Tag Archives: Graduate School advice

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