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What I Wish I Had Known Before Writing My Dissertation

So, you’re getting ready to write a dissertation. Or, you’re contemplating going down a path that (if taken) will eventually require you to write a dissertation. Good for you. Normally, at such early stages, the main question you’ll be wondering about is what topic you might select. Which, to be clear, is a massive and significant thing to be wondering about. But what follows isn’t about helping you pick a topic. No, what follows is predominantly advice on what to do after you’ve picked the topic, what to do when you’re actually writing the dissertation.

To be honest, there are many things I wish I had known before I started working on my dissertation. And there are many things that I learned about working on a dissertation when I was halfway through the process. Frankly, there are some things about the process I did not fully figure out until I was putting the absolute last finishing touches on my dissertation. Had I known these things in advance, I still would have decided to write a dissertation, but had I known these things in advance the process might have been a bit easier.

At many points, writing a dissertation can feel like an almost hermetic activity, but chances are good that if you’re writing a dissertation, you’re surrounded by people with some experience writing one of their own. I was fortunate to have friends, advisors, and colleagues who were willing to share some of their own hard-won wisdom with me—and, thus in the spirit of paying it forward, I hope that some of this will also prove useful to you. Of course, not all of the advice that was shared with me proved to be particularly useful, and some of what follows might not be pertinent to you; however, sometimes hearing something that won’t work for you, can productively get you to start thinking about what will.

To get the most important question out of the way first: yes, you absolutely can write a dissertation. It’s a lot of work, and the process often seems like the secret rite of some arcane order…but you can figure it out. And hopefully some of the following advice will demystify the process a little bit.

Lastly, I think that much of this advice should be useful regardless of the discipline in which you are working. Nevertheless, much of this is probably most pertinent to those working in the humanities.

Without further ado, as the Klingons say: Qapla’


Offer to edit other people’s dissertations (before you write your own)

Dissertations are a strange form of writing. If you’re in graduate school you’ll get to know lots of people writing, or who have written, dissertations. And you’ll probably wind up reading a lot of books wherein the author notes that this is the book version of their dissertation. But you probably won’t really read many, or any, dissertations. Which is a somewhat odd thing considering that you will be expected to write a dissertation of your own. Therefore, before writing your own, you should take the time to read a few.

Granted, this doesn’t mean that you should seek out finished dissertations. Sure, you can do that, but seeing the finished product can be less useful than seeing it in a rougher state.

Thus, before you start to really write your own dissertation (so, in the first few years of your program), tell people further along in the process that you’d be willing to help edit their dissertation. As people enter the final stretch they may ask if anyone would be willing to read a particular chapter, or do some copy-editing, or help them double check their footnotes. In some cases, a friend may ask you for this directly (as a favor), and in other cases someone might just put out this request over the department’s listserv. It may not seem like the most enjoyable or fulfilling work—after all, you’ll certainly be busy with your own stuff—but this is one of the opportunities to see how a dissertation comes together.

Getting to see how someone else structures their chapters, how someone else uses sources, how someone else writes their lit review, how someone else uses (or over-uses) images—is all very instructive. Heck, just seeing how long someone’s chapters are, can be a very useful thing. Furthermore, if the chapter they want you to look at is one they’re submitting as a writing sample for job applications, the experience can be doubly informative (dissertation and job market information). Sure, part of this may seem like it’s part of a convivial obligation to pay it forward (you help them, later someone will help you), but there’s a lot about a dissertation that you can only really learn by reading other dissertations.

Before you write a book, you will have read books. Before you write a journal article, you will have read journal articles. So, before you write a dissertation, you should probably read a dissertation.


It will take you three months to write your first chapter, later you will write three chapters in one month

Here is a true story.

I spent three months writing the first chapter of my dissertation (which was actually chapter three in the final version). I’m not talking about doing the research for the chapter, I’m not talking about the work of planning it out, heck I’m not even talking about copy-editing and revising the chapter—I’m just talking about the basic act of writing it. And the writing alone took three months.

Sure, I can offer all sorts of explanatory caveats here that provide more insight into why it took so long. The chapter in question wound up being the second longest chapter in the entire dissertation, at the time I was writing this chapter I had some heavier teaching responsibilities that were eating up my time, at the time that I was writing this chapter the pandemic was in its early stages (bringing with it all manner of additional disruptions and sources of stress), at the time I was writing this I was also busy applying for grants and fellowships (more on that elsewhere). I’m not claiming that these things are excuses, because you don’t need to make excuses for this work taking a lot of time. But, nevertheless, it really took me a long time to finish that first chapter.

