Finding Success while Dissertating

The dissertation.

It’s a term that can spark an array of emotions in PhD candidates: excitement, fear, dread, exhaustion, curiosity, or even panic. A feeling that also emerges as one nears the end of such a monumental project is a growing sense of accomplishment. It is a feeling that, regardless of what may happen after graduation, one can look at their completed dissertation and say, “wrote that.”

Writing a dissertation is a remarkably difficult process. I can only speak of my experience working in the humanities, but I have no doubt that the difference of discipline in no way diminishes the challenges posed by constructing and writing original research. Oddly enough, before I took my comprehensive exams, I wasn’t that worried about the dissertation. I wrote a thesis while completing my Master’s degree in history, and I wrote so many papers for classes throughout my graduate career, the dissertation didn’t seem so daunting. Once I became immersed in the process, however, I felt a sense of shock at just how different the experience was.

6 Steps

The dissertation stage is the point when many PhD candidates falter. The structure of coursework and exams vanishes. While you have an advisor and a committee to guide you and provide feedback through the process, you are responsible for the doing the research, and – most importantly – writing a cohesive manuscript that presents (and proves!) original research. That requires a great deal of self motivation, and finding that motivation is no easy feat.

While I still have a way to go – editing and writing the conclusion – I have drafted the bulk of my dissertation, and my committee chair felt confident in my ability to defend in the fall. It feels a bit surreal, and also underwhelming. The grind of editing is nothing to shrug off, and the conclusion, while I do have much of the research compiled and a thesis in mind, still does not exist. I know that steady work, though, will see me through to the end. By December of 2015, I should have my degree in hand.

Writing my dissertation has been an educational experience, to say the least. While the last thing the world needs is another blog post about writing a dissertation, I wanted to share some of the important lessons I learned throughout the process.

1.) Research takes a very long time.

Don’t underestimate the amount of time it takes to compile, read, and analyze the sources you need for a book-length project. I sorely misjudged how long it would take me to gather sources and determine how I might use them. Because of funding restrictions, some research trips forced (what I came to call) a ‘slash-and-burn’ approach to gathering materials. This was especially true for international research trips. Archives that allowed photographs became my favorite places in the world. I photographed as much as I could – anything that appeared like it might be useful. I gathered, and gathered…

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Researching at the National Archives UK.

When I returned home, the real challenge began. I converted the pictures into PDFs to make reading the picture files easier (I still have only done this for a fraction of the collections I looked at, simply due to the insane amount of time this converting process took.) Then, I found myself staring at thousands of pictures. For weeks. Months. I stared at pictures – squinting, zooming – doing everything I could to decipher the words written in a letter five centuries ago. I took notes. So many notes. All of this was simply to see if any of the documents fit into the idea of what I imagined my dissertation would be about.

Respect the research, but more importantly – respect the amount of time it requires.

2.) The project will change as you write.

I wrote three chapters before the overarching narrative of my dissertation became clear. The idea of a dissertation prospectus (the lengthy written overview of the project) that departments often require is to help you go into the research and writing process with a clear idea of what you want to accomplish. There is value in writing a prospectus, but the project I wrote about in that document bears zero resemblance to the dissertation I produced.

Many PhD students are familiar with this. They know going into the dissertation stage that the project will evolve, and it should evolve, based on the documents you use. Still, what I didn’t expect was how much the project would change when I was deep into the writing. The first few chapters were more like seminar papers, linked together by topic and timeframe, but the overarching connections were not clear. You don’t always know where the story will go until you write it. It wasn’t until I wrote the second-to-last body chapter that it started to make sense. This means I need to go back and revise the earlier chapters to fit the narrative, but at least I now have that sense of direction in mind.

Don’t let the shifting nature of the project deter you, though. Writing without a sense of direction is challenging, but it can also reveal unexpected changes in the narrative.

3.) The information you gather doesn’t mean anything until you write about it.

