This Diss, This Diss

My husband took the kids to Estes Park last weekend so I could indulge in a work weekend. These are great; I wish I could hand them out like candy in the streets, but, Dear Reader, beware: you will finish only a fraction of the work you wanted to. In my case, I knowingly entered the weekend with a list that would (and will) take a good three months to accomplish.

Several of the items on my to-do list stemmed from my dissertation. For those of you who don’t follow every detail of my life (alas), here’s a brief recap of my PhD degree:

I started the program at University of Colorado in Fall 2007. I’ve taught two classes every semester since then, aside from one semester that I took off for my daughter’s birth (I worked through my son’s birth; this is covered in my previous post). I passed my Comprehensive Exam (“Comps”) in Oct. 2010, and filed my Prospectus and had my Conversation in April of 2011 (I had my son in June of 2011, so I was pregnant during the most stressful part of my degree). I took Fall 2011 off from thinking, although I still taught online. In Jan. of 2012, I began my dissertation work in earnest. This meant thinking about my topic, reading around in the field, and writing one page a day. Often, in the early days, my writing amounted to how stressed I was to begin this arduous journey (a journey about which I had predominantly heard horror stories only) with a six-month-old and a three-year-old in tow. Then, my writing slowly began to metamorphose into something that could actually go into the dissertation, even as only a “shitty first draft” (to quote Anne Lamott’s fabulous writing text, Bird by Bird).

I wrote and researched like a mad thing every day of 2012, setting a personal goal of a chapter every four months. I soon extended this goal to a chapter every five months, which I’ve kept to. I emerged from 2012 with almost three chapters completed (the first few drafts, anyway), hundreds of books and articles read, and over 1,000 pages of notes on my secondary sources.


Now here we are in the present day.

I have been absolutely blessed to have stumbled upon a topic that sits well with me, a topic that I love (love, love) to research and write about: the female reproductive body. I have been blessed to discover that I don’t mind writing dissertations. They are actually quite fun if you break them down into manageable portions (insert here the adage about eating an elephant one bite at a time). My manageable portions are:

  • Write one page a day – that’s it!
  • Before writing, give myself two solid months to research, in which I read a book or journal article a day (six days a week)
  • Write at the beginning of my day (for me, 6:30-8am), so you can begin your day with the fabulous feeling of having already dissertated
  • Divide your (overwhelmingly large) topic into four mini-topics (your chapters), and then divide THOSE four into three or four even smaller topics of about 20 pages each. This amounts to, then, writing about 16 small papers, variations on a theme. String them all together and—hey, presto!—a dissertation.

The book I’d very much recommend, if you’re thinking about writing a diss anytime soon, is Writing your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day (Joan Bolker). It’s reasonable, well-written, engaging, and talks to its reader like its reader is only human, and not a superhuman. While Bolker admits that it will probably take much more than 15 minutes a day to finish in a reasonable time, her idea of slow and steady, and small portions, is very sound, and very manageable. I’d say give the diss 1.5 hrs a day, seven days a week, for two solid years, and that’s all you need (barring a difficult committee that won’t stop requesting revisions, and crazy outside life circumstances, of course!).

I’d also very much recommend Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success (Wendy Laura Belcher). I’ve taken my favorite paragraph from her book and posted it above my computer, so I can read it every day:

Write regularly, and unemotionally.  On the busiest of days, you can still do 15 minutes of writing, 15 of reading, etc. To be truly productive, engage in a regular writing schedule five days a week of one hour of writing or less each day. Write before you prep for classes. You don’t have to clear your schedule or even your work area – writing thrives “on messy decks” (27). Just dive in!  Make your writing goals modest, and realistic. When reviewing other literature, don’t mark it all up and then become overwhelmed about all the notes you have to take.  Sit down and write something about what you have just read, no matter how loose. You don’t have to finish research to start writing!  Write to find questions, holes; learn to “proceed amid ambiguity and uncertainty” (28). Don’t allow yourself to get overwhelmed.  Write what Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft.” Remember: action comes first, then the motivation.  If you’re slow, applaud the amount of time you spend rather than how little you turn out; you WILL get faster. It’s not a question of being smart enough, but of being devoted to and passionate about your project. Do you really think it can make a contribution?  “Good writing is all in the rewriting!” (60).

I will never get this blog post finished unless I post it now, so stay tuned for more info on my (largely positive) dissertation journey!


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