Fast forward a couple years to February of 2023, over the course of that month I finished a chapter, wrote an entire chapter, wrote the introduction, and wrote the conclusion. Now, I could also offer all kinds of explanatory caveats here: the chapter I wrote that month was the shortest chapter (it was still pretty long), the conclusion is the shortest single section in the dissertation, writing an introduction is kind of different from writing chapters, during that particular February I really had nothing to do except write (I was still working part-time in my library job, but emphasis on part-time). And what’s more, let me make something of a confession, I kind of think that the chapter I wrote that February—a chapter I wrote in about a week—is one of the best chapters in the entire dissertation.

So, why am I telling you all of this? Because it’s important to understand that it gets easier as you go on. The only way to really learn how to write a dissertation is through the act of writing the dissertation, and so those early chapters can be a bit sluggish as you figure out what you’re doing. Here, another important aspect may be that early in the process you have the luxury of devoting three months to write a chapter at a more leisurely pace, while there will be later times during which (due to various deadlines) you will find that you need to sit down and write from dawn to dusk (or from dusk to dawn).

When you are writing the first chapter, you aren’t only writing that chapter, you’re teaching yourself how to write your chapters. It will take longer. It should take longer. But don’t let that make you nervous, you’ll write later chapters significantly more quickly.


A dissertation isn’t going to be the only thing you’ll be writing

Should you decide to write a dissertation, one of the questions that you will be asked constantly is: “how’s the dissertation going?” Over time you will develop a go-to response to this question (which will vary slightly depending on who’s asking), which will probably be some version of “it’s going.” What will make this particular question so frustrating is that many of those asking the question will ask it as though they think that the dissertation is absolutely the only thing you are working on—and there are many points in your dissertation years where the dissertation isn’t even the main thing eating up your writing time.

Applying for grants and fellowships takes a lot of time—and preparing the application documents for these can require many hours and a lot of energy. Writing conference papers, putting conference slides together, and going to conferences, also eats up a lot of time. Should you be trying to submit articles and chapters for publication (regardless of how closely they are based off of dissertation chapters) that will—you guessed it—also eat into your time. And applying for post-docs and academic positions will eat not just your time but your entire life—August through October of the year you are on the job market will be a period in which pretty much the only thing you’ll be doing is job market stuff (meaning you probably won’t be working on the dissertation much). And of course, you may find yourself in a department where you have a heavy teaching/grading/assisting workload that will further impact your time, or you may be in a situation where you are also working part-time in some capacity, or you might have things going on in your life—the point is that writing the dissertation is just one of the things you’ll be writing.

There will be things that come up that you won’t be able to expect, but there are some disruptions that you can anticipate and plan around. So, when you’re planning out what you’ll be writing and when, it can be good to keep in mind the months on the calendar that you’ll lose to the fellowship applications, the months on the calendar you’ll lose to the job market, the week before a conference that you’ll lose to writing that conference paper, and so forth.

Part of what makes writing a dissertation difficult is that you aren’t just writing a dissertation, you’re also doing numerous other dissertation adjacent activities.


Have a plan B, and a plan C, and probably a plan D (that should be enough)

When you submit your prospectus to your department/committee, it will be an ambitious document that charts out a glorious vision of what your dissertation will be and what each chapter will accomplish. It will feature an impressive outline of the work, rigorous breakdowns of each chapter, a highly motivated research agenda, a hopeful belief that all of your primary source research will provide you with exactly the answers you are looking for—and it will be a plan that does not survive contact with reality.

A dissertation is almost by definition a hopeful project, for you go into it with the hope that things will go pretty much as you expect them. But then you won’t get that travel grant, the material in the archive won’t be what you expected, you’ll find it takes you longer to translate things than you had thought, one of your advisors will pressure you to move in a different direction, one of your advisors will be totally unresponsive, you’ll find yourself in the midst of a historic pandemic, key sources will keep being unavailable to record the oral histories you need, you’ll discover that someone already pretty much wrote your dissertation in the early 90s, or you’ll realize that instead of having another whole year to finish things up you actually need to graduate within the next three months. When these things occur (and several of them may occur), it can be easy to feel thrown off, and being aware that there will be some unforeseen challenges doesn’t really prepare you too much for their appearance.

The best way to be ready is to have multiple plans from the outset.

