How To Write A Successful Phd Dissertation – Prof. Christina Bambrick
– So just a quick disclaimer before we launch into my presentation, first everyone’s process is different, so much depends on you, your particular advisor, your field of study, that said I have tried to come up with some tips and tricks that I think are broadly applicable and transferable, no matter who you are and no matter what field you are in. So let’s begin by putting the dissertation in context, you can think about your whole graduate career in terms of your dissertation, everything leads up to it and everything depends on it, it’s your golden ticket to graduation, so it’s worth spending time talking about it, and it’s worth spending time talking about the various steps that go into writing and defending a successful dissertation. So my talk will take on five broad phases, so to speak that go into your dissertation, first, finding your topic, second, writing the prospectus or the proposal, third, researching and writing, this is arguably where you’ll spend the most amount of your time and will take up the bulk of this presentation. Fourth, how to talk about your dissertation on the job market, or you can think about it as how to market your research and fifth, defending the dissertation, the one day that all of your hard work culminates on and which leads to your getting your PhD. So with that, let’s start with finding your topic.
I would encourage you to be thinking about your dissertation from day one, of course, you don’t wanna have tunnel vision and only think about your dissertation, we go to graduate school to learn to get exposure to various literatures, so you do want to be broadly too but there’s a way that you can do both of these at the same time. Read broadly, explore different literatures, but I would say also to read intentionally from the very beginning, so that as you’re reading in different fields, different sub fields of your larger discipline, you always have in the back of your mind, the fact that you will at the end of the day, have to produce a piece of scholarship, you will be responsible for contributing to this field or at least a small corner of it, so as you’re reading begin to figure out which questions are most interesting to you, which questions you think you would want to take on, and as I said, you can do this from the very beginning, maybe begin to notice which literatures draw you in and adjust accordingly. Second, seek early feedback, so when you’re starting out in a graduate program, you’re getting your bearings, you’re learning the lay of the land, learning, what sorts of questions your field even asks, so, you can only do so much of this on your own, and this is why we have advisors to guide us and suggest different scholarship to read, so there’s no reason not to begin talking with your advisor early on about where your thinking is at any given time, again, what questions you find interesting and what you expect to write a dissertation on, this could change from day to day, this could change from week to week but the point is by talking with your advisor or your potential committee early on, you have that chance to begin to home in on a particular topic, to refine it, to pivot if necessary, and again, the earlier you do this the better. And then lastly, when you are in this early stage of finding your topic, developing your question, I would suggest you think not just in terms of building a committee, everyone talks about building a committee, so this is obviously important, arguably, this is what should determine where you go to graduate school, where you think you’ll be able to build a committee that can help support you in your areas of research, but even beyond this, one of the things that I found essential to completing my dissertation and completing graduate school was to build a team, and this team was an assortment of people from my cohort, more advanced students that were a few years ahead of me, assistant professors at institutions who were already in the weeds on the tenure track, mid-career scholars, so a whole range of people, some of whom were not even researching questions that I was interested in but these are people who can be for you what your advisor isn’t always to be for you, your advisor is important, but he or she can’t serve every purpose, so if you are stressed in the middle of the night and you just need to send off an email to get some feedback on something, you can turn to this team for those sorts of things or reading drafts or letting you know about conferences that may come up, it’s basically a support system, a group of people who are familiar with what you’re doing and willing to be a part of your larger team. I would also say, once you begin to recruit so-called teammates, you should think of yourself as being on their team too, so much of our profession relies on having a generous spirit and goodwill toward our fellow academics so when a person is going out of their way to help you then you should step up too and be willing to read drafts for them, be willing to pass on opportunities that you hear about to them too. So, after you’ve decided what you’re doing topic is, after you have this support network, and again, this is a working progress, you can continue to get to know people and recruit people to be on your team throughout, but I mean, assuming you have something in place to start your dissertation work, you can turn to the prospectus.
