OH MY GOD, a full draft.

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AWOL again, and for a whole month!  I know, I know.  I keep thinking about this blog, but every time I think about updating I keep thinking, well, I could be spending the time updating on working on my dissertation!

I made a serious breakthrough, both in a conventional sense and in a mental space-sense.  The conventional one is that I have a complete manuscript of all 5 chapters of my dissertation.  YES.  It’s in pieces – in 5 separate Word documents, for right now, imported from Scrivener (opens in a new tab/window).  But it’s still complete.  There’s only one connective piece I need to put in, which is that I have to insert my hypotheses and the conceptual model for them somewhere, and I am not quite sure where to do that.  (It’s either at the end of the literature review, or the beginning of the methods.  I’m leaning towards beginning of the methods section).  My task right now is editing it and compiling into a Word document.

This is more time-consuming and difficult than it might sound.  The reason is because I want my Word document to be useful, if that makes sense.  I’ve gotten Word document copies of friends’ dissertations to use as a reference, and they are behemoths.  My dissertation is, at present, about 110 pages; when I add the section on hypotheses & conceptual model and format it with all of the front matter, it’ll probably be closer to 120.  And that’s not including the references and appendices.  Nobody wants to scrollscrollscroll through all that.  I know that my examiners/committee will want hard copies (UGH) but I am also taking it upon myself to try to make the Word document more easily navigable, for editing purposes as well.  So, for example, I am inserting bookmarks at the beginning of every section.  I am also formatting the headings so that I can auto-generate a table of contents when I’m ready (more about that in a separate post on tools).  I’m planning to link to each bookmark from the table of contents.  That way you don’t have to scroll if you want to read one section!

I’m also editing it, which you could understand why that might take a while.  My advice for writing is totally different than what I might have said 6 years ago.  I was the ever-careful writer, editing as I went along, stopping myself ever so often to insert a better worded sentence.  Not so anymore!  Now, I just write.  That is my philosophy.  In fact, I wrote it on a white board behind my monitor until I got the hang of it.  Writing is at least 50% rewriting/editing/revising; you can find a better way to say it later, but it’s best to just get it on the damn paper.  That said, I have many more typos, spelling errors, and structural errors than I would’ve had in a first draft from 6 years ago.

(Well, perhaps it evened out – I am also a much better writer than I was 6 years ago.  So there would be fewer of those errors overall, but I’m more likely to let them slip in the first draft.)

The second breakthrough that happened is that I started to like the process of writing my dissertation and thinking about research.

My doctoral program occurred kind of like a dip, or a parabolic curve.  Years 1 and 2 were pretty good.  During years 3 and 4, I entered a progressively worse depression and frustrating period.  I began to emerge out of that in year 5, and year 6 has overall been pretty good.  During years 3 and 4, I lost a lot of love for – well, a lot of things, but research and writing being two of them.  I began to wonder why anyone would want to do this for the rest of their lives, and formulated an exit plan from academia and perhaps research in general.  It was hard to remember why I had entered a PhD program.

Year 5 helped me emerge from the depression in a more personal way.  I got married, and I reconnected to my friends.  I started exercising and eating more healthily and overall just spending more time on my personal development.  I think I had hit the pavement a bit too hard in my first two years, and got burned out quickly.  Year 6 was spent reconnecting to myself as a scholar, and I rediscovered my love for research and writing.  I actually really mostly enjoyed writing my dissertation – even the data analysis and the literature review.  Yes, it was an intensely independent act of scholarship, but that was the best part of it.  I love working with other people, but this is a project that is largely my own.  I was able to dig into some topics I really love and read widely about the background of them.  I taught myself some important skills and concepts – all the way from theoretical foundations of the early part of my field to new statistical techniques to how to create a freaking table of contents in Word the right way.

So one of the most useful things about this project is that it taught me how to love research and writing again, and to look forward to a career as an academic and/or researcher.  A lot of people say that their dissertation years were some of the darkest, but I have to come out and say that they can be some of the most enjoyable depending on your outlook.

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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!