Getting Unstuck from Writing Your Dissertation

At the recent PAEA Education Forum in Washington, D.C., I was approached by several people who had read my previous blog post about earning a PhD or who attended a talk I gave a few years ago on writing a dissertation. They have completed their course work and are beginning the dissertation-writing phase. I know many PA educators who are now in this stage, and several have asked for an update. Here are my seven pieces of advice.

1. Get a champion. A champion is different than a mentor. A champion is someone who actively supports you in an endeavor (like a PhD). The champion may even have a little “skin in the game” and be a peer or a collaborator. Your champion will be able to “unpaint” you from your corners, get you talking about questions, ideas, and plans. Your champion may be the most important person to help you actually complete your dissertation journey. But this is critical: Your champion must not be on your actual dissertation committee. In fact, your champion should not even be at your program. Your champion also cannot be a family member. Your champion must selflessly guide you, step by step, through every possible logjam or sandbag or self-inflicted problem that might occur.

2. Find a way to develop the thickest skin you can muster. The dissertation is your baby. You do not like to have your baby messed with. People will mess with your baby. People might even think your baby is not very pretty. People might actually tell you to give up your baby and get another one. This will hurt and this will hurt deeply. Prepare yourself for this. Prepare for the most epic amount of ownership you have ever felt toward something that is not really a baby.

3. Start writing. You know all the outlining and planning and data collecting and committee meetings and proposal approvals? Well, all of that is not writing. You will tell yourself you are “working on your dissertation.” This is not true. You are only really working on your dissertation when you are sitting down at the table and writing. Otherwise, you are just moving the papers around on your desk and calling it work. You will actually need to sit down and write — basically put your backside in the saddle (or position yourself at your standing desk) and then write and write and write. Yes, I know, you need to touch your data every day. I realize this. You need to look at your beautiful data and your gorgeous tables. But you are just kidding yourself if you think this is dissertation work. Without daily, sustained, intuitive writing, you are a sailboat without wind; you are a canoe without paddles; you are standing on snow without skis. Get it? So get to work and write!

4. The Einstein Principle. Eliminate everything from your plate but the dissertation. Einstein did not come up with the theory of relativity by focusing on a bunch of different things. He worked on E = MC2 for seven years. You must limit yourself and learn to say “no.” This is non-negotiable. Here is what is on your plate: your health, your family, and your real job. That’s it. When you are offered the opportunity to serve on a great committee, you will say, “Thank you for thinking of me, but I would recommend this other person.” Look in the mirror and practice saying “no” graciously.

5. Write every day. Do not think that you will have one whole day of protected time. I’ve heard from some people that they were successful saying, “I’m only going to work on my dissertation on Thursdays.” That’s okay, but I would advise you to work on it every single day. I would advise the following: Get up and make your coffee or tea, then write for 30 minutes. Do this as the first thing in the morning every day. Maybe even write first and then run if you have time. Don’t put anything else ahead of it. Take only one morning off (like Sunday). If you wait and work on it once a week, you will lose some momentum every time you put it down and pick it back up. And you will get fatigued. It is fine to protect a nice long block of time, but I would recommend daily writing.

6. The revise and edit process must have an end point. You will get five different edits from your dissertation committee. Not all of them will agree. There will be committee members who will want you to do it one way, and another committee member who will want you to do it the exact opposite way. You are the expert. You will adjudicate the recommendations and then decide. You know the material the best. I once asked one of my committee members when I should stop making revisions. He said, “You stop making the revisions when you start changing the revisions back to the way you had it originally.” I want to emphasize: You are the expert. When it is time, you will know.

7. Know the “why” question. When you get to the defense, you must be able to answer the question: Why did you do this research? And that includes: Did you improve our collective knowledge? Is this worth publishing in the literature? Will the world be a better place because of what you have written? Knowing the “why” answer now when you start, will help you get to the end of the process successfully.

Best of luck!