Archive for January 28th, 2019

January 28, 2019

How to Write a Dissertation

by Tabitha Kidwell

You may have noticed that Keeping Tabs has been pretty quiet for the last… (a-hem)… three years or so. I hope you will trust me that this is because I have been busy writing something else.  And if you don’t trust me, I would be more than happy to send you my 315-page dissertation as proof!

That’s right – the wonderful day has come that I am finished with my dissertation!  Well, almost. I finished proofreading a very final version last week, and I have scheduled my dissertation defense for February 25th.  In most cases, if your advisor says you are ready for the defense, that should mean that you will pass.  My advisor is particularly helpful and responsive, so I should be okay… but I will still be a nervous wreck! At the defense, the 5 faculty members on my committee will all have suggestions about things I overlooked and ways to improve the final dissertation.  My earning a PhD is totally dependent on these 5 people’s judgement, so I will basically smile and say that I’ll make any changes they suggest.  And then, they will also smile and will say “you passed!”  And then everyone will be like this:

At least that is how I picture it going.  In any case, my dissertation is not actually “done.” I will have to make changes based on the feedback from my committee, and then I’ll submit it to the university by April 16th.  But it is very, very close, and I am very, very relieved.  I think most people think of “grad school” as a one- or two-year program, so people have been asking me, “are you almost done?” for almost four years.  But now, I am almost done!  I’ve been “writing” my dissertation for almost two years.  That process included reading a lot of research, writing my comprehensive exams, applying for grants, designing the study, proposing it to my committee, collecting data in Indonesia, analyzing that data, and then – finally – writing.  Along the way, I was given a lot of advice, and I learned a lot about how to get though the “dissertation writing” process successfully. Here are some of the lessons I learned:

Just Do One Small Thing After Another

I hated grad school my first semester.  At winter break of my first year, I was convinced that I would leave after the spring semester, and find a nice teaching job with a spot at the MA+20 spot on the pay scale. I was stressed, anxious, and totally overwhelmed.  Basically like this:

A lot of the anxiety I felt stemmed from the sheer volume of work I knew was still ahead of me.  How could I hope to write a dissertation, I asked myself, if I didn’t even know my own research interests?  Well, what I learned as the semesters ticked by was that I had already started building toward my dissertation without even realizing it.  By moving through coursework week by week and semester by semester, I was preparing for the dissertation, and for a continued career in academia (if I so chose…).  I wouldn’t have been able to write a dissertation without building an understanding of the field of education research and learning about research methodologies.  The readings I did and the papers I wrote for my courses during the first two years of grad school laid the foundation for my ability to conduct a study on my own.  In fact, some portions of the course papers I wrote actually ended up in the final dissertation.  And BUNCHES of the articles and books I had to read ended up being cited.  Especially once I started planning the study, collecting data, and writing, I would periodically freak myself out by thinking too much about everything left to do.  I was happiest when I could just keep my eyes on the task ahead of me – just transcribe this one interview, just analyze this one set of observations, just write this one section.  Sometime midway through the writing process, I read a profile of the prolific television producer Ryan Murphy, and ripped out this quote to hang above my desk:  “Energy begets energy.  He is intensely organized, with a plan for every hour: if you just do one small thing after another, he told me, you can create something immaculate and immense.”

Treat it like a Job

Creating something immaculate and immense doesn’t happen all at once. I worked a little bit every day, and I also tried to learn to know when to stop.  Most days, I put in about two good hours of dissertation work in the morning, and then switched to other work (which paid me money).  I didn’t work evenings, and I didn’t work weekends.  I was helped in this by having a full assistantship and flexible work I could do from home in the afternoons (or from Indonesia, while I was collecting data).  I know a lot of people write a dissertation while they are working a full-time job, so this advice won’t work for everyone’s situation.  It also helps that the years spent writing my dissertation coincided pretty exactly with the period of time when I met my husband, got engaged, and got married, so I had a lot of positive things happening in my life that sustained me through stressful moments.

I started feeling happier in my doctoral program, however, once I started to think of my studies as a job.  Part of the difficulty of my transition to grad school was readjusting to being a student. Science or humanities doctoral students often go straight into grad school after undergrad, but most education doctoral students are more mature.  After almost 10 years of teaching full-time, I missed the interaction of the classroom and the pace of the school year.   I missed feeling like I was contributing to society.  It took me some time to figure out how to manage my time and keep a work-life balance.  For me, that meant working from about 9 AM to 6 PM everyday, often with a break for yoga at lunchtime.  Even though no one cared when or where I worked, I felt most productive when I worked from home and started and ended at a consistent time.

