7 MIN READ
As writing a thesis or dissertation can be a daunting task for many academics, here are a few tips from experienced professors on how to make the process easier.
This week, we take on the topic of dissertation writing.
Dissertation writing is similar to other academic writing so all the tips from last week will be helpful; it is only different in terms of the length. And, of course, dissertation writing, like all academic writing, is similar to general nonfiction writing so all the tips in this Writing Journeys series can be helpful.
In this week’s tips, there is a lot of good advice from experienced professors and teachers about writing, note-taking, writing groups, and time management. Thanks to them for sharing. I used many of the tips expressed here to complete my own dissertation many years ago so I know they are helpful.
Also, don’t miss Sabin Ninglekhu’s writing journey on his dissertation writing experience: ‘Validation is to be found in the struggle within’.
For most PhD students, writing a dissertation will be your one opportunity in life to focus solely on one question for an extended period of time. Embrace this one chance to geek out with information!
— Andrew Nelson, University of North Texas
A good dissertation is a finished dissertation — this is a cliche but a wise one. Dissertation writers must develop a plan to do writing and the many peripheral activities regularly and in a planned manner. They must also develop ways of organizing the massive amount of information/resources they gather, as well as managing time and stress. And they need to know how to work with their mentors.
— Shyam Sharma, State University of New York—Stonybrook, USA
- Discipline, of course. I have a 25-minute hourglass timer that I love and use regularly.
- Join a writing group. It's amazing to collectively go through this struggle with colleagues and comrades in writing! Share chapters for feedback.
- Be easy to yourself; remember to remind yourself that this is hard stuff and you CAN do this. You are the expert on your topic, more so than anyone else at this point, even, very likely, your committee.
— David Citrin, University of Washington, Seattle
I can't think of helpful dissertation memories but since I'm presently in the midst of finishing a book on the Sherpa diaspora, let me use that. My response is a style of cheating since what's been so helpful is that I am writing the book with a co-author, Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, the first Sherpa woman to receive a PhD in anthropology. Our ‘secret’ is that we constantly trade drafts of chapters back and forth, so the book essentially ends up as co-written, which we acknowledge, so it's not really cheating. That may not work for students but the idea of exchanging drafts can be very helpful in avoiding getting stuck all by oneself.
— Jim Fisher, Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota
For me, the two perhaps most important ‘disciplines’ for effective writing (dissertation or otherwise) are content control and time use.
- By content control, I mean the ability to effectively manage data. Writing a dissertation or any other nonfiction work involves collecting data — ethnographic, historical, scientific, etc. The challenge for most mortals is dealing with far more information than one can keep ‘in mind’ at once.
- But keeping vast amounts of information ‘at play’ in your head is virtually impossible. I have known many people who, confronted with the task of writing a dissertation, force themselves to sit down in front of their computer to try to write, from start to finish. They almost always end up going in circles and some of them just give up.
- For me, maybe even more important than writing is the work that goes into preparing to write. I spend at least as much time sorting, categorizing, and ordering my research data as I do actually writing. This can be done using old-fashioned notecards, or modern computerized indexing software.
- Rather than being a waste of time or unnecessary labor that delays writing, I’ve found that time spent organizing material — literally sorting notecards into piles and then laying them out on a table — makes writing vastly more efficient. By linking one card to the next, paragraphs and chapters seem to almost write themselves.
- The point is that good content control means that you never have to constantly juggle a thousand details in your mind. Rather, you can focus on what is literally in front of you and systematically move through your data. Getting good control of your content isn’t a way of avoiding writing. Ultimately, it is an investment in writing efficiency and effectiveness.
- By ‘time use’, I simply mean that writing not only takes time but high-intensity time. It takes not just a few hours a day but one’s best hours of the day.
- For me, effective writing is about religiously reserving my most productive hours for writing which, in my case, means mornings which is when my brain can sink into the material and the words flow. But by 11 am or so, I am running out of brain power. Trying to work beyond that produces diminishing returns. Often in afternoons or evenings, I go back to review and edit what I wrote in the morning, but by then, the creative juices have stopped flowing, until the next morning.
- The point is that one needs to identify their most productive hours — at whatever time of day those may be — and then commit to using them. For people with work, parental, or other inescapable obligations, this can be really difficult or even impossible. It may require help from others but somehow, one has to carve out time for writing — preferably before you’re already physically and/or mentally exhausted.
— Mark Leichty, University of Illinois-Chicago
I was a graduate student in the US so I had access to multiple institutional supports to help me in the dissertation writing process. In contrast, Tribhuvan University PhD students have very minimal institutional support from the dean’s office which manages the PhD training and evaluation.
- In an Ethnology Writing Class, a small number of dissertation writing students facilitated by a senior professor would read one anothers' dissertation chapters or sections of a chapter and provide feedback and suggestions. Such a focused peer group rescued me from the long writer's block that I had suffered.
- I was fortunate to have a very supportive and empathetic dissertation committee. All of my professors and committee members read my draft and helped me navigate ways to bring my ideas and arguments into a writing style that I felt comfortable with.
- My dissertation advisor was a constant source of inspiration in helping me complete the dissertation. The mentor-student relationship plays a very important catalytical role in the dissertation writing process.
I know that most of my PhD dissertation students are ‘part-time’ students. They are employed or engaged in professional work and they must find time to write their dissertations. When they begin their write-up, I ask them to:
- Understand the data: what information/data they have and the major ideas and arguments they can make out of the data they have collected.
- I suggest they develop tentative chapter plans and what each chapter will highlight. Then, they can find relevant literature which will help them to engage with the chapter focus. I suggest they read closely and understand how these authors articulate their arguments and link their arguments with data and theories.
- I ask students to keep writing, jotting down their ideas based on data they have and connecting these ideas into a coherent story that each chapter will narrate. I advise them to follow concrete ideas, events, and narratives that excite them, rather than a theory or others’ appealing concepts.
— Janak Rai, Tribuvan University
I have two suggestions. The first is to find or create a thesis writers’ group to meet regularly, share your thoughts and work, and use each other as peer reviewers and emotional support. The second comes directly from my mother-in-law: “Apply seat of pants to seat of chair”, i.e., set aside a regular period of time every day and write something, anything, but write. To that end, here is a copy of a pin I try to remember to give to all my graduate students as they confront thesis-writing:
— Kath March, Cornell University, Ithaca New York
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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