In the last few parts of this series, I have discussed several major factors that make the dissertation difficult to complete. Since it’s taken several weeks to get to this point, let’s recap what I’ve highlighted thus far:
- The dissertation stage of graduate school lacks a rigid structure and concrete deadlines.
- The dissertation is a much larger project than anything else in graduate school.
- The dissertation has higher stakes than any other project in graduate school.
- Unlike many other things in graduate school, dissertation work cannot be easily postponed.
- Other commitments often hinder your ability to make consistent progress on the dissertation.
- Dissertation progress (often) must be maintained even when navigating the academic job market for the first time.
That seems like an impressive list. It’s not hard to see why the dissertation would be tough to finish given this information. Here’s the catch: none of these factors explains why the dissertation was the hardest part of my graduate career. I actually think I was rather well-prepared for these things, insofar as that’s possible. The biggest reason that finishing the dissertation difficult was something I had not anticipated and something I was not ready for.
For a time, working on the dissertation actually made me hate writing.
Until the dissertation.
In a summer post about avoiding procrastination, Marcus mentioned the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Short summary: intrinsic motivation is better. When you want to do something for its own sake, you will tend to do it better than when your motivation is based on external rewards. What happened while working on the dissertation is that my intrinsic motivation to write eroded. Eventually, it became a chore just to produce a single page. This was something that I had not anticipated. I was not used to dreading the moment of the day when I sat down to write.
Things got particularly bad during Summer 2016. There was a stretch after the semester ended where my production ground to a halt. After progress had stalled for a week, jumping back into the dissertation became so much more difficult. I think the hardest stage of writing is the very beginning – where you must fill the dreaded white void on screen with words. Once you get started and get some momentum, it gets easier, and ideally, your momentum carries you along until the dissertation is fully drafted. But when you hit a snag that creates a gap in your writing, getting the wheels spinning again can prove just as difficult as when you were on page 1.
Sadly, time waits for no one. A week went by. Then another. Since I was going on the market for the first time in the fall and was on my last year of funding, I had to get the dissertation to a point where completion in the spring was realistic. I had to do something drastic.
So I took a break. For two weeks, I didn’t even try to write the dissertation. Instead, I wrote other things: blog posts, website updates, replies to emails that had been collecting dust in the inbox, and some fiction. I wanted to remember how things had been in a simpler time when writing was easier and more fun. I needed a reminder that it wouldn’t always be so painful, that things could return to normal after the dissertation was over.
After two weeks of non-dissertation writing, I gathered the resolve to return to it. Now, mercifully, it seemed doable. Not fun, not easy, but doable. So the journey continued.
Looking back, there were two moments where I could have stumbled and been unable to complete the dissertation. That summer – and June in particular – was the first of these moments. Since I was less than halfway through the dissertation at that time, a longer lag might have made completion in Spring 2017 either unrealistic or impossible. Once I got the momentum going, however, I finally crossed the hundred page count and kept plugging away well into the fall. Eventually, I had to take a short break to prep for the job market, and it was shortly after that when things once again got difficult. But that stretch of the journey will have to wait until Part 6.