Yes, you have the official prospectus you submitted to your committee. But you should also have a couple of secret ones. In one of those secret ones, you should have a plan for turning your five-chapter dissertation into a four-chapter dissertation (and your four-chapter dissertation into a three-chapter dissertation), if you suddenly need to finish really quickly. You should have another plan in which you have a totally different chapter you can potentially insert should the primary sources you need for one of your chapters turn out to be insufficient (and a plan for how you’ll make do if you literally can’t travel to access your primary sources). And you should probably have a plan for how you can ditch your original prospectus and replace it with something vaguely similar, but almost completely different should you really need to do so.

This is not to say that things won’t go according to plan. They might! And hopefully they will for you; however, knowing what chapter you can ditch if you really need to, can be a useful escape hatch to have at those moments when you’re feeling really overwhelmed. Furthermore, thinking through the alternatives is a good way of forcing you to critically reflect on the overall project (maybe you keep thinking about cutting that chapter because it doesn’t really fit and you’d be better off replacing it?). I am not exaggerating when I say that in talking to friends and colleagues about their own dissertations, the story that I have heard the most often is some version of “I wound up having to finish quicker than I had thought, so I wound up having to cut a chapter,” and for some people it was pretty easy to do this, while for others trying to figure out how to do this was an ordeal—and the difference is that those who found it easier, had a plan B ready to go ahead of time.


Do things properly from the beginning

Here’s another true story.

I purposely save fixing my footnotes for the very end. Of course, I have abridged footnotes I insert as I’m writing—but the full and proper footnote, I save those for later. For a long time I justified this by telling myself that stopping to fully flesh out the footnotes interrupted my writing focus (which is not untrue), at other points I told myself that fixing footnotes was a good task to go back to later in the day after I had stopped actually writing for the day, and at still other times I told myself that fixing footnotes was part of my careful copy-editing process as this way I had to go back and triple-check that my quotes were accurate. Regardless of the particular justification I used, when I got to the end stages of my dissertation, all of the writing was done…but I had 1,576 footnotes to fix.

Sure, some of these were already just “Ibid, [number]” but there were a lot that said stuff like “box 5, folder 7” and “Senate Hearing” and “survival guide” and “Newsweek.” Which wouldn’t have been so bad had I just used one archival collection, or one Senate Hearing, or one survival guide, or one issue of Newsweek. But instead, the situation that I had created for myself was one wherein I didn’t just have to do the annoying work of fixing the footnotes themselves, I often had to figure out what the footnotes were even referring to in the first place. I won’t lie, this was a lot of work, and it is work that I could have saved myself had I been doing things properly along the way.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to now launch into an advertisement about how you should really go out and buy this or that footnote management software. But, you might consider giving such software a try, or at the very least as you set up your working schedule you might want to make sure you’re blocking off some time each day (or each week) to go back and fix your footnotes (or endnotes, as the case may be). Yes, it will eat into your time in the now, but it will save you time later. Furthermore, when you’re still in close proximity to having written a particular section you should have a clearer sense of where something came from—but if you wait several years you may have much less of a memory of which particular Senate Hearing something came from, and you definitely don’t want to find yourself having to go back through your thousands of photos taken at the archive to figure out what you meant by “archive” in the footnote.

On a related note, seek out your university’s formatting guidelines at the outset, and format things correctly from the beginning. Much of the formatting stuff will be obvious, but there are bound to be some annoying little things in there, and you will save yourself time in the long run if you’re formatting things correctly the whole time.

The last thing that you want is to be rushing to finish up the writing portions, while still having a mountain of footnotes to fix, and a formatting induced headache to endure.


Get a big computer monitor (or at least a second screen)

Confession: I didn’t want to get a big monitor. I really didn’t.

Sure, they aren’t really prohibitively expensive these days, but I didn’t want one. My desk space was already limited and I wanted to be able to have eighteen books spread out there at all times—it was difficult enough maintaining space for my laptop. But as time went on, I found that my work had less to do with having eighteen boxes open, and more to do with having eighteen windows open. My initial plan to “print everything out” had been swiftly smashed across the rocks of “that would be really freaking expensive,” and thus I had found myself relying on pdfs of government hearings and the digital photos I had taken on archival visits. And trying to have so many things open on my small laptop screen at once was resulting in a lot of squinting.

So, after putting it off for years, I eventually bought a big monitor. Not an absurdly massive one, but one that made it possible to have lots of windows simultaneously open…without those windows needing to be so tiny that I had to squint.

