“Writing a thesis or dissertation,” UNL History grad student retreat workshop notes

Grad Student Retreat, Fall 2013

Notes, 8.23.2013, “Writing your thesis/dissertation”

  • starting with M.A. thesis
    • Dr. James Garza recommends beginning writing in your 3rd semester
    • defense dates come in March or early April
    • need time for revisions
    • gave his students about 3-4 weeks to write a chapter
    • some people on your committee will want the entire thesis all at once
    • don’t worry too much about the organization at first b/c you can change the organization around
    • the earlier you start the writing cycle, the better it will be
      • write a “skeleton” first chapter if you need to
      • hang your primary sources on it as you go
      • anything you write for a prospectus will eventually be part of your thesis/dissertation in some form – don’t think about it as a “throw away” writing exercise
    • remember that you’ll be preparing applications for the PhD programs too (and your professors will also have deadlines related to these)
      • M.A. thesis will be part of your application SO leave time to do corrections
    • be aware of all the technical things you have to do for your thesis
      • all the formatting is your responsibility to figure it out
    • Graduate Studies wants a copy pretty early –> doesn’t have to be finished
      • they are mostly checking the formatting
    • your M.A. thesis is also “for your future advisor”
      • it will reflect on you AND on your committee members
    • even if they aren’t all completely developed, write a few paragraphs per day
  • Dr. Carole Levin on dissertations
    • writing anxiety = something most academics suffer from (even at professional level)
      • “one of the most difficult obstacles to finishing a project”
    • she’s telling us how to write the “good enough dissertation” NOT the perfect dissertation
    • two mantras: (1) “It does not have to be great. It just has to be good.” (2) “You can always revise it for the book.”
      • you DO need to get publications out of your dissertation: either book or series of articles
      • chapters do NOT have to be ready as articles; nor does your dissertation have to be ready as a manuscript
      • dissertation = “a step, not the endgame”
    • finding a topic early in your grad career = good but it’s important not to latch onto a topic just to have a topic
      • you have to be excited about your topic, you will spend a lot of time on it
      • what are the questions you want to start digging around in?
        • think big, then narrow over time
        • think about how you can add to the scholarly conversation
    • “get a committee you can work with”
      • who will read drafts and give feedback
      • who will discuss your/their ideas with you
      • want to get the most out of your committee –> it is a multi-year committment
      • stay in contact with your committee and especially your advisor
      • don’t be avoidant even, especially if you are behind and feeling guilty about being behind
    • dissertation prospectus
      • Department requires this
      • preliminary bibliography, chapter descriptions
      • think of it as the first draft
        • you haven’t done all the research yet
        • no one ever writes exactly the dissertation they prospose
        • your committee is not going to pass/fail you on basis of this –> it will be about the dissertation
      • okay to pretend you know exactly what you’re doing but know that it will change
        • your material, as you do your research, will tell you where to go
    • recommends start writing within a semester of submitting your proposal
      • yes, research is so much fun – could do it for years
      • you won’t stop doing research, but start writing
      • often you won’t see the holes in your ideas until you start writing them down
      • if can do the dissertation by holding off then writing full-time for months at a time, okay – do what works for you
    • keep very careful notes on all of your research
      • helps get rid of anxiety come writing time
    • it’s tough, but “just start writing”
      • keep a notebook with you specifically for writing ideas that occur out of the blue, when you don’t have your computer with you
    • find a writing rhythm that works for you
      • figure out what rituals you need to write, what time of day works for you
      • if feel overwhelmed, break it into small parts
      • even if you only wrote a page a day, you’d have a dissertation in a year
      • even if can’t write an actual draft, write ideas, make outlines
      • Dr. Levin made herself write 5 pages per day on writing days
        • could stop whenever she finished writing 5 pages (early or late)
      • if get stuck in beginning, jump to another point
      • look at other people’s dissertations, get a sense at how they got started
        • good historians in your field
        • how did they set up their argument’s
    • form a dissertation support group
      • between 3-5 people
      • work out commitment of how often you will meet
      • will you read one another’s work?
      • figure out what will be most helpful for you
      • don’t necessarily have to be in your field
      • making a committment to your colleagues as well as to yourself
    • talk to your friends about your ideas
    • make appointments with your committee members
    • send an abstract to a conference
      • trying out your ideas
      • sets a deadline for getting a conference paper done
      • new people to talk with your ideas about
    • look at fellowships to support your work
      • is there a specific archive or library that you need to visit? they may well have travel grants
      • important on practical level, improves your c.v., helps with professional networking
      • Warren & Edith Day travel dissertation award = UNL award of $500
        • floating deadline
        • write proposal, letter from advisor
        • her student’s have had great success getting this award
        • means more on your c.v. than you might think, goes further than you think
      • UNL has Presidential, Fling, Dean’s fellowships
        • are incredibly competitive
        • but if you don’t try, you won’t get it
        • handful of students in our department have gotten these
      • UNL Department also has some fellowships
      • be open to applying for everything you can find
      • even the act of writing the proposal is significant – gets your ideas down
      • National Endowment for the Humanities has summer seminars with slots for graduate students
        • deadline = March 1
        • call posted in January (ish)
        • longshots, yes, but not impossible longshots
    • think about audience in your dissertation
      • don’t use competitive, combative approach to fellow scholars
      • not civil, bad habit to get into
        • and these will be people you will encounter later in your professional career
        • you want to think about your career in terms of building on work of those who came before you – not trampling it/pushing it out of the way
    • when get to 300 pages in your dissertation, think about stopping
      • if what you have yet to write is still valuable, you can return to it later
      • can put hopes of where your work can go further in future in your conclusion
      • no press wants a 600-page dissertation & you need to move forward with your doctorate
      • recommends reading Univ. of Chicago Press’s From Dissertation to Book
  • Dr. Jared Leighton
    • try out different writing strategies, be flexible
    • structure was important to him
      • certain amount of time dedicated to writing each day
      • kept track of this carefully
      • deadlines for each chapter – even if you don’t meet them, aim for them, know where you want to be at a particular time
    • “write through your process”
      • even if it doesn’t make it into the dissertation, it will be helpful
      • will give you momentum
    • keep your Grad Studies deadlines in mind or they will cause you AND your readers trouble
      • sessions for those planning to graduate held regularly
      • recommends going to these even if you aren’t graduating soon
      • construct backward calendar of your graduate goal date & deadline
      • you have to attend these once anyway before you can graduate
    • can register for 1 dissertation credit full time but only for 4 semesters
      • ONLY do this if you are confident that you can graduate in 2 years
    • leisure time is not a luxury when writing your dissertation; it’s a necessity
      • taking that leisure time will help you write, as will sleep
      • must think of these things as necessities for your writing time to be quality time
    • keep up on any new developments in your field
      • read programs of your major conferences
      • read most recent reviews in journals in your field
      • continue this process after you complete your prospectus until you are finishing
    • reading anyone you think is a good writer is a good idea
      • not just outside your field, maybe fiction too
      • best work is that which is also accessible to the general public
      • think about: who influences you as a writer?
    • dissertation bootcamps
      • can google and get idea how these are structured
      • perhaps Office of Graduate Studies needs to start doing these
      • 1-2 weeks of writing dissertations each day, usually 8:30-4:30
      • talk at end of day with fellow attendees where you are at

