Friday, July 12, 2013

How I Wrote My Dissertation in a Single Year (At the Cost of My Friends, My Health, and Possibly My Career Prospects)

The more scholars I get to know, the more I realize how atypical my grad school experience was. A lot of things contributed to this. I didn’t initially plan on going into academia when I was done, so I didn’t put much effort into publishing or conferences. I’m naturally rather introverted, and I was separated enough from most of my cohort both in age and background that I didn’t end up making many friends or professional contact. And I am bull-headedly self-reliant to the point that I will reinvent a hundred wheels rather than ask for help from somebody who has been making wheels for decades.

But perhaps the most unusual part of the experience was that I finished my PhD in five years, starting with just a BA in Liberal Arts, and completed my dissertation in just one.

I have to admit, I didn’t know that writing a dissertation in one year was an extraordinary feat until I had already written most of it. When I started my program, I was given five years of funding, so I assumed completing the entire process was supposed to take five years, and nobody ever bothered to say otherwise. It wasn’t until March or so, when I emerged from the dissertation-mines for a colloquium, that someone said “Wait, you’re going to defend in MAY?!” Indeed, the reason my diploma says “August 2011” rather than “May” is that nobody thought to have me fill out the paperwork back in February for May graduation.

So, for the struggling grad students and long-suffering advisors out there, here are a few of my secrets to finishing your dissertation in a single year:

1. Just pick something and go with it
               This advice applies as much to the proposal stage as it does to the writing. Do not overthink your dissertation topic. Find something you are pretty sure can fill 250–300 pages that can also hold your interest for a year. It doesn’t need to be your central scholarly interest. Heck, you’ll be so sick of the topic by the time you’re through, it may be better to pick something you aren’t too attached to. (Think of it as a starter marriage…)
               Once you are writing, if you run into problems (too little or too much secondary scholarship/somebody stole your thesis in 1953/you disprove your own thesis), shift the focus of the paper to accommodate. Do not scrap the whole thing and start over, because you are going to run into the same problems in your new topic anyway.

2.      Make it your job
               I know this isn’t viable for some, but if possible, do not teach or have a job while you are dissertating. Most of the people I know whose dissertation have stretched out over years are the ones who are also teaching full time. Find some funding, marry rich, take out an extra loan, whatever. It will probably pay for itself in the long run, since it will radically shorten the time before you can get a “real job.” 

3. Stop talking to people 
               This is harder for most people than it was for me—and impossible for those with families, I assume—but the principle is sound. The dissertation isn’t just your job. It is now your spouse, your best friend, your baby, and your therapist. It’s not worth the time or effort to try to maintain healthy social interactions. It throws off your rhythm (see #7), and you won’t have anything to talk about to normal, sane people anyway. While you’re at it, give up any hobbies or activities (like, say, sleep) that aren’t furthering your goals. Come to think of it, just treat yourself like you’re being brainwashed by a dangerous cult.

4.      Write a page a day (even if it kills you)
               This may seem basic, but it’s harder than you think. And we’re talking averages here, because you may spend a week on one page of data and bang out ten pages of conclusions in one sitting. I kept an Excel spreadsheet with a chart showing my 10-day running average, and then eliminated extraneous things from my life until it stabilized at 1ppd. Like the proverbial sculptor, just chip away anything that isn’t a dissertation.

5.      Be cocky
               There are three skills I have of which I am utterly confident. One of them is writing. When I put something on the page, even if it isn’t great, it is certainly sufficient. Cultivate this kind of arrogance, even if it doesn’t come naturally, because if you’ve gotten this far, you probably know what you are doing. Trust your training. Do not become obsessed with constant rewrites. Make your point, edit out errors, and walk away. Like remembering a locker combination, the more you think about writing, the harder it gets.
               While we’re on the subject: you may feel like you don’t actually know what you’re doing yet, like you’re faking it and in over your head. Guess what? Everybody feels that way. All the time. I’m sure you’ve read a journal articles at some point in which respected scholars make blindingly obvious errors. That’s because they are human, too. They too have those moments when they are too tired to track down a reference, or assume something not in evidence, or just screw up. They have just been faking it longer.

6.      Use technological resources
               In terms of actual time-saving, this may be the most practical piece of advice. There are some really wonderful reference-management software packages out there that can optimize some of the most tedious parts of scholarly writing. Programs like Zotero and Mendelay (I use the former, but their capabilities are similar) not only simplify creating bibliographies and footnotes, they can also be used to store, organize, and search notes and PDFs of journal articles. In the time since I was dissertating, interfaces for Zotero and Mendelay have been developed for the iPad and (to a lesser extent) Android, allowing you to access and annotate your PDFs on the go.
               Speaking of PDFs, scanning entire books from the library might be legally sketchy, but scanning your own books for personal use is worth the effort, especially if you use a good OCR program like Abbyy FineReader Pro. With the right equipment you can scan an entire book in less than an hour, and you will have a fully searchable electronic copy that you can mark up to your heart’s content. There are scanners designed specifically for books (like the Plustek OpticBook 3600), or you can find plans online for DIY book scanners made from cheap digital cameras. And digitizing your library makes you 80% less likely to die under an avalanche of books.

7.      Find your rhythm
               We each have our own rhythms and work habits. Identify yours and work with it, not against it. Don’t force yourself to get up early or work right before bed if that isn’t how you are most productive. I discovered early on that it takes me a while to overcome inertia, so it takes me a while to start, and once I’m going, I keep going. I accepted that there were going to be about eight hours of goofing off each day before I got to work, so I scheduled those eight hours. I knew if I didn’t, they would just end up coming out of my productive time.
               Eliminating all outside obligations also allows you to adjust to your natural circadian rhythms, rather than submitting to the oppressive, patriarchal 24-hour day! After some experimenting, I found that my home planet has 36-hour days, and I ended up on a cycle of 24-hours awake and 12-hours asleep (occasionally 30/15). That gave me 16 increasingly-productive (if increasingly-delirious) hours per “day.”
               Now, I’m not that kind of doctor, so I don’t advocate anyone else take such radical steps with their sleep patterns; sleep deprivation can have serious health consequences. I probably couldn’t have maintained such a schedule for more than a year, but the point is that I didn’t have to.

