Category Archives: Academic Writing

It Takes as Long as it Takes

I recently recovered from finished my dissertation, which turned out well, and some of my friends, colleagues, and faculty advisors have encouraged me to share about my experience.  So consider this the first installment of my blog series on such advice.

Throughout my time in graduate school, and especially during the dissertation process, I heard graduate student after graduate student worrying or lamenting about how long the dissertation process takes.  These concerns are understandable in light of the length of doctoral programs and the large amount of emotional, mental, and even physical energy that they require of students.   These concerns make even more sense when you take account of the fact that graduate students are already somewhat fatigued by the time they entire the dissertation phase of the program.  However, time should not be a concern.  The process takes as long as it takes.

There are many books on the market that come up with somewhat arbitrary schedules for students to take to finish the dissertation faster.  Work for at least 1 hour a day.  Write one page a day before breakfast or before bed.  While I understand the intention of such advice to provide students with more structure, the exact nature of these regimens is, as I mentioned before, arbitrary and, particularly if you are writing a social science or humanities dissertation, not even helpful or realistic.  Here’s why:

1)The nature of dissertation work requires extensive reading, reviewing, and incorporating of a significant amount of detailed information and setting aside only one hour per work session will result in wasting a large portion of that time remembering where you left off, reviewing your plan for what to do next, and rereading relevant source materials.  You might avoid some of this wasted time by devoting one of your one hour sessions to planning, and you might get away with it more during the research stage of the dissertation.  However, in my experience one hour is rarely enough to really accomplish anything.

2) The one hour or one page quota will be even less helpful during the writing process, particularly so if your research is in the humanities and social sciences and is qualitative in nature.  During the writing stage the amount of time lost to getting yourself back into the chapter or sub-section of your dissertation for each writing session increases significantly, and when you factor in the incorporation of secondary source materials, primary source or interview quotations and anecdotes, and the development of a sophisticated (read: complex) argument worthy of your dissertation one page of writing may easily take well over an hour after you account for rereading what you wrote the session before to remember where you were going.

My advice: Forget arbitrary quotas and cookie-cutter deadlines for the dissertation process, they will only be a source of frustration when your process starts seeming to take longer you think it should.  Instead, find what works for you.  The spirit of the advice that you should work one hour a day or write one page a day until it is done is still valuable:

You do want to figure out ways to make sure you keep working and keep moving throughout the process.  For more qualitative dissertations, I recommend making sure you devote several significant chunks of time a week to working on your project, especially during the writing phase.  And by significant, I suggest at least four hour chunks of time.  Because each time you sit down to work, and especially each time you sit down to write, it takes a good 10-20 minutes to truly re-position yourself in the project and in your writing, using a longer chunk of time will increase the overall amount of time you spend in the writing “zone” where you are most efficient.  In other words, instead of having a short review and mind resetting process each time you sit down for your hourly session every day, having fewer sessions means less time wasted on review and more time actively engaging in the work that will help you finish faster: the writing itself.

3) Because the dissertation is a long project, both in time and length of final product, working in longer stretches of time enables you to a finish subsection of a dissertation chapter in one sitting as opposed to over the course of an entire week (or perhaps even longer).  It is better to be very productive in two or three sections a week than it is to be marginally productive in shorter sections even if you “force” yourself to work everyday.

4)Finally, developing a work plan that incorporates longer work sessions but fewer of them helps provide you with very important down time “away” from your dissertation that is necessary to maintain sanity during the process.  If you are like me, and I assume at least some people are, you think about your research and writing most of the time when you are not working anyway, but allowing yourself to take days off of intense work sessions will make the process better for you.

Of course, all of this advice centers around your ability to find what research and writing strategies work for you, and gaining an understanding of how you work most efficiently.  The earlier you develop these understandings in the process, the less frustrating the overall experience of researching, writing, and finishing the dissertation will be.  Remember, it takes as long as it takes. 

More dissertation related advice to follow…

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Filed under Academic Writing, General, Grad School, Graduate School Advice

Summer Strategies for Graduate Students Part III: Writing for Tomorrow Today.