This was the best advice I received during the entire process. While I worked as a research fellow at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, Dr. Doug Bradburn, the Founding Director of the Library, often checked in on the fellows and offered his advice, especially to the fellows who were graduate students. During a conversation we had, Doug said, “You have all of this information in your head, but it is just mush – it doesn’t mean anything – until you write about it.” While slightly paraphrased, the meaning of this statement stuck with me. I struggled a lot with the ‘I have all of this stuff, what am I supposed to do with it?’ questions, but Doug’s advice helped me kick things into gear. Any time I became stuck or felt overwhelmed with the amount of work I had left to do, I recalled that advice, and I sat down to write.

It is only in the writing process that the meaning of documents, the direction of an argument, or even the narrative of the story becomes clear. So…

4.) Shut up and write.

This is a popular phrase used by writers. A quick Google search will bring up a litany of blog posts and other web pages that promote the mantra: “Shut up and write.” There is even a #shutupandwrite hashtag on Twitter. I made my own “motivational monk” who constantly looks down on my desk with these words displayed in his hand.


Some have pushed back against this, viewing the phrase as a form of ‘shaming’ people into writing. Personally, I like it. It works for me. I combined that mantra with a daily word count goal popularized by L.D. Burnett’s “Grafton Line” challenge. The idea is to write every day with a word count goal in mind. I set mine at 500 words. I figured that writing 500 words a day roughly translated into a chapter per month. Most days I met that goal, other days… well, I did what I could. There were writing days when things flowed so well, I embodied the song, “Walking on Sunshine.” Other days, it took everything I had just to reach 500 words. Those days felt like true battles. But I stuck to it, and the results were surprising.

I kept track of my daily progress in the Notes app on my phone. This helped keep me accountable.

At the start of the summer, my committee chair and I agreed to a plan: write two chapter drafts (the last two body chapters of my dissertation) before the start of the fall semester, and I could plan on defending before December. It felt daunting. I knew going into this plan that the last two chapters would be the most difficult. In the midst of those summer writing goal, I moved to a new city, I got married – you know, life kept happening. Still, every day, I sat down and I wrote. The first of the two chapter drafts went in July 3, and I submitted the second on August 14.

Daily goals and persistence resulted in over 100 pages of written work in about two months. While people may push back against feeling ‘shamed’ into writing, writing is the only way a dissertation will come into existence. If you don’t like ‘Shut up and Write,’ maybe try a ‘Just Do It,’ approach – though Nike may want some royalties for that…

The dissertation is a beast. While mine is not yet complete, I can see the finish line. There will be days when finishing it seems impossible. There will be days when you question your life choices. But there will also be days when you can look back through all of your drafts, see the massive amount of work you’ve done, and feel a sense of pride that you wrote that.

Best of luck to all the ‘dissertaters’ out there! Now, back to work…


Gaining Time, Losing Structure: Hello, Summer

Finding time to write in the midst of teaching presents a number of challenges. This always makes the time between semesters seem especially appealing – oh, the things I could accomplish with that much time! The end of the semester, though, brings with it a loss of structure. For me, this makes establishing a routine crucial to ensuring stead progress over the summer months. Normally, I try to find some means of employment over the summer, but as my goal is to defend my dissertation in the fall (!!), I need as much time as possible to write and revise.

How to do this?

I’ve heard others discuss an array of strategies; some treat writing like a 9-5 job. They “clock in,” get to work, and when five o’clock hits, they “clock out.” I tried this approach for a few weeks, and I would categorize my success at this approach as mediocre (at best). Others have told me they have set days and a set location to work. For the three or four days that worked best for their schedule, they wrote as much as they possibly could. Again, I attempted to adopt aspects of this approach, but any interruptions to the schedule proved frustrating.

What I do need, though, is structure. I like to self-impose deadlines (finish drafting X chapter by X date; revise by X; submit – wash, rinse, repeat). I also agree that having a set location to work is crucial. Whether it be a coffee shop (which are just too noisy for me), a campus office (which are usually too busy with socializing), or a home office (my preferred setup), an established place to work is key. For awhile, I found myself bouncing between work stations, and it was a very unproductive experience.

One thing I did learn about myself when I attempted the 9-5 writing schedule is what hours proved to be the most productive. For me, 10-2 is ‘prime time’; for some reason, writing comes easier within that time block. Others have said that writing late at night or early in the morning is best for them. Finding that time that works for you can be tricky, but once it is established, stick with it.

