ABD. All But Dissertation. It’s the unofficial milestone all PhD students reach upon completing comprehensive exams and other program requirements needed to progress to PhD candidate status. I remember telling a friend who was unfamiliar with the structure of North American PhD programs what ABD meant. I had a good idea of the contours of what my dissertation topic would be and conducted preliminary research by that point, but I had yet to get started on my dissertation work in any serious way.
“All I have left to do now is just write the dissertation,” I said.
Just write the dissertation? What the hell was I talking about?
The naivety of my recently turned ABD self is astounding in hindsight. It certainly is a significant step towards completion to have everything but the dissertation out of the way, but ABD masks the reality of the dissertation, that it’s both the most difficult and most important component of a PhD program. This is even more glaring when one considers that doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences have high attrition rates, and most students drop out after languishing for years as ABDs, unable to finish their dissertations. The weight of it all sinks in for most of us around the time we prepare the dissertation prospectus and carefully plan out our projects and steps towards completion. It sunk in for me much later, as I winded down two years of fieldwork and archival research early this summer and had to figure out what to do with it all, and how to transition to writing (and finishing) a dissertation. You don’t just write a dissertation — it often takes another year or two (or more) to plan, draft, revise and polish chapters and end up with a completed product that satisfies your committee of professors enough to allow you to proceed to the dissertation defense, and officially receive the PhD.
Needless to say, I’m still figuring it out, but after a few months of dissertating, I have a sense of what works for me. You’ll find out what works for you and gets you writing as well, but here are ten tips based on my own experience:
1. There is such a thing as writing too early. It is hard to write a dissertation chapter. It is even harder to write one not knowing what you’re going to say, where it fits into the broader dissertation, and having to toss it out later and start all over because you’ve gotten it all wrong. Spend time doing the heavy lifting of unpacking your research, conceptualizing and planning your dissertation before you get writing. That’s not to say you won’t be doing any writing at the stage – writing is generative and it’s a great way to work through and produce ideas – but this early writing is more like the “pre-writing” stage and won’t necessarily be the good stuff that goes into your dissertation. That will come later.
2. Outlines are your friends. “But Safia,” you say, “I’ve never written outlines for any of my papers, I prefer to free write.” I don’t care how you used to write. The dissertation is unlike anything you’ve written up until now and not comparable to your class papers, which you likely started working on a day or two before deadline. It is the longest project you’ve ever worked on, and you need to have a plan for tackling it and making sure it’s coherent and flows logically. Detailed outlines are key. Force yourself to write out the story of your dissertation. What’s it about? What arguments are you trying to make overall? How are you making those arguments? What literature are you in conversation with, and what interventions are you trying to make? Bullet points won’t cut it – you need to force yourself to write a narrative outline of your dissertation first, then similarly write (thick) outlines for each chapter of your dissertation. These will be constantly changing as you begin the writing process, and that’s okay. The important thing is you know where you’re going before you begin, and that you’ve forced yourself to think through the project as a conceptual whole. It’ll kick your ass, but you’ll thank me for it later when you’re writing.
3. Create the conditions for writing. You’ve probably heard the phrase “the dissertation is a marathon, not a sprint.” Most people interpret this to refer to the time required for research and writing being comparable to a long distance race, but it also makes an important point about endurance and discipline. The only way to write a dissertation is to WRITE, and that means long hours of often dull, routine, and sometimes excruciating work. There’s no waiting for inspiration or some brilliant idea to hit you while you’re watching Netflix. Treat dissertation writing like a real job. Figure out which hours you’re most productive and stick to them (with scheduled, periodic breaks, of course), and make sure you’re there the same time each day. Treat your writing time like any other appointment you can’t cancel, and make sure everyone in your life knows that you can’t be bothered during your writing hours. Would you check your Twitter or answer your phone while you’re in a meeting with your dissertation advisor? No? So turn your phone off.
