewing them here. One of the best, in my opinion, is Joan Bolker's Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes A Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. Bolker has numerous worthy suggestions and excellent practical advice, but what I'd like to focus on is the "fifteen minute" idea. EVERYONE has fifteen minutes.

The hardest part to writing (anything) is getting started. Sitting down to "draft a chapter" is a far more daunting task than sitting down to write fifteen minutes of material. More often than not, 15 minutes will turn into an hour without you thinking about it. But, on the days it doesn't, the likelihood is that you will have at least a couple sentences of usable material. If you are feeling really unmotivated, I suggest what I call "barfing it out" (elegant, yes?). Don't worry if it isn't pretty or doesn't even make logical sense...just get it out of your head and on to the paper. Leave it be, then return to it the next day to see what you can extract from the gobbeldygook. You may be surprised.


The next installment will feature more practical advice on maintaining bibliographies, MS Word strategies, backups and exciting topics like that! I look forward to comments and helpful tips from my readers!!

1 comment:

Elissa Harbert said...

Great advice! I will save it for later:)

MUSICALLY MISCELLANEOUS MAYHEM

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