Two o’clock is the true doldrums of the day. (Image credit: “*head-desk*,” [insert nifty phrase])

With time and place nailed down, it’s just a matter of doing it. My goal is to write every day; it doesn’t always happen, because life doesn’t necessarily fit with my schedule. Still, to write something each day is a way to hold myself accountable. When I do write, I aim to reach 500 words. This is something that resulted from a post written by LD Burnett on her blog, “Saved By History.” In what she called “The Grafton Line,” Burnett found that setting a word count goal that was manageable for every day writing resulted in great progress. After reading that post I determined to try to write 500 words per day; that roughly translate to a chapter per month. If I stick to this goal throughout the summer, there is no reason why I should not be in a good place to defend in the fall. Hopefully, it will also result in a steadier stream of blog posts, but only if dissertation progress occurs.

This is simply my take on ways to find structure in what can be structure-less time. What tactics do you use to research or write in-between or during teaching assignments?

Decompressing after the Archives

A few weeks ago, I posted some thoughts on navigating the archives based on my still limited (but growing) experience. The feedback I received was wonderful, but now I find myself left in the sometimes bewildering state of post-archival decompression. One month is both a short and yet still extended amount of time to spend working at one archive. The four weeks I spent at the Massachusetts Historical Society could not have gone any better. The staff were all incredibly friendly and helpful, and I found more resources than I ever anticipated from the outset of my trip. Having a full month to work with, I took the time to read through the documents, which allowed me to think through the ways I can make use of them.

Working in the Reading Room at the MHS.

One thing that continually caught me off-guard, however, was just how draining a full day of research could be. A month of steady research was incredibly fruitful – but the question remains:  what to do now? The easy answer is to go back and look at the sources I acquired and begin to fit them into the dissertation narrative. Some answers are easier said than done.

Research can wear you down, but how does one move forward and keep their eyes on the prize (as my colleagues and I like to tell each other)? While I certainly welcome any advice some might have, here are my thoughts. Of course, everyone has their own methods, but if you find yourself stuck in the quagmire of research and writing, these steps may be of some help.

1.)  Write something – anything – related to your research. Yesterday, when I couldn’t seem to get my head in gear, I sat down and began scribbling notes and sketching out a new outline for a chapter that has been giving me trouble.   For some, freewriting is a productive technique. I have yet to move completely into the realm of writing free of that nagging editor in the back of my head, but it is important to keep writing, even when stuck in a funk.

2.) If writing just isn’t clicking, and it happens, then try reading a book related to your work. Writing a dissertation involves more work than anyone will ever be able to explain to you, and part of that work is mastering the literature that exists on your topic. While you may not get to every single book published in your area, because let’s face it – you have a dissertation to write – it is good to continue to read through those sources. I found myself missing my books while away for a month. Make use of these sources while you have them handy.

3.) When all else fails, pull a Monty Python and do something completely different. If the weather is nice, take a walk. Since it is currently 500° in Texas*, I like to listen to music. Whatever it is that helps you free your brain and shake it loose from any mocking blank pages or disinterest in reading – take twenty or thirty minutes and don’t think about your work. When that time is up, though, be sure to get back to it.

Writing a dissertation is tough. People say it, but it’s hard to know until your are in the thick of it. Still, it is only one part of completing your degree. It took a lot of work just to get to this point – there is no reason to stop now.

It is time for me to follow my own advice. Please leave any further suggestions in the comments below, or send them my way on Twitter (@KristenDBurton). For those on Twitter who would like to reach out to communities of PhDs, PhD students, and scholarly writers, check out these hashtags: #phdchat, #gradschoolproblems, #writingpact, #acwri, #amwriting.

May be an exaggeration.

Working in the Archives

Work in the archives – it’s something historians will do at some point in their career. Even with the increasing number of documents becoming available in digital formats, there is still so much material that remains tucked away in individual archives. Recently, I began a one-month fellowship at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and while this is not the first archival research trip I’ve done, this is still a process that takes time to adapt to. Beginning this most recent trip, I’ve been reminded of all the little details that go into the preparation process. I have also been thinking back on how frustrating it was for me to learn this process from the outset. Naturally, I talked to faculty members about such trips, but I remember wishing someone would just tell me what to expect.

