By Trevor Hedberg
In Spring 2017, I finally completed my doctoral dissertation. While the experience is still fresh in my mind, I thought it might help graduate students to offer a little perspective on what it’s like to write a dissertation and what makes it such a difficult part of graduate school. In the opening segment of this series, I want to consider a question that crossed my mind several times during my first four years of graduate school: is writing a dissertation really that difficult?
Leading up to dissertation work, I had written a 30,000-word master’s thesis, learned the ropes of the peer review process, and passed my portfolio papers (my program’s equivalent of comprehensive examinations) with relative ease. Graduate school had, on the whole, gone well prior to the dissertation, and I was confident in my writing abilities. I was aware that the dissertation stage was the most common stage at which students dropped out of their graduate programs, and I had heard many horror stories about just how painful and treacherous dissertation writing could be. Even so, I expected that writing the dissertation would go smoothly.
Things did not go as planned. The process dragged on longer than expected, and there were some major lulls in my production – in the most extreme instances, months passed with no new content written. In the spring semester of my last year of funding, I finally finished it and squeezed in a defense a little more than a week before the deadline for May graduation.
What made things difficult? On reflection, I think there were four major features of dissertation work that made writing it a challenge:
- In many respects, writing a dissertation is different from other graduate work, including writing a master’s thesis.
- The dissertation phase is the most likely stage of graduate school where students will be saddled with side-projects as they try to build a competitive CV prior to going on the job market.
- Most graduate students will make at least one run on the job market while they are still working on their dissertation.
- The years spent on writing the dissertation can erode one’s love of philosophical writing.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reflecting on these four items and presenting some strategies for dealing with them. My hope is that graduate students can benefit from learning a little more about the process of writing a dissertation and that readers currently struggling with their dissertation might gain some insight into how they can finish it.
In this series, I will not discuss the dissertation defense or post-defense revisions. The oral defense tends to be straightforward. If your dissertation advisor greenlights the defense, then you should be able to pass it without too much trouble. I imagine that the extent of revision required could vary, but in my case, the revisions were relatively minor. Since these stages posed no major obstacles in my case, I don’t have much to say about them.
I will also not be discussing how one should choose a topic or write a prospectus. Some topics are more suitable for doctoral dissertations than others, and choosing a suitable topic is important to one’s career trajectory. But one of the Cocoon’s most widely shared posts discussed this at length several years ago. I have little to add beyond what was said there, and I moved through this part of the process pretty quickly. (My advisor and I had been discussing potential topics for more than a year prior to me passing our program’s comprehensive examination, and that helped speed up the process a great deal.) In my case, determining the dissertation topic was not the hard part. The hard part was the next 200 pages.
Is writing a dissertation really that difficult? Yes. Yes it is.