Image by Flickr user Irargerich and used under the Creative Commons license.
I have a confession to make.
I don’t love writing my dissertation.
In fact, there are days when I open documents on my computer and start to cry. I am, at times, filled with an overwhelming anxiety, and there are moments when even thinking about my dissertation makes me want to throw my computer out the window and join the circus.
But every day, I do a little work, and I come a little closer to finishing.
Despite my anxiety, my frustration, I am able to keep writing because of a list of advice to myself that I have printed out and stuck to my wall. It helps me keep going when all I want to do is give up.
And I am sharing this list with you.
This advice has been collected slowly, throughout the past year or so, from a number of diverse sources. I hope that it might help you as you work through any long-form project, from theses to dissertations, from articles to books. Print it out, stick it on a wall, and get writing.
1. You are not alone.
Nothing I am feeling is unique to my situation. Almost every academic has felt anxiety over their projects, and many people before me have felt the urge to quit. It is perfectly normal to hate my dissertation at some point, and to feel hopeless. It doesn’t make my frustration any less real, but it does acknowledge that the feelings are normal, and that they will pass.
2. You are not alone.
This one bears repeating because it is true in another sense. Writing can be horribly isolating, and it is easy to lose sight of all the people and support you have around you. My director and committee are never farther than an email away, many of my colleagues are feeling the same frustrations, and I am surrounded by people who are willing to commiserate, to listen to me whine, to read my work, and to buy me a beer when I need it. Even if I write by myself, I am never alone.
3. It’s just half an hour.
Following the advise of many different academics, I got myself a small egg timer, and I work for half an hour each day. Even when I feel like setting fire to my research, I know that all I have to do is work for half an hour. That’s an episode of The Simpsons. I tell myself that I can stop when the buzzer goes. There are days when I do stop, I close my computer and walk away. But many days, I get lost in the work and keep going. All I have to do is half an hour. I can do that. I can.
4. Doing anything is better than doing nothing.
It doesn’t matter what I get done, how big or how small, as long as I have done something that day. Even if all I do is edit one page, or write three words, or fix a citation, I have done something, which is always better than nothing. Which leads me to my next point:
5. Write just one sentence. Just one.
This advice comes from Karl Stolley, who says that “You don’t need to write your dissertation, or that chapter. You just need to write something toward your degree today”. (As an aside, his whole article is full of fantastic advice, and should be read immediately if you haven’t already). I have a tendency to focus on the big picture, to think about writing a whole chapter at once, and I get overwhelmed. Reminding myself that I just have to write something helps keep me from thinking too big. I can write a sentence. And when that is done, I can probably write another one. I don’t need to write a whole chapter. Just a sentence.
6. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done.
My director has said this to me over and over again, and I am still trying to get this to sink in. The only good dissertation, he says, is a finished dissertation. I tend to get stuck on phrasing, or working through a single paragraph, willing it to be perfect before I move on and write more. I get trapped in a quagmire of language, and it holds me back from finishing. I just have to keep reminding myself that perfect can come later—I can edit to my hearts content after I have written the prose.
7. It’s not a race.
I tend to focus on the end goal, DISSERTATION written in red flashing lights in my brain, and I want to “win”, to cross the finish line of writing and get my degree as the prize. I have to remind myself to slow down, that I am not competing against anyone, and that working a little bit each day will get me to the end. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
8. Focus on today.
One of the problems of being thisclose to finishing my degree is that I have to start thinking about the future. I have to prepare for the job market, for moving, for starting the next phase of my life, and it is so easy to get caught up in what will be that I lose sight of what I am doing now. I need to remind myself to take things one day at a time, to think about what I can do right now, today, and to focus on what is immediately in front of me. Write that one sentence.
9. Stop talking and WRITE.
Like many procrastinators, I spend much of my time talking about writing instead of actually doing writing (this phenomenon is mentioned in this Chronicle article). I have to remind myself that telling everyone I am writing a dissertation means nothing without a final product to back it up.
10. You can do this.
I’ve made it this far. I can keep going. I can do it.
So can you.
This post is written with grateful thanks to Drs. Brian McNely and Jackie Grutsch McKinney for patiently providing me with much of the advice above.
A dissertation is one of the few things that binds students together.
It transcends the divisions of North or South, poly or uni, even Oxford or Cambridge.
It unites us all in an extended period of stress, uncertainty, and a complete disregard for all other elements of our degrees.
There are few things that unite humanity in this way, but unsurprisingly one of the other emotions that can transcend individual solipsism in such a way is the very similar process of grief.
And we’re here to talk you through them.
There’s no need to stop having a good time
This is going to be easy.
Why do people go on about dissertations so much as if they’re some impossible feat? It’s essentially just a few summative essays squished together, with an extended introduction and a longer bibliography.
You’ve written hundreds of essays in your time. Some of those in one night. And they’ve all turned out fine.
But you’ve got ages – literally months – for your diss. How could it go wrong?
There are plenty of stories of people who have written their whole thing in a week, and they’ve got safe 2:1s out of it.
So really, you’re miles ahead, because the deadline’s two months away and you’ve already decided on your main body font.
You might as well take the day off then.
So somehow it’s four weeks down the line, and you still haven’t actually put a single word on paper. Not one. What the hell have you been doing all this time?!
Why is everyone around you half way through their writing, boasting about their whole completed chapters as if its no big deal, and you haven’t written ONE SINGLE WORD. You’re a fucking moron!
How hard would it have been to at least jot some ideas down as you went along, so you at least had something to work with.
Instead, you’ve spent the last month re-discovering your forgotten families on Sims 2, delicately breeding their webs so that the entirety of Banterville is now related or at least sexually entwined in one way or another. IDIOT.
And now you’re too angry at yourself to concentrate, so you might as well wait till tomorrow.
Two weeks left and you still haven’t finished your first chapter. Things are getting desperate. You consider applying for an extension.
No you don’t have any extenuating circumstances “per se”, but it might just be believable that you dropped your laptop under a bus. Or your tortoise died. Or you suddenly developed severe dyslexia.
Or, you could send off to one of those websites that writes your dissertation for you.
Yes, your diss is on a very niche subject, and the chances of them knowing anything about it are under the double figures margin, but you’ve done a few pages of research and they should be able to get the general gist from Wikipedia.
As a last resort, you could try to seduce your 67-year-old, married supervisor into giving you a good mark. They don’t even have to fall for you, they just need to look like they have in the photo.
You’re willing to try anything.
the end is nigh
Well that’s it. It’s over. You’re not going to finish your degree.
You’re going to have to retake the whole year, maybe the whole course.
The entirety of next year will be spent silently crying in the library whilst all your friends are out spending their hard-earned money on fun things like drinking and smoking and visiting those children’s playgrounds that are actually for adults.
Because they’ll have jobs – something you will now never achieve.
Instead, the rest of your life will be marred with the knowledge that you couldn’t complete the one thing that every student associates with university.
You are an utter failure. You are nothing.
this could be u x
Ok, it’s time to stop being melodramatic and feeling sorry for yourself. You’re going to have to finish this thing, you don’t have a choice.
The next few weeks are going to be a miserable slog of 7am starts and coffee fuelled all-nighters, but this, too, shall pass.
Night’s out are banned for the foreseeable future, as is any form of alcohol related socialising, and probably all socialising in general. But this, too, shall pass.
Your only breaks from the glaring laptop screen will be to pierce the plastic on your microwave meals, your only solace will be podcasts that bear some relation to your degree. But this, too, shall pass.
It will be miserable. It will be the hardest weeks of your life. But this, too, shall pass.
And it will be done.