After you've found a dissertation topic, the obvious next steps are to sit down, read a lot that has been written in the area, think things though, etc. I don't have much to say on these steps, aside from that I think it's helpful to do less thinking and more writing.
I've seen so many grad students get bogged down in "thinking" about their dissertation that months and months go by with little results to show for their time. If my experiences and the experiences of others I've known are any indication, the best way to think out a project is to simply start writing it.
I'll say more about this below, but one of the very best pieces of advice I was ever given -- a piece of advice that I've seen work absolute wonders with at least a half-dozen other people I've passed it on to -- was to get ideas out on paper and then whip them into shape. It can help to think of yourself as like a sculptor, or a painter. It doesn't behoove a scultor or painter to spend too much time refining an image in their head. It's only when they start whittling down a stone, or putting paint to canvas, that the image really starts to take shape. My first suggestion, at any rate, is:
Suggestion #1 -- Don't Write Later, Write NOW. The sooner you get stuff down on paper, the sooner you'll have some real material to work with.
I will now present the single best piece of writing advice I was ever given. Before I was given this piece of advice, I had none of my dissertation written. After I received it, my dissertation -- all 262 pages of it -- was done in about 9 months. I passed on the very same advice to a struggling friend, who also had none of her dissertation done. About 9 months after giving it to her, her dissertation was done. And so on: I've seen it work wonders with person after person.
What's the advice? It's this:
Suggestion #2 -- Make Yourself Write 5 pages a day, no more, no less, NO editing (...seriously, NO editing -- just let it flow).
Because this suggestion might sound very strange, let me give you the rationale for it, as it was given to me. Getting a difficult project done has a lot to do with momentum. When you wake up tomorrow, do you want to work on the project -- or does it seem like a chore? Anyone who has worked on a dissertation knows how soul crushing it can be; what a collosal mountain writing it can seem like climbing. This is precisely the problem that writing 5 pages a day -- no more, no less, no editing -- helps you solve. When you force yourself to get 5 pages out of your head in a day and stop (do NOT write more this, even if you get all 5 pages done in an hour), you go to bed that night knowing that you got something done. When you wake up the next day, and write 5 more pages, you go to bed that night having got more done. Every night you go to bed, and wake up the next morning, you have gotten something done. The psychological effects of this are, in my experience, totally profound...and again, I've seen it have these effects not just with me, but with others. When you get a little done every day, you feel better the next day...every day. Your attitude snow-balls from "I can't" to "I can." You'll not only believe you can. You'll do.
Let me say a little bit about the 5 page cap. If you get five pages out of your head in an hour, it can seem pretty weak to stop yourself there, put your laptop away, and go home. Why not do more? Trust me: don't. The key to the whole piece of advice is to develop a positive feedback loop, where you feel a little bit better every single day. This requires being consistent. If you go past your 5-page limit, anything can happen: you can overexend yourself, not leaving yourself enough energy for tomorrow; you can get frustated ("The first seven pages were great, but I really got confused after that"); etc. The point is to go to be every night in a positive frame of mind. The best way to do this is to set a hard-line goal every day, meet it every day, and go no further. You'll go to bed each night content that you did what you were "supposed to"...and you will wake up in the morning just itching to get your 5 pages for that day done. Your entire day-to-day attitude will change. No longer are you the person getting nothing done. No, now you are the dude/dude-ette getting five pages out a day.
Now...about those five pages. Will they be any good? Of course not. Most of them will be truly awful. But that's the point of the "Zero Draft." You get stuff out of your mind and onto paper, and things slowly start to take shape (just like a sculptor's statue begins to take shape after a bunch of very coarse whittling). Here's how it worked for me: after five days of writing 5 pages a day, I had twenty-five pages. The next two days, after I'd written my requisite 5 new pages on those days, I spent an hour or so whittling down the 25 pages from the previous five days. I found that in the 25 pages, I had about 10 pages of good material. And that was a huge step forward (ten good pages was ten more than I had a week before!). This brings me to...
Suggestion #3 -- "Throw up, and clean up": we are accustomed to working through ideas in our heads. It's actually much easier to work things out when they're out of your head. Many great writers and artists know this. Hemingway used to type out pages and pages of prose, dropping page after page into a waste basket. DaVinci used to paint and paint over his previous paintings. Why? Because you gotta get ideas out of your head before you can clean them up. Ideas take shape better out in the world, not in your head. Make a mess, then clean it up. You'll make progress faster. Again, I've seen it work.
Hope some of you find this helpful, my cocooning friends. Looking forward to comments & questions!