In Part II I shared some strategies for reading over the summer that have worked for me at various stages of my graduate program. Reading over the summer is a great way to increase your knowledge of your field and to get ahead start on program requirements that are looming ahead in the coming academic year. However, reading is not the only activity that graduate students can engage in over the summer that can make their immediate and long-term futures more promising. Today I am going to discuss how graduate students can use the summer to write.

Throughout the academic year, graduate students engage in many activities or encounter ideas that can potentially lead to summer writing projects. Here are a few strategies that I have used in the past to advance my academic livelihood by devoting significant portions of my summer to writing.

      1. The Term-Paper Transformation. In my post on reading I talked about identifying areas of interest that you did not have the opportunity to pursue in detail in your coursework and devote time to reading them over the summer. This strategy is sort of the opposite. Reflect back on the past year of coursework and the research or scholarly projects that you completed as term-papers for your courses. Do any of them stand out? If you find yourself still thinking about a term-paper topic a great deal or if you did particularly well on one of them it is a good idea to take the summer to transform the paper. If you are a younger student, you might begin by meeting with the professor for that course to talk about ways to improve the paper and proceed from there. For more advanced graduate students, I recommend thinking about old term papers as potential future conference papers and, eventually, publications. Conference papers are a nice transitional stage between the term paper stage and the publication stage, and it is never too early to start thinking about presenting at conferences (I will address the issue of conferences in more detail in later posts). Regardless of your goal, however, the important point here is to continue developing promising projects that you began as term papers. Doing this can help advance your thinking, lead you toward potential thesis or dissertation topics, and foster your professional development by introducing you to the process of maturing research or scholarly paper projects. At the beginning, you may need more direct guidance from the faculty in your program, but as you mature as a graduate student you will begin to get a feel for what a term paper needs to transform it into a conference paper.

      2. Controlling the Conference Carousel. Academic conferences occur throughout the year, and the deadlines for proposals to present at them are generally 6-9 months before the conference date. This means that if you are trying to stay active and involved in your field (and that’s never a bad idea) you will likely have both conference proposals and papers at different stages at any given time. The summer is a good time to get control of this conference carousel (or at least get caught up). If you proposed to present at a conference that occurs in the fall, you will likely hear if your paper was accepted by the early to middle portion of the summer. If you were accepted, the summer is the time to write and edit the conference paper (not the fall quarter right before the conference). At the same time, if you’d like to present at a conference that is scheduled for the winter or fall, your proposal would likely be due over the summer, and you would want to save time for that. The conference carousel gets even more intense if you are also developing proposals and papers for your research group as part of a graduate student researcher/research assistant position, and in these cases making the most of the summer is invaluable. The bottom line is that you don’t want to be trying to cram for academic conferences during the academic year. It is unnecessary stress and graduate students already have enough.

      3. Pushing for Publications. Another possible focus of your energy over the summer is developing a conference paper or other serious project into a publication. Here, just as in the term-paper transition strategy, you would want to procure feedback about your work (and a conference is a great place to hear what other people think) and then consider how you want to respond to that feedback. Not all feedback from conference chairs, discussants, panelists, or other colleagues needs to be addressed, but it is always a good idea to pay special attention to their remarks because if you intend to submit your work to a journal it would be sent to experts in your field. I find it best to plan for and pursue several rounds of this feedback-reflection-editing cycle before even considering submission somewhere (hopefully using the various faculty in your program). I find it easier to focus on such a large task during the summer, when I have fewer obligations to the graduate program and the university.

Obviously, these are not the only ways to utilize writing over the summer, but, outside of developing thesis or dissertation-related work, I think these three strategies are the best ways to advance your work while also making your life during the coming academic year easier. The less you have to worry about developing side research projects, conference proposals and papers, or publishing your work during the “school” year, the more you will be able to devote your energies to successfully completing your coursework or other program requirements. And if you can do all that, while still increasing your research and presentation experiences, all the better. Spending some time to write today with your eye on tomorrow is never a bad idea.

Earlier Posts in this series:

Part I

Part II

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Filed under Academic Writing, Conferences, Grad School, Graduate School Advice, Publishing