This definitely wasn’t a must. But it was a relatively small, and fairly simple, thing to do that made the process just a little bit more pleasant. And frankly, that alone was worth the expense of the big monitor. I still wish that I could have actually printed out all of the documents I was using—but that would have been very expensive (and would have killed a forest worth of trees)—and being able to have the documents up on a screen at close-to the size of a piece of paper was quite pleasant (and my eyes appreciated it).

Please note: at many universities there are technology grants available that can be used for stuff like this. Not always (I received no such grant), but it’s worth investigating.


The hardest part is knowing when you have enough

Before you can really sit down to write, you’ll need to do the research. And while that point is a pretty obvious one, what can be significantly less obvious is how to know when you’ve done enough research. You will inevitably hear the joke about “reading twenty articles and thirty books in order to write a single footnote,” but that is a joke that clearly refers more to the secondary literature than to primary sources.

There are some projects that make use of a fairly limited primary source base, where it can be the case that there’s really only so many documents for you to seek out and read. However, it is also quite possible that you will have an overwhelming amount of potential primary source material. On the one hand, having tons of material can be really exciting; on the other hand, it can also be extremely overwhelming. Eventually you will actually have to start writing your dissertation, but one of the things that often gets in the way of starting the writing is telling yourself that you still have more research to do. The problem here, is that there’s probably going to always be another government hearing to read, another oral history to conduct, another archive to go dig through, another this, another that, and your constant pursuit of more sources can mean that you never start writing.

There is no easy way to know when you have enough material to begin writing. Ideally, you have members on your committee who can help you determine this; however, if you have a committee which is that heavily engaged in your work process you should consider yourself very lucky.

The best way to know that you have enough, is to start writing. And it can be great to start writing when you’re still at a point when you suspect that maybe you don’t quite have enough. Once you actually start putting words on the screen it will provide you a solid grounding in what you already have, and it will help clarify what you still need. At the very least, writing can make your sources much less nebulous, showing you which things are really useful and which are kind of superfluous to the larger points. Here the matter of “enough” can also be something that varies from chapter to chapter, and there is nothing wrong with concluding you now have enough material to start writing chapter three even as you’re still doing a bit more research that will be necessary for writing chapter five.

If you are waiting until you have finished every last bit of research before you write your first sentence, you will never write your first sentence.


Learn the phrase “I’m saving this for the book”

At some point in your final stretch of writing, you’ll stumble across something really interesting. Not something that forces you to completely rewrite everything you’ve done, or something that hugely contradicts the argument you’ve been trying to make, but something you find quite neat. The type of thing that makes you think about completely scrapping and rewriting the chapter you just finished, all so that you can focus on this fascinating thing you’ve come across. You will find yourself spiraling off in strange new directions as you contemplate how you could potentially alter your nearly completed dissertation in order to talk about this other thing, and you might even send an excited email off to a member of your committee boasting about what you’ve just found.

But take a deep breath, and tell yourself “I’m saving this for the book.”

Or, tell yourself, that you’re saving it for an article. The point being, that there will inevitably be some things that you can’t fit into the dissertation. And in some cases, those will be fascinating things that you came across at a point in the process when you were too far along to add them. There may be a moment where you feel like you absolutely must figure out how to incorporate this piece so that you can say you did (and lest someone else find it and publish something on it), but it can also be good to tell yourself that it is something that you fully intend to incorporate into later versions of the project. Look, you’re going to have to rewrite those chapters before turning that dissertation into a book anyways, and that interesting document that currently has you so excited could be the perfect way for you to restructure that chapter.

To have extra stuff on hand puts you in a good position to generate further work off of the dissertation, and to transform the dissertation into the version that will (hopefully) become an actual book. And, telling yourself that you’re “saving this for the book,” is also an important way of keeping yourself from getting distracted on tangents while you’re still engaged in the work of finishing the dissertation.


Writing a dissertation teaches you how not to write a book

 There is a common fantasy at the start of the dissertation stage, that you are going to write your dissertation so well, that when it is finished you’ll be able to just send that off as a completed book manuscript to a publisher. And that publisher will go “this is brilliant, we will publish it immediately!” This, to say it again, is a fantasy. It’s a pleasant one, and one that can be useful in an aspirational sense, but it’s really a fantasy.

Part of the reason that this is a fantasy is that most publishers aren’t going to be interested in publishing your dissertation as it was. After all, dissertations get published as dissertations (most are available through a ProQuest database). And even if that kind of publication is quite distinct from being a book, most publishers aren’t going to be particularly keen to publish something that is already available elsewhere (even if you’ve embargoed it for a couple of years).