One thing to again, allow for at this stage is to allow for false starts, allow time to pivot. One of my professors in graduate school said that more intellectual work goes into the prospectus or the proposal than even the dissertation itself, and if you think about it, there’s something to it, it’s at this stage that you’re building your work from the ground up, you don’t have a foundation, you’re kind of developing it out of thin air, once you actually get to the dissertation itself, you have something to go from, but if this stage feels difficult or fraught, it’s not for no reason, it’s a difficult phase, so there’s no reason not to start early, so that you can allow time to adjust, to pivot and to do so according to what your advisor’s telling you as well. That said, you know, you should take this seriously, you should take the time that you need with it, but at the end of the day, just write the darn thing, just write the prospectus, get it out there, and the reason I say this is because your dissertation will be different, there’s no question about it, it’s impossible to predict or to foresee every problem you’ll encounter, every snag you’ll come across, and so if you spend too much time agonizing over the prospectus and trying to sort out every little detail, it just won’t get done, so, when people are telling you that it’s time to defend trust them and just do it, just write it and know that this is not going to be the final product, your dissertation will almost definitely be a different thing than you can even imagine at this stage. Another thing that is useful to do at this early stage of developing your dissertation is to, what I have written here, buy yourself some time, and what I mean by that is to begin researching and even applying for fellowships, time is the most valuable resource you have in graduate school, I cannot emphasize that enough, and so if you know, you’re going to want some time to write your dissertation without having to teach and without having to TA, which everyone should be trying for at least a semester or two of that then this is the perfect opportunity to begin creating a database of fellowships that you can apply to immediately or down the road. And one of the nice things too about fellowship writing is once you’ve developed a good set of statements, you can usually repurpose them for other fellowships as well, so it’s a lot of work upfront but usually it pays off in the end, and even if you could get one fellowship that is time well spent.
And lastly this stage too is another good time to get organized, and I mean that in general, but I also mean that more specifically with learning how to use citation and reference management software, so maybe you’ve heard of Zotero or Mendeley, these are very popular resources for people in our profession to basically have a kind of database or library of citations, they generate bibliographies automatically, they can change the citation styles automatically, so it promises to save a lot of time in writing the dissertation itself, but also in the long run, as you go on to write other articles or to write your book, you now have this pre-curated library of citations that you can go on to use and to build on, so, the prospectus stage is a great time to begin learning how to use the software and to begin building up that library. Okay, so research and writing, unsurprisingly most of your time will be spent in this very long, drawn out phase, hopefully not too long, so I’ll divide this section of the presentation into three categories, first time and time management, second well-being, and taking care of yourself, and lastly, discipline, how to stay on track and get the job done. So first time, I don’t think this is apocryphal, I actually think he said this, a lot of people recount that economist James Buchanan said the best way to be productive, and the key to his own prolific work was simply to apply butt to chair, which seems maybe too simple but truly there is no substitute for having your butt in a chair, and I might add a couple of addendums these days to turn your phone off and put it in the other room and close your browsers, close your email, use Mac Freedom, or those productivity apps that exist. But really this is the most valuable thing you can give yourself is simply time to write and dedicated attention to your writing. Relatedly guard your time with your life, it’s so easy to let little commitments or little favors even slip into your day, so the freaked out undergrad, who needs to write a six page paper and doesn’t know what they wanna write on, and the only time they say they’re available is Monday at 10:00 AM, and that happens to be right in the middle of the time that you had set aside to write, of course you wanna help, I think most people in our field I’d like to think, we do care about our students but if you begin to let things like this creep into your writing time then before you know, it, it will all be gone, so make this time sacred, make it an actual commitment, you’ve probably heard this advice before but I can’t emphasize it enough, it’s very important that you do treat it as another item in your calendar so that other things don’t sneak in, and of course be flexible, you know, if this undergraduate really is freaking out, tell them, I’m sorry that time won’t work but maybe we can Zoom later on, maybe, you know, even after hours, we can talk. So it’s not to say that you don’t wanna be flexible but that flexibility shouldn’t come at the expense of your research, so treat this time as sacred.