Unfortunately, that is difficult to do. People who made such research trips before told me this, but I was dissatisfied with the information. I wanted to know what it was like to walk into an archive and work with original documents. There were no clear guidelines, but I will try to convey some of the details I now know here.

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Working with some documents at the UK National Archives.

First: Every archive/library/special collections, etc. is different. Not simply in the sense that they are located in different areas or have different materials, but each place has its own way of doing things. It is important to familiarize yourself with these details before you leave. Does an archive allow photography? When is the last call to submit documents? What exactly can you carry with you into the reading room? Each place should have this information available online, but if you can’t find it, then give them a call. It is better to be prepared than caught off guard.

For example, in my first major research trip I visited four archives in London, and each place had different requirements before I would be allowed to work there. Every place will require some form of identification, but make sure you have the right kind (this should be stated on the archive’s website). Some places, like the UK National Archives, required two forms of identification, other places only required one. Some places, they will take your picture and print out an I.D. card that you have to use to scan your way in and out of the reading room, other places, like Lambeth Palace Library, require you bring a passport-style photo with you (to attach to your library I.D. card).

The National Archives, UK (aka, Kew or PRO, Public Record Office).

So, each place has its own way of doing things, and for a number of procedures, you simply have to learn as you go. Also, don’t feel embarrassed if you feel confused or lost! My first day at the UK National Archives was the first time I worked at an archive, period. I was wandering around unsure of where to go when a security guard asked, “First time here?” It was pretty obvious, but that was ok. Archivists, reference librarians, and archival security guards are very nice people who can help you  navigate the building, the process of requesting materials, etc.

Second: Know what you are going for. This isn’t as crucial as making sure you have the right materials to enter the archive, but it helps to have a good idea of what you want to request. Browse the archive’s catalog, if it is online, and build a list of materials you wish to look at while there. It is possible you will have to request these materials a few days in advance, so, again, get in touch with the archivists and learn the procedure.

Organizing this information can be tricky, and you will have to find what works best for you. For me, I like to have a Word file that lists all the materials I plan to request.

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Here are two examples.

This way I know what I want to look at, what form it is available in, and roughly how big the collection is before I even get started. As I request and send back the materials, I strike through the call number so I know I don’t have to request it again. When you really begin to work through these documents, it becomes difficult to keep track of what you have and have not looked at.

For each archive, I also set up a separate file simply for taking notes. The graduate advisor in our department, and one of my committee members, suggested doing this, and it is a truly excellent idea. Keep that file up the entire time you are there to jot down any notes, questions, quotes, or any other details that may be useful to you later. It’s an easy way to help you keep track of a lot of information.

My work station at the Kew. These tables had tripods built-in for cameras. This was very handy, but also not a common option at other archives.

FinallyDress and act professionally. This is a personal point for me, but I think it is an important one. You are at an archive to work, so dress accordingly. That being said, I have noticed people wearing jeans and t-shirts at almost every place I’ve worked at so far, and it is rarely a big deal. The archives certainly won’t turn you away (though double-check that point on their website just in case). It has been my impression that most people working at archives tend to dress in a professional manner, and I prefer to match that standard. Bring a light sweater or pull over with you – reading rooms can get pretty chilly after you have been in there for several hours. Each archive typically offers lockers to stow away bags, computer cases, and other materials not allowed in the reading room, so you can keep the sweater there if you don’t need it. I learned rather quickly that it is better to have that option available.

Working at The Wellcome Library, London.

Ultimately, a trip to the archives is a wonderful experience. It can be tedious at times, sifting through page after page of a collection, just hoping something that applies to your project will appear. However, it can also be remarkably exciting. You get the opportunity to look at the remnants of lives, in some cases, long ended. You can read a letter from an 18th century merchant apologizing to a client for losing their purchased goods because of a pirate attack, or the first impressions of the “New World” by bewildered European explorers.

So have fun, be prepared, and good luck!

This is the advice of a young historian who is still learning the ropes, so if anyone else has their own piece of advice for archival research trips, please share them in the comments!