But the real reason why nobody is going to publish your dissertation immediately as a book, is that a dissertation isn’t really a book—it’s a dissertation. What makes for a good book, and what makes for a good dissertation are usually pretty different things. And, what’s more, as good as it may be, there’s probably a pretty wide gulf between what your committee was looking for in a dissertation, and what an editor is going to be looking for in a book. Go pull a book off your shelf that you know was based on that scholar’s dissertation, next go pull up their dissertation, spend some time comparing the two—you will find that there’s a big difference. And a big part of this is that the way a book gets written, the things that are in a book, the way a book speaks to an audience…all of those things are just different.

I was having a conversation at a conference with an editor from an academic press, when she jokingly said “writing a dissertation teaches you how not to write a book.” After which she went on to talk about the editing process, the way that a book needs to be structured, and she also talked about how even great dissertations are often rather overstuffed. Listening to her, one of the things that struck me, is that writing a dissertation really teaches you how to write a longform research project (a book length research project). But writing an academic book focuses on a different set of questions—you aren’t just performing competency for your committee, you’re putting something out there that (ostensibly) people will read. Furthermore, an editor is a very different sort of critic than a member of your committee—your committee member might let you get away with that chapter that wound up being over a hundred pages, a committee member might let you get away with the rambling tangent in chapter three, a committee member might insist on you spending twenty pages where you very carefully place your dissertation within your field…but an editor is going to be looking at and for different things.

Frankly, some of what you’re also learning here is about the process. With the hope being that you are learning from mistakes that will make it easier for you to go into your second project. A dissertation often involves a lot of extra stuff that can be trimmed, and in the process of figuring this out hopefully you can go into your next project with a better eye for what is going to be excess. Writing a dissertation can involve waiting a long time before you really start the active writing, and for your next project it should hopefully have taught you a bit about writing as you go. And, of course, there is a big difference between a dissertation prospectus and a book proposal—and just in the act of reframing your dissertation as a book proposal you’ll get a clear sense of what you could have done differently, and what you’ll need to do differently.

To get back to the original fantasy—you can go into your dissertation, trying your best to think about it as a book, and you can go into it thinking that you’re writing a book…but the sooner you admit that your dissertation will need to undergo massive reworking before it can become a book, the sooner you’ll be able to make progress on the dissertation, even as you think about how you might rewrite this or that section for the final book.


Be nice to librarians and archivists

Yes, this is very generic advice. After all, you should always be nice to librarians and archivists. However, when you are writing your dissertation, much of your fate may ultimately rest in the hands of those sitting behind the reference desk or working in the stacks. So, you really want to be nice to them. And—to be clear—this is a particular piece of advice that is based less on my experience writing a dissertation, and more on the fact that prior to embarking on my dissertation I worked for years as a reference librarian. I am not suggesting that if you’re rude to a librarian they will prevent you from getting the material you need (though I have heard stories of that kind), but you really need to see the librarians and archivists as your key allies in your work.

Let’s be honest here, sometimes finding aids can be a bit confusing. Some of them could be a bit more detailed, some of them are downright confusing, few of them provide descriptions that go down to the item level, and in the age of MPLP (more product less process) some collections wind up having finding aids that are rather quickly put together. And there’s a good chance that the library/archive also has a decent number of collections that aren’t fully processed yet. A finding aid may be your introductory source for information on a collection, but if you want to get a good sense of what’s really in there…well…you’re going to want to talk to one of the librarians or archivists. True, you might find yourself talking to someone who doesn’t really know that particular collection super well, but they might know which of their coworkers does know that collections particularly well, or they might know which of their coworkers was the one who processed the collection. Furthermore, in the course of a conversation, the librarian/archivists might be able to point you to other materials in the collection that you had not originally considered, or they might be able to tip you off to a collection that hasn’t been posted on the library website yet (as it isn’t processed), or they might be able to give you some tips for using a specific rather unwieldly collection. And a librarian or archivist might be able to teach you the secret arcane language that you need to know in order to really get the most out of searching their institutions catalog (which can be especially important if you are searching for material that isn’t in English).

You may be the expert (or you may be becoming the expert) in the particular topic that your dissertation is on, but the librarians and archivists are the experts in their institution’s holdings. And it’s probably a good idea not to be a jerk to them. I’m not saying that you need to give them gifts (that’s awkward), or that you need to offer to buy them a cup of coffee (no drinks in the reading room), or try to become best friends (though if you become a regular that might wind up happening). However, it really does make a difference to say stuff like “please,” and “thank you.” To show a little bit of patience if it is taking a while for the fifty boxes of material you requested to get paged from the stacks. And the appreciative thank you note once you finish your research trip, is a lovely gesture.

