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Dissertation/Reading Advice


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As everyone here knows, graduate school can be incredibly isolating. The people we can go to for help often aren't much help for whatever reason (advisors, the DGS, other graduate students). Lately, I've been struggling with anxiety about the dissertation. In the spring, if everything goes as planned, I'll be finishing my work for my orals exam and then embark on writing the dissertation in the fall. This is terrifying to me because I worry about being left alone to figure out what the hell a dissertation should actually look like and how to make sure I'm productive enough to write one. Of course everyone has their own way of going about things, but it's been hard to find general information (besides looking at examples of dissertations and guessing on how they came into fruition). 

At any rate, does anyone have any advice on how to write a dissertation (for a PhD in literature)? I'm looking for readings guides (are there books out there on how to write a dissertation that I am unaware of?) or general advice on how people progressed from chapter to chapter. For example, I recently talked to someone about how she completed her dissertation and she said she considered each chapter as if she was writing two seminar papers together and splicing them with an introduction/conclusion. This made each chapter seem less scary, but I also wonder if this is a good approach. Does anyone else have other strategies for how to conceive of what a dissertation chapter should look like? 

Also, I'm worried about time to completion. I'm at the point where I want to get out in five years or less (finishing my third year this year). The same person who gave me advice on writing a dissertation chapter finished her dissertation in one year (after coursework--so 4 years total). She said she wrote 5 days a week non-stop. She didn't wait for her committee to approve of everything step by step, but instead used an editing service and made sure she was giving them good enough work quick enough so that she had stamina and they were less likely to stop her. This seems particularly risky because who wants to write a lot and have it turned down? But it also seems smart because there is something to the idea of just keeping going at all costs and revising later. She said her committee said something like "this could be revised, but you can save that for the book anyway." 

Thoughts? I just really hate the "sink or swim" attitude of academia. I think the idea that you have to suffer alone is terrible and should be changed. Perhaps that seems off topic, but basically I'm trying to figure out how others complete the dissertation in general, but also how to complete it without going insane. 

In the title of this post I included "reading advice" since I'm doing reading for the oral exams. I'm having a hard time completing things quickly. I assume the answer is skim skim skim, but since I can't get myself to skim, all I wind up doing is looking at all the piles of books and feeling stressed that I'll never complete them (i.e. I'm basically doing nothing right now). HELP!

Edited by HopefulElephant
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This is going to be a quick reply (sorry!) but I can elaborate more if you'd like.


1) It's not necessarily about skimming but about reading effectively. There's a chapter in Hacking the Academy about how to read an academic book in an hour. The chapter itself is two pages long so, even if you don't like their method, you won't lose much time reading about it. Another option would be to check out this PDF by Paul Edwards at the University of Michigan. I'm actually assigning it to my students this semester so they can learn more about how to effectively read a book (most of my undergrads have never had to read a book cover to cover before). 

2) For a lot of books, you probably really only need to read the intro, conclusion, and then the intro and conclusion to each specific chapter IF there are parts particularly relevant to your research/interests. Only read the entire book if you really have to. 

3) There's lots of info out there about how to increase your reading speed (e.g., by not reading each word aloud in your head). YMMV but you may want to look into some of these techniques.


1) The best way to get a sense of what a dissertation should look like is to read some. I recommend reading (okay, well skimming) at least five. You want to read 1-2 written by students of your PhD advisor (regardless of their topic) and another 1-2 recently completed ones from your dept (again, topic is unimportant). This is to get a sense of what your advisor and department are expecting in terms of length and depth. It'll also give you a sense of how people in your program structure their dissertations.

Then, read another 2-3 written on your topic in the last five years. There's two reasons for this. First, a lot of the most recent scholarship can be found in dissertations that haven't yet been turned into books or articles, so you may get a better sense of what is cutting-edge or unknown in your area (and, as a bonus, avoid rehashing something someone else just did in their dissertation*). Second, it'll give you a sense of whether the way people are writing dissertations in your department is what's common for your topic/area. Plus, you know, you'll have a great bibliography to mine.

