I studied for the better part of two months over the winter for comps. Actually, no, I prepared for two and a half years in my doctoral program by completing coursework. I literally consumed hundreds of journal articles and seminal works both in my courses and during my intensive prep for comps. I conducted research and taught courses. I vigorously prepared for one week of writing and answered four questions. After writing 76 total pages and answering my comprehensive exams over seven days, I completed exams in order to become a doctoral candidate. Courses are now complete. Research assistantship is over. Teaching assistantship is mostly done. With all of this emerging free time, what do I do with it?
Now I face this little thing called a dissertation…not so affectionately called the Big D. This is the last major obstacle to obtaining that desired piece of paper upon graduation. Completing the dissertation will help me secure that first Assistant Professor position. Well, I hope it will. The Big D mostly follows this script: Write a rough draft of chapter 1. Submit it for review and feedback by committee. After receiving their feedback, revise and resubmit. Rinse and repeat multiple times for three chapters. Defend prospectus. Submit IRB proposal and receive approval. Collect and analyze data. Write chapter four and submit to committee. Revise and resubmit that chapter. Write chapter five and submit/revise/edit/resubmit, etc. Defend dissertation. Sounds easy, right? Not exactly!
However, completing the dissertation itself may not the hardest part. The hardest part is all the time with which I have to complete it. What? Yes, you heard me correctly. All of this unstructured free time is a difficult adjustment from the last few years of study. I completed coursework that was strategically laid out for me on a study schedule of two to three years. My adviser told me, “Walk through this door.” I walked through it by finishing over 60 credit hours of coursework. Then I answered four questions within the intense structure of seven days. Now I am allotting an entire year to complete this project that is marked by lots of idle time. Is this why nearly half of Ph.D. candidates do not finish their dissertation? No more coursework to complete. Comps are finished. This huge project with ample free time seems overwhelming. Is it truly possible to consume an elephant one bite at a time? Well, I am not sure – never tried to eat an elephant. And I have never completed a dissertation.
However, here are a few steps I plan to follow:
Write daily and stick to a schedule.
As I have already written here and here, this directive has been the most important activity I have followed in my three years of doctoral studies. This activity has helped me learn an unfamiliar craft mostly by trial and error. It is my belief that this one thing has led me to getting published multiple times. And I trust this daily habit will help me conquer this task that lies ahead. When I say write daily, I mean write at least four to five days per week for 30-60 minutes. Despite some popular opinion, evidence exists that the majority of people who write in smaller and more regular increments write significantly more than those who write in occasional large bursts.
When I say stick to a schedule, I do not mean write if there is nothing else to do. I do not mean write if it is convenient. You must absolutely be committed to writing each day! Of course, there are exceptions, but do not let an exception become the rule or it will be. It is so easy to let life get in the way and before you know it, you will not have written anything for weeks or months. Make a decision now. Do you want to graduate? If so, this activity is absolutely necessary to accomplish this goal. Schedule it in your planner. Insert WRITING (for 30-60 minutes) into your IPhone or Email Calendars now on a recurring basis. My daily writing is scheduled. How about yours?
Talk with students, professors, and others about your project.
Initiating conceptual conversations with colleagues and professors is vital to developing your ideas. Encourage others to ask you clarifying questions when you talk about your research questions. Talking with others who know nothing about your topic can also be helpful. Discuss your outline of how you plan to solve your problem. Talk with other students about their ideas, and this conversation will help clear things up for you.
Join or start a writing group in person or online.
I learned how difficult it is to facilitate an in person writing group with nine other cohort members in an attempt to coordinate schedules. Gathering your entire cohort together may be unrealistic, but grabbing coffee with one or two others might be doable. Our group started a Google document with helpful writing blogs, ideas, and links to our rough drafts and professor feedback. One night three of us were discussing our writing at the same time via Google Chat in the actual document, and something about this felt inspiring in the moment. Be creative with ways of engaging others with regards to enhancing writing accountability.
By writing daily and sticking to a schedule, facilitating helpful conversations, and joining a writing group, I am hopeful that these steps will empower me to finish the Big D and graduate by May of 2017. Somewhere between advancing the dissertation and graduation will involve applying for academic positions. And those positions, those with a start date of fall 2017, often begin accepting applications and conducting interviews this coming fall (2016). Therefore, I will officially be “on the market” in the coming months. Stay tuned for another blog entry on preparing for the academic job market.