One of the main points of this blog is to highlight the diversity of work that all-but-dissertation (ABD) students engage in. I like this focus because it’s not the most obvious thing about getting a PhD. That honor probably belongs to “it takes a really long time.” But the two are necessarily related: if all PhD students had to do was finish a dissertation…OK, it would still take a long time, but maybe not quite as long. But spending years researching and writing a dissertation isn’t only an overarching fact about the process. It’s also a condition that shapes it. In other words, writing a dissertation isn’t just something that takes a long time; it’s a project that is itself a product of taking a long time to complete. That means that writing a dissertation is a qualitatively different experience from other types of writing projects, like term papers or even BA/MA theses.
Recently I’ve been reflecting on how the duration of dissertation-writing affects the process because I’ve had to reconnect with old work. By old work I mean two papers that I wrote about four and five years ago, respectively. Re-working these papers into chapters has been part of the plan for my dissertation since before I completed the proposal. This preliminary research did not give birth to my dissertation project en toto, but it both generated specific questions that led me to topics for other chapters and served as the vehicle for discovering the overarching problem I am addressing. I am incredibly fortunate both that these papers worked out this way.
Now, though, I have to revisit these chapters and think about them not just as stepping stones but as building blocks. I’ve been batting these would-be chapters around in my mind for years now. I’ve known they still need work. Neither’s argument quite aligns with how the dissertation has developed. One required reading some more sources, including last year while I was in China. I spun one into a journal article.
Naturally, this early work and re-preparation has helped. I do have a sense of where I’m going with these things. Yet I find myself retracing some of the same writing steps as a number of years ago. One of my go-to writing moves is to write out a section that’s heavy on narrative and figure out where the argument is heading as I go along (and then go back and re-work the section after I’ve figured it out). I should have had the argument for this chapter section worked out well before I sat down to write, though. But there it is, lurking beneath the surface, until I start filling the screen with words.
The difference is that when I find what I want to say, what I’ve wanted to say for quite some time, I can recognize it, feel it, and believe it. That’s different from the “new” chapters, the ones that have ideas but no paragraphs to give them shape. Those chapters are a bit scarier, the corners of my dissertation where “there be dragons.” (I wish! That would be a great chapter.)
Of course, “familiarity breeds contempt” – something I’ve heard from more experienced writers about projects that just need to end. And contempt breeds writer’s block. I’ve worried about that, especially when words that should come easily just won’t. But looking back over the last couple weeks, I’ve written a lot. So I’m not in a rut, yet.
I imagine there are some people reading this with wry smiles. I’m still not too far into the life cycle of a dissertation writer. And even after I finish the dissertation, the project will not be done: I’ll start picking up the pieces again as I begin to work the dissertation into my first book. Writing the book will also take several years, and other large projects will take a long time too. That’s the best case scenario.
As unique as this period is, especially the amount of time I can dedicate to a single writing project, it is a kind of preparation for needing to adapt to a more drawn-out writing process. I’m recognizing my project as more stratified – made up of layers that are deposited over time. As I’m writing, I need to account for this but still strive to present a smoother, more unitary narrative to readers.
Writing the dissertation has also forced me to think about the future versions of me that will pick up where present me leaves off. Organizing notes in an objectively reasonable (but still, I’m sure, idiosyncratic) way takes on special importance, as does keeping track of notes on others’ feedback. Fortunately, since this process is driving me back into my old notes and preliminary projects, I can see where past self has sold present self short and try to do better.