*The logic here is that you'll end up competing with that person for jobs and to get your book published and they've already got a head start on you.

2) There are a bunch of books on writing your dissertation in 15 minutes a day and that sort of thing. I never read any of them. Instead, I gave myself specific word count targets for each day and made sure that I met them.

3) It's difficult for any of us to tell you how to approach the actual writing because we don't know your typical writing process. Did you write a MA thesis? If so, use the same techniques if those worked for you. Personally, I made a detailed outline of the entire project (really, the Table of Contents), then decided about how long each part needed to be, then decided what to work on. I ended up not writing my chapters in order (that's never been my style so I wrote Ch. 3-5, then ch. 2, then the conclusion, then ch 1) because it made the most sense to me when I was writing it. I think I also ended up shuffling the order of the chapters around at some point.

4) If you want to finish in a year, set up a timeline and work backwards to ensure that you give yourself sufficient time to complete everything. That is, if you have to defend by X date to file, then you want to make sure your final draft is to your committee about a month before that. From there you can figure out what targets you need to hit and by when. 

5) Whether or not you can keep working while various committee members are reviewing chapters is entirely dependent on your committee. No one on either my MA or PhD committees wanted to read anything until I had a full rough draft. That meant that I didn't have to wait for feedback all the time but it also made it nervewracking because there were fewer checks to make sure I was on the right track. So, after your orals, I'd ask your entire committee how they want to proceed in terms of chapters and drafts, as well as what you can expect in terms of turnaround. You'll also want to ask how frequently they want progress reports/updates, if they want the entire committee to reconvene every few months, etc. All of these things vary widely based on who is on one's committee.

Good luck! You can do this!


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Have you talked this over with your advisor? Did you need to write a formal proposal before starting your research? Speaking everything over with your advisor and going back to look at your proposal could help you figure out how you want to approach the dissertation.

For my M.A. I ended up going down the project path instead of a thesis, but I still just had to give my advisor a 50 page document that is my main deliverable and will probably end up with about 100 pages for the final report. I talked over the grand scheme of the doc with her (about how I thought having it split into three main parts would flow best) and then I outlined each part down to the subheadings. I knew about how many words I needed for each section to reach my personal goal so I tackled each section in whatever order felt best for me. I also wrote each section in a separate doc before transferring it over to the main doc. This helped me write ~20k words in roughly 2 weeks (with breaks for a party and general procrastination). 

Talking over your research with someone may also help you solidify what it is you want to say in your dissertation and how it would be best organized. As for readings, not sure if I can help you too much. If they were articles I would say read the abstract/intro, methods, and conclusion and you would be good. For literature, maybe start with reading summaries of the books so you don't spend as much time trying to figure out the plot? 

Hope this helps!

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  • 6 years later...

Graduate school can indeed be a challenging and isolating experience, particularly when it comes to writing a dissertation. However, there are strategies and resources available to help you navigate this process. Here are some suggestions and advice to consider:

· Seek guidance from your advisor and committee: Schedule regular meetings with your advisor to discuss your dissertation progress, seek feedback, and clarify expectations. They can provide valuable insights and help shape your approach.

· Consult existing resources: Look for books, articles, and guides from  professional dissertation writers in your field. Some popular titles include "Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day" by Joan Bolker and "How to Write a Lot" by Paul J. Silvia. These resources can offer practical advice and techniques to boost your productivity.

· Study sample dissertations: Analyze successful dissertations in your field to gain a better understanding of their structure, organization, and writing style. Pay attention to how the chapters flow and connect to create a coherent narrative.

· Break it down into manageable tasks: Rather than viewing the dissertation as one overwhelming project, divide it into smaller, achievable goals. Set specific deadlines for each chapter or section and create a realistic writing schedule that suits your working style.

· Find your own approach: Experiment with different strategies for writing chapters. Some people prefer the "two seminar papers spliced together" approach, while others prefer to focus on one central argument throughout the entire dissertation. Find a method that works best for you and aligns with your research goals.

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