Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Making a Mess: Starting the Dissertation

It’s been over three months since I passed my qualifying exams, and like a lot of people during that time I’ve avoided looking at or thinking about anything related to my dissertation.  I re-read my exam answers before my oral defense in late May, but that was it.  Thankfully there have been plenty of legitimate distractions–moving overseas, working a full-time job in Japan for a month.  But once I returned to Japan on August 20, got over jet lag, and got myself mostly settled in my apartment, suddenly my dissertation began to loom like an elephant.  A large, stern-looking, unwritten elephant.

I did everything I could to avoid starting it.  I carefully read the Japanese language materials for the graduate class I’m auditing at Tsukuba University.  I met up with old friends.  I cleaned.  I shopped.  I learned how to cook in my new kitchen with not-quite-familiar ingredients.  I watched Project Runway, The Daily Show, and True Blood (still not sure what all the fuss is about over that one, but maybe it gets better).

Finally, though, I realized I couldn’t avoid it any longer, and two factors made me realize that I needed to start work soon.  One: I’m actually getting paid to work on my dissertation, which makes me feel really guilty for spending even a day or two vegetating in front of dowloaded TV.  Two: my adviser may be leaving before I get back from Japan, so I’d like to get as much guidance as possible while I still can.  (Losing advisers happens to a lot of people during their grad careers, and in my case I’m lucky that it might happen after I’ve reached the ABD stage, but it’s still a nerve-wracking prospect).

The problem, of course, was that I had no idea where to begin.

My prospectus wasn’t much help.  It laid out a lot of grand ideas, but their actual execution was beyond me (several colleagues have told me that their eventual dissertation didn’t bear much resemblance to what was described in their prospectus).  I emailed friends and professors and read sample chapters. I got a lot of helpful advice and a lot of “calm down, you’ll get it done” reassurances.

In the end, I realized that writing a dissertation is a bit like death–lots of people may be with you on the journey, but in the end everyone does it alone.  After years of guidance and coaching I was pretty much on my own, which is both a terrifying and liberating prospect.

I decided to do what made the most sense to me–envision my dissertation as four or five separate papers, rather than a whole unit.  Starting a 40-page paper was a lot less intimidating than starting a 200-page book.  I took the advice of several friends and colleagues and decided to leave my introduction for later–I usually like to start papers with a bare-bones intro that I scrap or heavily revise later, but this time around I didn’t think I could draw the map until I’d fully explored the territory.  I created a document called “Dissertation Chapter 1.”  And I just started typing.

One of the best pieces of general writing advice I’ve ever gotten or given goes something like this: Make a mess.  Then at least you’ll have something to clean up.  I think it might have actually come from a handout that I always give my freshman composition students, Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” though I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed elsewhere.  There’s something freeing about being given permission to write crap, because it’s a lot easier to spot flaws and edit a piece of crap than it is to edit a blank page.

I now have four pages written on my first chapter.  They’re definitely a mess–my large book collection still hasn’t arrived from L.A., so the analysis is pretty thin.  And I’m writing about pre-modern literature, which is NOT my specialty.  But something funny happened after I wrote that first sentence.  I went from avoiding my dissertation like crazy to not being able to stop thinking about it.  I search endless online books and articles for tidbits of information.  I lie awake at night composing arguments in my head.  In the middle of sending an email I suddenly think of an author that I have to look up.  The dissertation has gone from an elephant to a virus.

I’m not sure how long this will last, but it’s a good sign, I suppose.

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3 comments on “Making a Mess: Starting the Dissertation

  1. shao
    September 2, 2010

    Virus-elephant! Maybe you should write about this together with monstrous children. I’ve also started to create my own mess, or “chunks” as I call it, as they remind me more of food. I’m not yet brave enough to save the document as chapter 1, but as “rambulus utopias.”

  2. shao
    September 2, 2010

    I like mess — reminds me of MESSI.

  3. gradland
    September 3, 2010

    Congrats on the chunks! “Rambulus utopias” sounds like a great name for the all-grad student band that we eventually need to form.

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This entry was posted on August 31, 2010 by in (post) Grad life and tagged , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life

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