Relatedly, don’t underestimate the amount of time that other things or other commitments will take, so one of the things I loved doing as a graduate student was helping out with our recruitment day, our graduate visiting day, it was just always a lot of fun and I helped organize it one year, so, you know, these are the sorts of service opportunities that many of us do enjoy but again can take away from our research time, so I’m not saying don’t volunteer but think about having a quota for yourself, maybe take on one or two of these sorts of things per year, and you may estimate that it’ll take a certain amount of time but trust that, that will be an underestimate and that this will actually take more time and time that frankly you can’t necessarily afford to take away from your research. And lastly, don’t spend too much time on requirements that are simply boxes to check, and I have a couple of examples in mind on this. So first earlier in your graduate career, you’ll probably have to take preliminary exams or comprehensive exams, it’s easy to think you have to spend an entire summer studying for these to just sink a whole summer several months into making sure you’re not going to fail, and of course you don’t want to fail, you want to pass these, you have to pass these, but I think sometimes we do spend a little too much time in the studying, remember, you just need to pass, you wanna do well, but you can be studying while also reading toward your dissertation proposal or exploring article ideas, so don’t sink a whole summer studying for comps. Another so-called box to check, and it’s not really much more than a box is to gain teaching experience, now, this is hard to say because I know so many of us look forward to teaching our first class, it’s kind of a rite of passage to be able to design your syllabus and run your own class, but truth be told, after you’ve taught, say two or three times, there are diminishing returns with respect to how much it actually counts for on the job market. All universities and even liberal arts colleges, all they’re looking for is to see that you take teaching seriously, and that you are capable of designing a syllabus and running your class, after you’ve done this a few times, you don’t really have much more to prove, and so you risk spending more time than you need to and again, taking time away from your dissertation. So just trust that when you get that job, you’ll be able to dedicate more time to your teaching, but at this stage really after, you know, a handful of classes three or so, there isn’t too much to be gained by teaching more.
Okay, so let’s talk about well-being. If you’re anything like me, there might be moments in your writing where you don’t think your dissertation is original or interesting, or you have this impression that everyone’s running on your topic, so why are you even bothering, there’s nothing that you can add. Well, when you catch yourself in these thought patterns recognize it for what it is and recognize your dissertation is likely better than you think, you’re spending almost every day probably, looking at these same chapters, at the same word documents and this is your world for the time being, and so it’s understandable that you would not have the perspective to remember what your dissertation actually does what it contributes and how it’s unique. So take this as an opportunity to talk with other people in your department, get in touch with your friends and your cohort again, and ask them about their research and notice how yes, in fact my dissertation is different from theirs and I’m studying something completely different from what others have and in a different way, so, all of this is to say this is a very normal way of thinking when you really get into the weeds and get bogged down, recognize it for what it is and take the time to gain perspective again and to get excited about your topic again. The next point is one that you’ve, I’m sure heard before maybe even in other contexts, and that is don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, yes, you want to write a good dissertation, yes, it has to be a finished dissertation too, and so if you set your mental bar too high, if you have this impression that it has to be perfect, it’s likely to paralyze you, to lead you to procrastinate, to lead to resistance, so just don’t even play that game, and not only will your dissertation never be perfect but I’m sorry to say, your book probably will never be perfect either, so just think about it as you’re doing the most you can with the time you have, you’ll turn out a good dissertation and in the end it will be finished, this is the goal. The third point is probably one of my favorite pieces of advice that I have to offer for the whole presentation, and that is to write with others.
I went to graduate school in Austin, Texas which was wonderful for a variety of reasons, but one of them was the vibrant coffee shop culture that it has. So several weekends, my husband and I would just park ourselves at a coffee shop, maybe on a lake or maybe an Italian style coffee shop, and we would just work all day, he would be coding, I would be writing and it would be as fun as working can be, we actually look back on those days fondly. So, if writing seems like a chore consider writing with others, or even just writing in situations that make you happy, maybe you don’t like the library, I’d never really did, so find a restaurant that’s casual enough where you can pull out your laptop, surround yourself with pastries, like I liked to at our coffee shops, just find what works for you. Another thing that we did in my graduate program was set up regular writing sessions among the graduate students, so the department would pay for breakfast and we would all get together and do what’s called, maybe you’ve heard of it the Pomodoro Method, which is you spend 50 minutes writing, this was how we did it at least, 50 minutes writing, and then 10 minutes socializing, 50 minutes writing, 10 minutes socializing, and we did that for an hour, and not only were you guaranteed to catch up with friends but you were guaranteed actually to have some output at the end of the day. There’s a lot to be said for the accountability that comes with writing with others, and also just, I’m always in a better mood when I have other people around me rather than being locked up in an office or in a cubicle. And lastly, invest in what makes you happy, and I say this for a couple of reasons, first, you are a whole human being, and so yes, graduate school’s important, but it’s not the end all and be all you, you don’t wanna put life on hold just because you’re a graduate student, so continue to invest in those hobbies, those recreational activities that you enjoy, call the friends and family that you love, don’t put those things off because again, graduate school is important, but it’s not worth sacrificing everything for and as a by-product I think it’s likely that you’ll find you are more productive when you’re happy, so I don’t wanna say that this is the main reason to invest in what makes you happy, but it is a good reason by not neglecting this side of you, you are more likely actually to turn up better work as well.