4. Claim your space. This is an offshoot of the point above, but I think it’s important enough to deserve it’s own explanation. I find there is something psychologically beneficial about having a special place for doing your dissertation work. This could be your office on campus, your regular table at your local coffee shop, your living room couch, the desk in your den room. The point is that this space is YOURS, and it’s where you go at the same time daily to write. Once you get into a regular routine, you’ll find it almost instinctual to get to work just by being at your writing spot.
5. Break things down into manageable pieces. You’re not actually “writing a dissertation” when you sit down each day to work. You’re not even “writing a chapter.” No one does that in one day, so why freak yourself out by telling yourself that you are? Lists are a helpful way to break down dissertation work into smaller, concrete tasks that are doable in a day and a week. Instead of writing “draft chapter 2,” which can be intimidating, divide it up into daily chunks of work with tasks like “write paragraph about X,” “rewrite section transitioning between discussion of A and B,” or “revise introductory section.” Spend a few minutes after wrapping up your day’s work writing down a list of tasks to do tomorrow, but make sure you’re realistic about the time it’ll take for you to complete them.
6. Keep your feelings in check. I have to remind myself of this one regularly. What if you don’t complete the tasks you’ve set out for the day? The worst possible reaction is to let feelings of failure creep in and allow yourself to become overwhelmed by the scale of the dissertation. Imposter syndrome is a real thing and becomes even more acute when you’ve reached the dissertation stage and find yourself having to produce something significant and open yourself up to the criticism of your professors and peers. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed, but focusing on day to day tasks and how completing the dissertation is about chipping away at it little by little helps put things into perspective. Some days you’ll be incredibly productive, other days you’ll struggle to get a few sentences on paper. You don’t have to be great each day — you just have to work each day, because the dissertation you end up with in a year (or however long you have) is an accumulation of daily work. Practice self-care. Resist the counter-productive reaction to sulk around and procrastinate when you’ve had a bad writing day. Just get back to work tomorrow.
7. Embrace the “shitty first draft.” Have you read Ann Lamont’s book “Bird by Bird”? If you haven’t, read it now (but not if you’ll use it to procrastinate). She talks about the writing process and techniques for getting things moving, and one of these techniques is to give yourself permission to write terribly and produce a shitty first draft. Graduate students in particular are prone to perfectionism and not being satisfied with what we’re producing, but perfectionism is not conducive to writing. You will be paralyzed if you think every sentence you write has to be good, and there’s nothing worse for productivity than paralysis. But bad writing is writing, and at this point in your program, all you need to do is STFU and write. You’ll be able to go back to it later and revise. Get the shitty first draft of that chapter done so you can have a good second draft and a terrific third draft.
8. Keep a dissertation journal. You may be working on a section of chapter two, but find yourself thinking about something related to chapters four and five. Thinking is not linear and discrete like our writing schedules, so make sure you have a space for your writing about your writing — somewhere you can brainstorm, jot things down for later, or even write about how you feel about the writing. I prefer to do this by hand so I keep a small notebook, but a Word document or app like Evernote might work better for you.
9. Do whatever the hell you need to do to write. Don’t get bogged down in lists like this one or conventional dissertation advice and feel as though you’re doing the dissertation wrong for taking a different approach. I hate reading a lot of that stuff too, and prefer hearing about the difficulties of writing, especially from successful writers. Everyone works differently, and an important part of writing is figuring out the best way for you to be a productive writer. Do you, just be honest with yourself about your habits and make sure it’s a productive you.
10. Enjoy the process. Real talk, I’m still working on this one and find nothing enjoyable about dissertation writing. But I’m trying to appreciate the fact that my only job right now is to think and write, and I’ll likely never have time like this again, certainly not as a professor juggling a million commitments all the while trying to work on a project. It is also an important milestone marking the transition from student to scholar, from a consumer of knowledge to a producer of knowledge. The dissertation is the debut, the way that a young scholar enters the conversations of their field with their own original work and take their place among peers. And that’s pretty cool.
Photo: My dining table/dissertation war room