The new American Dream: Doing what you love

I recently stumbled across Paul Graham‘s 2006 piece, “How to do what you love” and find myself smitten. The ability to do what one loves for a living might accurately be described as the new American Dream, and Graham has some excellent recommendations for those of us in pursuit of our love. I keep a printed copy of his article above my desk and reread highlighted sections from time to time to remind myself of the bigger picture. Below are just of few of my favorite quotes, including some of Graham’s best–on prestige as the enemy of passion.

Why is it conventional to pretend to like what you do?…If you have to like something to do it well, then the most successful people will all like what they do…conventional attitudes about work are, without the owners even knowing it, nth-degree imitations of the attitudes of people who’ve done great things. What a recipe for alienation.

The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn’t mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month. Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something.

You shouldn’t worry about prestige…This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like…Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious…So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Your opinions about what’s admirable are always going to be slightly influenced by prestige, so if two [kinds of work] seem equal to you, you probably have more genuine admiration for the less prestigious one.

Most people are doomed in childhood by accepting the axiom that work = pain. Those who escape this are nearly all lured onto the rocks by prestige or money…It’s hard to find work you love; it must be, if so few do. So don’t underestimate this task. And don’t feel bad if you haven’t succeeded yet. In fact, if you admit to yourself that you’re discontented, you’re a step ahead of most people, who are still in denial.

You have to make a conscious effort to keep your ideas about what you want from being contaminated by what seems possible. It’s painful to keep them apart, because it’s painful to observe the gap between them. So most people pre-emptively lower their expectations.

In the design of lives, as in the design of most other things, you get better results if you use flexible media…It’s also wise, early on, to seek jobs that let you do many different things, so you can learn faster what various kinds of work are like.

Whichever route you take, expect a struggle. Finding work you love is very difficult. Most people fail. Even if you succeed, it’s rare to be free to work on what you want till your thirties or forties. But if you have the destination in sight you’ll be more likely to arrive at it.