So, our last category for research and writing, discipline. I highly recommend writing every day, I know it sounds hard, it sounds daunting, but even just 20 minutes a day can really be a boon to your productivity, and it’s not even just about getting words on the page or higher page count, it’s simply about keeping your head in the game, if you are looking at that document every day you will remember where you left off, you won’t have to exert extra mental energy just to remember, okay, what was that article that I was reading and how did I want to incorporate it in this chapter? So by just looking at it and committing to 20 minutes a day you keep your head in the game and you save a lot of time even just in not having to shift your attention so much, and maybe, you know, you commit for 20 minutes a day but you are on a roll, and so you wind up writing for an hour and a half, all the better, but the goal should be at least 20 minutes a day. Relatedly, I have found it very helpful to leave myself a note for tomorrow, so what that means is after closing my document before, sorry before closing my document, when I’m wrapping up for the day, just leave yourself at the end where you left off the last paragraph a line or two, saying what you have to do tomorrow, so you finished incorporating that one article into your argument, well, next you have to take on this other author, so again, it doesn’t have to be long, but just a note or two to jog your memory can go a long way in not exerting that extra mental energy to get up to speed before you have to begin working again the next day. Next know thyself do you work better in the morning? Do you work better late at night? Do you work better with a coffee and a pastry next to you or in a library that’s dark and dimly lit and not distracting.
All of these things may take some time to figure out as you go through your graduate career, but to be thinking about them and try to determine what works best for you, and then go out of your way to set up those conditions, those circumstances that you found to be most conducive to your productivity. So if you work best at night, maybe it’s strange to your friends that you stay up until 2:00 AM writing, but if you’re productive and if you don’t have class at 8:00 AM the next morning, then do it, there’s no reason not to. That said, and this sits in somewhat tension with the last point, don’t wait for ideal conditions, do everything you can to write in the best, most conducive circumstances, but sometimes those circumstances just don’t come up or are not possible, if anyone here has small children, much less small children than the age of COVID, you know, this firsthand, you really have to take every moment, to write that you have available to you, it might be 20 minute, 30 minute blocks but you have to get it done, so again, do what you can to write when you are at your best, but sometimes recognize that it just won’t be possible, so right when you are able. Okay, so we’ve researched, we’ve written our dissertation or at least most of it, now it’s time to go on the job market and to tell people about our research. Maybe you’ve been wrestling with this, those who are later on in the process might be or I mean at any stage really that’s a good time to think about this, how do you write a dissertation while also publishing?
You need the dissertation to graduate but you need to publish to get a job, so how do you navigate this? And there are many different ways to navigate it but I would recommend being strategic in how you write the dissertation itself, so as you’re writing particular chapters think about them as potential standalone articles, this allows you to kill two birds with one stone and potentially use them for the same purpose, the first chapter of my dissertation is verbatim, an article that I wound up publishing and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just being smart. The market is more competitive than it’s ever been in every field, and so if this is what it will take for you to get a job and to graduate then, so be it. One quick qualifier though is if you’re writing a dissertation that you intend to turn into a book, then you just might want be conscious of the number of chapters that you do publish ahead of time, because book publishers often want to see that there’s a good amount of new material in the book that hasn’t been published before, so I’m happy to talk more about that in the Q&A, if anyone is interested. Second, and again this is another point you’ve probably heard before but it’s very important, be able to explain the dissertation to anyone.
