Yay! A Chapter!

So today I sent a mostly completed chapter to my advisers!

Kanye snap

I wrote the methods chapter first because that comes easiest to me, and the data is already collected so I could spend a lot of time talking about how that was done and describing the relevant measures.  Plus, I could use large snippets from my dissertation proposal.

It took longer than I expected, and not just because I procrastinated (which I did).  There was a section that was actually difficult and tedious to write – a 5-page section in which I described my data collection method and the historical uses of it.  There’s actually a second section that I have to write about that – concerning latent variable analysis – but I have very little idea of how to do that yet so I left it aside for a bit later in the process.  I anticipate that that will take even later than the section on the first method.  Ugh!  Also my data analysis section is incomplete because duh, I haven’t done the analyses yet.  Haha.

Currently the section is 14 pages long without the references, and when I add the section on latent variable analysis and write/review my data analysis section, I imagine that it will be about 20 pages.  I think if I really think about it, including procrastination periods but counting from when I really started, it took me about 3 weeks to write the rough (and about 80% finished) draft I have now.  I didn’t really work much on the weekends.  I’d say on a good day I banged out 5 pages; on bad days (or days when I was writing that tedious section!) I could eke out a page or sometimes a few paragraphs within a writing section.

EVERY LITTLE BIT COUNTS.  The paper is made up of paragraphs, after all.

My next steps are to actually get through with the analysis and read all of the damn library books I have on the analysis method I am about to use (which I have never used before, and am learning somewhat from scratch, yay D:).  I’m also starting in on the literature review, which I’m looking forward to writing because I figure I’ll actually get a better look into all those books I read (or “read”) for my oral exams.  They’re sitting in the tiny bookcase I have in my desk.  I need a bigger bookcase, really.

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Dissertation writing is hard. Kind of.

I’ve been writing my methods section first, because it’s a little more straightforward and I figured that would be easy.

And for the most part, it is.  Writing about what we’ve already done in the project, and describing the measures I am planning to use and sketching the analyses I am planning to do was easy.  But there’s a part in my methods where I have to describe my dissertation approach and sort of the theory behind the methods I’m using.

Let me be clear: I love methods!  I do.  When job ads say they want someone to teach methods and stats I’m like “Sign me up!”

But theoretical stuff is hard.  Seriously.  It takes more time to write than you think.  When you’re constantly checking references and rifling through papers (or in my case, PDFs on my computer screen in my Zotero library…by the way, I love Zotero) it can take a long time to bang out a page (which, I have figured out, is about 250-300 words in Times New Roman 12-point font with 1″ margins all around).  And it’s not just that…you need to think.  You need time to sit and think and say, “What am I going to say next?”

So I learned a few things from my writing session yesterday.

1. Give yourself that time.  Take a minute or two from writing and stare at the sky and formulate your thought.  Sometimes, writing is more about thinking and theorizing than actual writing – the dissertation writing process seems, at least at this point, to be as much about thinking and analyzing and synthesizing than actually banging away at the keyboard.

2. Sometimes, you need to dump your thoughts on the page.  You can always edit and rearrange later – I learned that when writing papers.  But I learned yesterday that you can always cite later, too.  If you can’t remember the citation off the top of your head…go find it later!  Write while you have the bug!

dissertation progress

I met with two of my committee members (chair and sponsor) on Thursday to talk about steps forward for the dissertation.  My sponsor thinks I should add another (set of) analyses to the dissertation, as he thinks my main aims aren’t ambitious enough for a dissertation.  I agree, but I think where we disagree is what I should do.

I have to say that my dissertation sponsor is pretty much everything an adviser should be.  He’s been my primary adviser since my first year of graduate school, and he’s been really involved and invested in my professional development since the start.  We generally meet every other week (although it’s been less frequently lately, but that’s to be expected).  Because he’s untenured, he needs to be really productive, so that’s translated to me being moderately productive myself.  I’ve got to learn first hand what the role of an assistant professor looks like.  I always proclaim this on boards or when talking to prospective students about graduate school; sometimes they get worried or hear from others that they shouldn’t choose untenured faculty members as advisers because what if they leave?  Not that that’s not a threat, but there are some pros to choosing an untenured faculty member as a sponsor too.

