I ended the last part of the series on a cliffhanger. Here’s an abbreviated recap: after a series of starts and stops on the dissertation, January arrived, and it still wasn’t done. In fact, there was still quite a bit of unwritten material. After returning from the APA Eastern meeting, I faced the fact that time was running out, and I really didn’t want to drag the project into the summer. So how did I finally get it done?
First, a little background is in order. During my very first semester of graduate school (all the way back in Fall 2010), after completing all my preliminary research and determining what I wanted to argue, I wrote and revised all 3 of my term papers in an intense 4-day writing binge. In total, I wrote around 15,000 words in this stretch. The routine during those 4 days went roughly as follows: get up, get a bowl of cereal, turn on the computer, bring up MS Word, write for 4-5 hours, 30-minute break for lunch, write for 5-6 hours, 1-hour break to make and eat dinner, write until tired, go to sleep, and repeat.
Now, let’s be clear: this is not a sustainable or desirable model for academic writing. It doesn’t come anywhere near the well-balanced academic life one might want, and it’s incompatible with significant teaching and service commitments. But for a short spell at the very end of the term (when I no longer had teaching commitments), it was effective.
Fast forward to January 2017. When the semester got rolling, I tried to emulate this schedule as much as possible. After allocating the necessary hours each week toward teaching and job applications, I put as many hours as possible toward dissertation writing. As many as I could without losing my mind.
For two months, I became a social hermit, worked out less, and refused to take on any additional projects beyond what I was already committed to. I was teaching a course that I had already taught several times, so my required teaching prep was relatively minimal. Grading did take longer than it normally would have, though, since it was not as high on my priority list. The grind wasn’t fun, but it was successful. I sent out the polished first half of my dissertation to committee members in early March and followed up with the revised second half two weeks later. The defense at the end of the month was uneventful.
The costs of the grind were severe. Once post-defense revisions were submitted in April, I set my research aside for almost two months, a longer break from my research than I had ever taken during graduate school. While I had succeeded in my two major goals for that semester – finding a job for the following fall and finishing the dissertation – these triumphs brought little joy. The mental and emotional toil wrapped up in the prior academic year had left me exhausted, and the only good feeling that could be savored was relief. It was time for a break.
And so the narrative portion of the series concludes. But there are still two parts to go. In the next segment, I’ll summarize the major lessons that can be drawn from prior posts and consider how those insights might help graduate students prepare for the dissertation stage and eventually finish their degree.