Unless they are brand new at their post, chances are good that you aren’t the first person writing a dissertation the librarian/archivist has gotten to know. They have a lot of wisdom they can share with you, and a lot of information about their institution’s collections that isn’t necessarily locatable by searching the library catalog. So, be nice to the librarians and archivists, you’ll be glad that you did.


You will come to hate the phrase “the best dissertation is a finished dissertation”

There are few phrases you will hear more, as you work on your dissertation, than “the best dissertation is a finished dissertation.” In particular you will start hearing this phrase a lot once you have been working on the dissertation for some time—once you have reached the stage where it’s kind of dragging on. You will hear this phrase seemingly everywhere you go, from: your advisor, your committee members, fellow graduate students, people at academic conferences, librarians, people on social media, non-academic friends who have themselves heard this phrase, the shadowy doppelganger of yourself that haunts your dreams, and your colleagues who have recently finished their own dissertations.

To a certain extent, there is some truth to this canard, which is why you’ll hear it repeated so often. At a certain point, what matters most really is to be done. And the pursuit of perfection is going to prevent you from ever finishing the dissertation. But, at the same time, there can be something very frustrating about hearing this.

After all, when you started the dissertation process you probably had ambitions to write something better than just something that could be called “finished.” Be honest with yourself, you probably entertained fantasies for at least a couple of minutes about the idea that perhaps your dissertation would win some kind of prestigious dissertation award. You’ve probably been in attendance at someone else’s dissertation defense at which one of their committee members spoke of that person’s dissertation as a model of dissertation excellence—and hoped that some day your committee members might speak the same way about your own dissertation. And once you’ve invested years of your life working on something, it’s perfectly understandable to feel like it’s a little bit insulting to frame the product of your labor as being good because it’s “finished” as opposed to being good because it’s actually good.

A better version of this phrase would probably be “the best dissertation is one you are happy with.” And, to be honest, at a certain point many people will probably be happy with a dissertation that is done. But you should be ready to stand your ground, support your efforts, and respond to the allusion to “finished” by defending the work you are doing and the work you have done. If all that mattered was a “finished” dissertation, you probably could have finished things much earlier, and you probably could have finished things with a much less ambitious project.

A finished dissertation is just that, a finished dissertation.

The best dissertation, is what you make of it.


Be prepared for a very anticlimactic ending

Writing a dissertation is the work of multiple years. And it is work that builds piece by piece towards a particular finished product. Granted, it is a finished product that winds up including several other final steps. After all, once you finish the dissertation itself, you then need to rigorously edit it (even if you’ve been trying to do that along the way). And then there’s the matter of getting your committee to read it, responding to their various critiques and comments (which involves more writing), the actual dissertation defense (which can result in more critiques and comments, which can result in more writing), and finally once everything is finally done there is the step of depositing the dissertation with the university.

Finishing a dissertation is a real accomplishment. But…finishing a dissertation can feel really underwhelming.

Part of the reason for this is the aforementioned list of last steps, which can mean that the final stages are really drawn out. Perhaps if you are fortunate your department/committee/friends will give you some kind of little celebration once the defense is finished (champagne in the department and/or a cake with “congratulations [your name]” are not unheard of), but chances are that after you pass the defense you’ll still have more to finish up. Thus, it rarely ends with a grand triumphant moment—it is more likely to end with you sitting back in front of your computer, double-checking your footnotes, getting bogged down in formatting issues, and nervously emailing your department administrator to be sure of various final minutia. Perhaps you’ll choose to attend your university’s graduation ceremony (if so, be warned, PhD graduation regalia is expensive), but when you finish that last step you may be left going “is that all there is?”

A dissertation doesn’t end with a bang, or with a whimper, but with an automatically generated email from your university telling you that your dissertation has been successfully deposited.


Other Advice of Questionable Utility

You Can Do This (really) – advice for new graduate students

How to prepare for qualifying exams

Things I learned during my first semester teaching undergraduates

What I wish I knew before I applied to PhD programs

What I learned from working as a reference librarian

How to make the most of your trip to an archive


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

One comment on “What I Wish I Had Known Before Writing My Dissertation

  1. Lisa Hill
    May 4, 2023

    Two things… one: this is really interesting, even if you’re not writing a dissertation and have no intention ever of going down that path; and two: I really like the concept of paying it forward because I admire generosity in all its forms.

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