However, my sponsor’s #1 suggestion was to do some coding of a qualitative question in the longitudinal part of my dissertation data (some of the data is cross-sectional, taken at time 1, and some of it is qualitative taken at times 1-8).  I think this is a very very bad idea. I’d have to come up with a codebook and code 8 weeks’ worth of qualitative statements, however short they are.  I really dislike coding qualitative data (as much as I realize that it’s useful).  I’m a quantitative researcher, and I want my dissertation and the subsequent papers to be examples of my work not only as a substance use researcher but also as a methodologist and quantitative researcher.  But more importantly, the qualitative work will take a LOT of time and throw off my timeline substantially, I think.  (I might also add that my sponsor has a little bit of a history of suggesting work that will take a really long time.)

My chair, thankfully, agrees with me.

My idea was to do a latent class analysis or structural equation model looking at one of the constructs I’m investigating as a latent variable.  The idea is to see what elements really make up that latent variable, and try to put some definition to the construct.  There’s been calls in the literature in my field to examine this construct in more depth in the context of my area, and some really relevant recent research, so I’m thinking it’ll be well-received in the field.  My chair likes this idea.  My sponsor does too, but he’s a bit skeptical about whether it’s “enough.”  (I don’t know what “enough” is, unfortunately.)  There’s another person on my committee who’s big into this area of the field and so I think I want to make an appointment with him to ask him about it.

But then a thought just occurred…if he didn’t think it was “enough,” why let me go forward with the proposal?  After all the proposal WAS accepted!  I mean, I don’t mind because I really like thinking about this stuff and the prospect of the new area actually excites me, even though I know it will be difficult.

Whatever.

Yesterday I made an outline of my dissertation.

Five years ago I would’ve never outlined anything – I would’ve just barreled into the project and started writing.  That’s a great way to to get lost, I now realize.  My outline estimates my dissertation at 90-120 pages, which is a short dissertation but a long paper!  So trying to approach this from the perspective of “I’m going to work on my dissertation today,” or even “I’m going to work on my literature review (30-45 pages) today” is not a good idea.  I’ve also discovered that I write best in a non-linear fashion, because I build up momentum as I work.  So it’s easier for me to start with a section that I know I can whip out faster – like the methods section, which is easy to write because we already did the project and it’s straightforward.  That gets some words on the paper, which gives me confidence when I go to write the much more nebulous (but also really fun) literature review.

So now I can say “I am going to complete my subsection on the communal aspects of green reed underwater basketweaving today,” which is a 2-page section and something I can realistically complete in one day.

I used my own experiences to help my students when teaching them writing – I taught them to do outlines over the summer.  Some of them balked until they started writing and then came up to tell me how useful their outlines were.  It keeps you from getting lost in your words!  It’s like a road map.  You don’t have to stick rigidly to it – in fact, you may find a better/shorter way to go, and alter your path.  But when you get lost and don’t know where to go next, the outline helps you find your way back.  I outline all of my papers now, even if briefly and loosely.

The literature review and methods section are much better outlined than the results and discussion, which makes sense given that I haven’t done the analysis yet.  I have my lit review chapters organized into major sections that are 5 to 12 pages in length; those sections are then organized into subsections that are typically 2-4 pages in length.  My methods section is projected at 15-20 pages total, but I also have that split into 5 major sections that are on average 2-3 pages in length, although some are projected to be slightly longer.

I’m a super dork but I’m actually excited about this, especially writing the literature review (which previously was my least favorite section to write).  I’m excited because I get to read about the history of the work done in this field plus the fresh work, and synthesize it all together.  And I’ve learned how fun learning by doing is in the last few years.  Coursework kind of sucks, but I didn’t mind qualifying exams at all – the studying process was stressful but intriguing – and this process has been a learning experience, too.

I also got new running sneakers yesterday.  I am so over the moon about these running sneakers.  I went running in them yesterday and I feel like a new person.  My body wasn’t crying out in protest after the run was over (just my lungs).  I also found out that they are the same sneakers Wendy Davis wore during her 11-hour filibuster, which made me happy.