So You Want to Write a Dissertation?

by Cate Mahoney

First of all, WOW, it’s going to be a long road. But you can do it! So many people have!

For full disclosure, I’m writing a dissertation for the humanities, English literature specifically. My specialty is poetry, and I range from around the 1830s-1960s in the U.S. I’m hoping, though, that my advice can pertain to all fields.

Before you write a dissertation, you need to write what’s called a dissertation prospectus. As the name suggests, the prospectus maps out what shape you think the dissertation is going to take. The keyword being “think.” I liken writing the prospectus to writing a grant proposal, although there’s no money involved. What I mean by this is: you’re announcing that others should invest in this vital project, but it’s a project that does not exist yet, and you have no real idea what you will discover – but it’s vital! It needs to have legs! Who knows where they will go!

My dissertation prospectus advisor, who at the time was Princeton English professor Sophie Gee, had us think of the dissertation prospectus in this, more elegant way: it is a box. We don’t know what’s in the box yet, but we need to describe what elements make up the sides of the box. One side might be a certain text or author, one side might be a type of criticism, one side might be a question. You, prospective dissertation writer, know that you’re building something, but you’re not sure what it will be for exactly – especially since the sides may change, the shape may shift, the questions may diversify.

When I started writing my dissertation, I had to confront the fact that I had no idea what it would feel like to write one. A dissertation chapter is not an academic paper, not a meditative essay, not a conference paper. It’s new. My dissertation advisors (the three professors who will read my dissertation, edit and critique it, and then judge whether or not it’s up to snuff for a doctorate) told me that the first chapter is the hardest because it’s the first. The order in which you write your chapters does not really matter; I started with my more recent poet, Frank O’Hara, and worked backwards to Emily Dickinson.

The trick is to start and to keep going no matter what. This can mean one sentence a day (hopefully, it’s a bit more). As I wrote in my earlier post on writer’s block, there are times when forcing the brain and the keyboard doesn’t really work. I think key tips for writing are to take breaks and talk to people about the work. So much of writing is not writing but thinking, breathing, speaking it through. If you’re having a tough time conceptualizing in writing what you are thinking or need to get across, talk it out with someone. It may not make sense to you, but talking to another person will help you consider how to explain it to them and to yourself anew. On the other hand, you may have an idea what you’re trying to argue but your sounding board lets you know that they have no clue what you’re talking about – and this is helpful to know as well.

The great regret of the grad student, I’ve found via Twitter and elsewhere, is the idea that “you should be writing.” Sure, sometimes you want to clean the house instead of polishing your prose. Sure, you might want to bake some bread so you don’t have to wrestle with your footnotes. But the price of such digressions is guilt, insidious and debilitating. To assuage it, set yourself a specific time in which you will concentrate only on the task at hand, which is putting one foot (letter) in front of the other. This may happen while your loaves rise or between loads of laundry. You may find yourself writing in fifteen-minute increments, but that’s okay.

Perseverance is key. You can do it!