Oftentimes people mean this, they say, you know, be able to explain it to your grandfather or be able to explain it to your aunt, which are valuable exercises, and I encourage you to do that, but I think that just as valuable and just as overlooked is the ability to explain your topic, to explain your research to other people in your fields who simply don’t study what you do, this may be a somewhat cynical take, but the truth is say your potential colleagues, your future colleagues when you’re on a job interview, they wanna hear about your research genuinely, but unless they’re in your particular field, they’re probably not too interested in getting into the nitty gritty and the weeds of your research, save that for conferences, where you are talking with people working on the exact same subjects as you, or with people who you know at least are conversant in these topics, but when it comes to people in other fields, just be very self-aware in the level at which you should pitch your research, it’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that they’re not as invested as you are, and so you really want to cater your presentation of your research differently, depending on who you’re talking with. Relatedly, try to make your research relevant, so say you’re on a campus visit, and in my field of political science, we have different sub fields of international relations, comparative politics, American politics, my field is public law, so as you are meeting, you’re having your one-on-ones with people in these different sub fields, presumably you’ve done some research on them ahead of time, so use that research to your advantage, look at what they do study and see if there are any connections with what you study, make it relevant to them, and this is not necessarily with the thought that you’ll be collaborating in the future, if it comes to that excellent, but it’s simply about showing how your dissertation is important, even across sub fields, it’s showing to how you can be a good colleague and engage with people even if they aren’t studying exactly what you are, also on this point of making it relevant make your research relevant to current events if you can help it. I have talked with a few people over the years who do seem to have really interesting connections between their research and what’s happening in the world, but for some reason they want to keep it at the theoretical, and I think you do yourself a real disservice in doing that, because if you can show that your dissertation has something to offer real problems then that makes it all the more compelling in general, but also for people who aren’t necessarily studying in your field. And lastly I think this is conventional wisdom at this point but in case it’s not, maintain a professional website, this is one of your one opportunities to control what people see about you online, so you might have information about your dissertation, you might have information about your teaching or other research projects, this is a good opportunity to curate, so to speak what other people see about you, how they see you as a scholar, so by not having a professional website you’re really forfeiting an important and useful opportunity to put yourself out there and let people learn about you. All right, you’ve written the dissertation, you’ve gotten the job, now, all that’s left is to defend your dissertation.
The best piece of advice I have on this front is simply to talk with your advisor. Dissertation defense is vary not only between departments and fields, but from advisor to advisor, so talk with your advisor in advance and see what the expectations are, do they want you to present a short say, 10, 15 minute account of your dissertation, maybe longer in advance? Do they intend the defense to be public or private? All of these things it’s really impossible for me to advise you on just because defenses vary so much, so know that, that is a piece of advice in itself, and if you find that you are getting close to the end, begin talking with your advisor about what the defense will look like. If you have the chance to sit in on the defenses of some of your colleagues, I think I sat in on three people’s defenses before I actually had to defend myself, and it was incredibly valuable if anything just to demystify the whole thing and see what it was like, so I highly encourage that if you have the opportunity. Some of you I may have seen in the past a fun little cartoon that pops up around this time in the spring every year, when people are getting ready to defend their dissertations, it’s this little stick figure, wagging a sword around at his dissertation committee who is running away, and the caption is the best dissertation defense is a dissertation offense. And there is a little bit of truth to this, I don’t want to encourage you to become violent at your defense, but I will say that thinking about your defense as a challenge to be overcome in a way can be useful.
One of the purposes of your committee is to ask tough questions, to make sure yes, you’ve done the research, yes, you’ve thought about these things extensively and yes, you stand by your arguments, so their job is to ask difficult questions and you shouldn’t be overly obsequious in your responses to them, but standing by your argument, know that you’ve invested the time and that you’re capable of defending this piece of scholarship that you’ve produced confidently. At the same time and sitting in somewhat tension again with the last point is to welcome criticism, I think the best dissertation defense should have a twofold purpose of both challenging you, but also being aimed to improve your product for the long-term, so whether you’re talking about a dissertation that was written as a book, or a dissertation that is meant to be turned into separate articles, the point of the defense is to help you improve this product or these products for the future. So yes, your committee is been critical, some of these things that they’re talking about maybe you simply didn’t have time to do in your time before graduating and that’s okay, take it as a suggestion for how to improve it moving forward. And lastly, the very last point I have to offer is to record the conversation, whether you are a good note taker yourself and intend to take notes during the defense or maybe you have a friend sit in and take notes for you or maybe you just press the record button on the recorder app of your iPhone and make sure that you get a transcript of what happens and what were the topics discussed during the defense, however you go about this, make sure to record the conversation because this is valuable advice that you’re getting for free, I mean, you worked hard but you won’t have many other opportunities where several scholars have sat down, read your work closely and are dedicated to giving you comments for a solid two hours or so, so take advantage of that for what it is, and after recording it in whatever form you decide to, try to organize your notes clearly and concisely, you may think you’re going to revisit your dissertation immediately, but if you’ve got a job and if you’re going to be moving and settling into a new city, it might take a little longer than you expect to revisit the dissertation no matter how dedicated and committed you are, so, take notes, summarize them, organize them with the thought that you might not be looking at your dissertation again for a few months, and you want to be able to make the most use of this feedback you’ve received when you are ready to revisit it.