8.      Stick to your deadlines
               If your committee is anything like mine, they probably aren’t actually reading your chapters very carefully anyway, so don’t depend on them to enforce any timetable. Set realistic goals for the completion of each chapter and stick to them. If a chapter isn’t polished at the end of the appointed time, move on. You will have time to clean it up later. Make careful notes on what needs revision, then WALK AWAY. Don’t be like James A.H. Murray, who spent the first 5 years of compiling the OED without going past “ant."

9.      Choose a good committee, then ignore them
               I had almost no contact with my committee while I was writing. I sent them completed chapters, but never asked for feedback. I had picked professors I had worked with extensively during my coursework, who liked me, and were confident enough in my ability (and inured enough to my misanthropy) to let me find my own way. My few meetings with my advisor generally lasted long enough for him to say, “You know how this works. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
               Again, I know it's not always possible (or even advisable) to only choose professors who are on your side. If the leading authority on your topic is in your department, it would be foolish to exclude them for being a dick or a control-freak. But it is your dissertation, so don’t be bullied. Make your own mistakes; you learn more from them.

10. Drink

11. Beware the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog
               Focus on your argument. You will encounter numerous fascinating tangents and excursuses during your research. Don't follow them down the rabbit hole. You have the rest of your scholarly career to walk the garden paths of mixed metaphors. When you come across something you think is really cool, ask yourself if it furthers your argument. If the answer is “no," make a note of it (because you will forget), then move on.
               (Also, make the note something that will be intelligible to you in 3 years. I recently found “WINGS!!!" scribbled in the margins of a book, and I know it was something important, because it was underlined in red with three exclamation marks, but I’ll be damned if I know why...)

12.   Just write the damn thing already!
               You know what you’re doing right now? You’re not writing your dissertation. Stop making excuses. Stop thinking about what might go wrong. Stop questioning your thesis. Just write. Let it be awful (for now). Leave gaping holes (for now). Let references go uncited (FOR NOW!). And don’t try to make it perfect. Because it won’t be. Not even if you take ten years. But you know what it will be? Good enough. Unless you have assembled a committee of avowed sadists, it’s unlikely that your best effort is going to be wholly insufficient. You’ve probably spent most of your life excelling at everything academic, but you are in the big leagues now. An adequate PhD is still excellent.

Caveats: This approach left me woefully unprepared for the job market. Indeed, one of the arguments for extending the PhD process for a few extra years is that it gives students a chance to attend conferences, publish, and build relationships with other scholars. I was so focused on finishing that I lost sight of the purpose of the degree, and I am paying for that now. It is much harder to build a network of contacts when one isn’t engaged in academia full-time. (Bizarrely, I met most of my scholarly contacts on OKCupid…) And I did such a good job convincing my professors that I am totally self-sufficient that they didn’t offer much guidance in my job search until I asked.

If I had it all to do over again (and I am sorely tempted sometimes to go back for a second doctorate in philosophy or classics…), there are a lot of things I would do differently. I would make much more of an effort to connect with people. I would try to publish sooner. I would find more opportunities to teach (rather than assist) during my coursework. But as far as the dissertation goes, this process worked for me, and now that I’ve mastered it, I suspect I could knock out another one in 9 months this time…


  1. This is a very inspiring post - I came across it while Googling for a way out of my battle with my inhuman Humanities PhD. After several years of floundering and getting nowhere, I had to readjust (not change...but still...) the topic this spring and am therefore collecting most of my research material from scratch. At the same time, I'm too far in to just call it quits in spite of the misery and pessimism. And too stubborn! What has helped me A LOT is getting a mentor from outside my university, who is now working with me to see my project through. He wrote his own PhD in a different discipline, but some of our areas overlap. My aim is to research and write this thing in 12 months and hand it in. Thanks to your wonderful post and my mentor's guidance, I am now hopeful that I can achieve this in a year instead of wasting another 3-5 years. I have decided that I don't want to go into academia. It has been a bruising experience so far. I am looking into setting up my own freelance business and working part-time in a salaried position afterwards. My mentor is helping me with career options as well. Otherwise, I, too, am academically pretty self-reliant, which can be a double-edged sword sometimes! Thanks again for this really wonderful post!
    PS: Why is number 10 (Drink) empty? ;-)

  2. I'm glad (albeit slightly bemused) that you found this useful. It was as much a cautionary tale as anything.

  3. I read the caveats and noted your post's tongue-in-cheekness :-) But if you're desperate enough like I am (after all, your post addresses "struggling grad students"), you'll be fed up of being cautious all the time and glad to know that a full-fledged dissertation CAN be written in one year from start to finish - even to the detriment of especially your social life! Being the hardcore introvert I am, I'm quite happy about suggestion number 3 in your guide ;-)
    Ultimately, I think a bit of amusement (and, as mentioned before, desperation) does help with hammering out a dissertation in a shockingly short time.

  4. Story of my phd life. I had very similar experiences as you in dissertation writing. My publication record is not strong and this is a problem now for post-doc. I don't know why I am even aspiring to do that. I have some skills that a professor liked but my publication record is embarrassing with only conference papers and no journals accepted yet (some rejected). This is very frustrating for me now and looking for inspiration from someone who passed through such experience and got published later.
    Thanks a lot


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