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Struggling with Dissertation Research


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I am wrapping up about 9 months of dissertation research, and I am really struggling. I realize that everyone struggles to an extent with research, but I find it difficult to put aside my concerns at this point.  I jumped through all of the hoops my department put in place to prepare students for research, and received feedback and encouragement from my advisers on my proposal.  Since then, however, my research has felt very disorganized.  I meet and write my advisers regularly with updates and have recently explicitly asked for help. In response,  I usually receive encouragement and/or fairly general advice that temporarily alleviates my anxiety but does not help with the substantive problems.  I feel like I am making uninformed research decisions and continually starting anew in an attempt to keep motivated.  I am expected to begin writing soon, and I am completely unprepared for this phase - in fact, I don't feel much closer to having a defined project than I did before I went into the field.


As a result of these problems and more generalized doubts, my morale is low, and I'm finding it difficult to believe that I'm making real progress.  I sometimes wonder if I should commit myself to more serious changes - like designing a new project, or committing my energies to training myself for a non-academic path. Other times, I feel like my modest attempts to do so are distracting from progress with my research.


I'd appreciate any advice or thoughts.  Thank you.



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Well, the good(?) news is I'm pretty sure everybody feels this way at some point. Writing a dissertation is like nothing we've done before (and if we're lucky, after). It's very hard to give advice about how to approach such a monolithic project without knowing more about you, your field, your personality and your research habits. Assuming (probably incorrectly) that I can use my experience to say something more general, the following thoughts come to mind.


Do you have a research proposal? Or at least some list of the main questions or ideas you are pursuing and what your answers will be? If not, then this is a useful thing to do for yourself because it helps solidify the problems you are working on and the paths to answering them. Or, at least it helps you see what directions you might want to think about. Even if you have a research proposal, you may want to sit down and create a sort of outline of the argument(s) and how they break up into topics and maybe chapters. Keep in mind that these things are fluid and you're really not going to know how a particular chapter is going to be structured until you start writing it. I had several potential leads or problems at various stages of my work that will not make it into my dissertation because despite my efforts turns out I have nothing interesting to say about them. I personally think it's hard to do "research" because it's so amorphic it's hard to know if you're on the right track or completely off. What helped me in the "research" stage was to define smaller problems or questions and create handouts for myself (and for my advisors) that present a dataset and a question about it, or a proposal for a theory, or a rambly discussion of what desiderata we might need to account for some data and why that's hard to do in current theories, or a list of open issues that I'd need more data to address and an attempt to start collecting the data. You get my point. Some of these handout end up being more useful than others but it helps to put your thoughts on paper, and it will be useful later to have all the data written up. Arranging the data in a handout to create a narrative around it helps you see how you will want to structure your argument and it might help you see where the argument needs strengthening, which is an identifiable "research" step you could take. When you have enough of these handouts that address specific parts of your work, it'll be easier to look at your outline and see how things fit together, what you have done, and where you still have work to do. The outline will remain in flux for a good portion of your "research" stage and perhaps even into the writing. This is fine, so don't worry. Trying to impose a structure on a project this large is hard and takes time. The more information you have, the better. So if you get stuck on a certain problem, at this point it may be good to put it aside for a while and work on something else. As I mentioned, there will inevitably be things you won't solve, or that won't be perfect. That, too, is fine.


I'm in the beginning of the writing stage myself. By the end of three months, I will have written an entire dissertation, defended it, made revisions, and filed. (And moved to another country, and started an new job). That is crazy. All I can tell you is that I think everyone--regardless of how well you think they're doing--goes through these moments of doubt. It's sometimes hard to believe that the people who you are sure are good to go and have a lot of stuff going on think that there is something wrong with them and that you are so much better off than them. But then when it's crunch time, somehow everybody pulls through one way or another, and it ends up ok. I'm not going to tell you you're going to necessarily enjoy it all, but it helps (me) to remember that this is time limited, it's not forever or even for very long, all things considered. When I was in the cloud, it helped me to talk frankly with my advisors, who were very supportive, and with friends who had gone through the process the year or two before me. They gave me some perspective on how it felt for them (including describing everything that I was feeling, from the doubts to feeling I can't do it to just being overwhelmed), and some of their advice was very useful. More than anything, though, I was reassured that what I was feeling was normal, and for me at least that made a big difference. 

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I don't know what field you're in, so I'm not sure that this will be helpful, but I would tell you to approach your first chapter like it's a 20-page seminar paper. In other words, just sit down and write it.


Just write it. It's going to be terrible. It's going to be bad. But no one can help you with it when it's still in your head. You have to produce SOMETHING in order to get to the stage where you can actually receive help on it.

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