Park Downhill

When I did stop working, I made efforts to leave myself in a good place when I started the next time.  You want to be able to start out rolling everyday. This is based on advice from Dr. Beth Cohen, who taught one of my methodology classes. It’s amazing how much time can be lost getting “back into” work from the day before, and how little recollection I had about work I had done just 24 hours earlier.  There are large swaths of my dissertation that I must have blacked out while writing.  On several occasions, I went to start a task and realized it was already done.  Or, I more often, I started doing it, then thought “I think I already did this,” and found that work done somewhere else.  To try to avoid occurrences like these,  I kept careful notes about what I had done each day and what needed to be done the next day.

I really got into the groove of keeping track of my progress after I had defended my proposal and started conducting the study.  During data collection, there were so many details to keep track of that clear record keeping was essential.  I had spreadsheets keeping track of participant information, data collection events, data transcription status, and data organization.  I wrote an update in a google doc at the end of every week to summarize what I had done that week, what I needed to do next, and what I had been thinking about.  This was really important when was writing my my methods chapter and had to go back and try to figure out what I had done when, and why, and what I had been thinking at the time.

Once I started analyzing all the data I collected, I kept a “data analysis log” and literally “logged in” and “logged out” everyday.  I noted when I analyzed each transcript or set of field notes, and then noted when I went back through groups of documents to code or re-code them.  After I got into a good routine of data analysis, I had a clearer vision of what needed to be done, and I scheduled tasks to do on future dates.  At the end of every session, I entered what I had done that day, and noted what I should do tomorrow.  Sometimes I made notes to myself to “think about this for next time.”  As I look at those notes now, I have almost no memory of writing them, and I would have had no memories to draw on when I had to write my methods chapter, either.  I continued the same process once I started writing, keeping a “writing log” in the same folder I kept all my in-progress dissertation chapter drafts. I haven’t looked at it since November 16, when I wrote “Read over Ch. 5; Put everything together!!!”  At the end of each writing session, I noted what I had done, what I should do the next day, and where to look for any information I needed.

Keep your Butt in the Chair


As I look back at all those logs now, I’m amazed by how much work I actually did and how slow progress actually was.  But still, everyday, I kept my butt in my chair and kept working.  This advice comes from my friend Andrene Taylor, who said the best way to write a dissertation is to just keep sitting down with it in front of you until it is finished.  And that is basically what I did.  I worked really hard, I didn’t cut corners, and I didn’t skip steps.  I spent about six months just “analyzing data,” a process that led to a lot of notes, memos, and documents that would be incomprehensible to anyone but me (and actually, some are incomprehensible to me, too).  Somehow, through that process, I ended up with a really interesting (I think) set of findings that hold concrete implications for language teacher education.  If I had tried to start writing last March when I finished data collection, it would have been a mess.  I had to put time into thinking about and organizing the data in order to write thoughtful and organized findings.  And when the findings weren’t particularly thoughtful, I had to revise and rework them until they were.  Sometimes, this meant cutting and re-writing whole sections, but it resulted in not having to do many revisions once my advisor took a look at it.  A 315-page manuscript probably seems like a lot of work, but it is actually even more work than I expected (much to my chagrin!)

Keep your Butt in a Comfortable Chair

This is something I hadn’t expected – that writing a dissertation would be so physically demanding.  Basically, I injured myself by sitting too long and too often in a bad chair.  It wasn’t a particularly bad chair, it was just a typical office chair, but I sat in it for hours everyday, hunched over my laptop.  After about 6 months of that, I had to start seeing an occupational therapist because I was having so much pain in my lower back and hips.  They gave me stretching and strengthening exercises to do, but I also invested in my work space.  I got an external monitor so I could look straight ahead and not hunch so much, and I got a kneeling chair so I could sit more ergonomically.  It took some getting used to – the first few weeks, I would switch back and forth to the office chair – but now I sit in the kneeling chair all day and have very little back pain.

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Little changes – big difference!

Research Something You Love – Or Figure Out How to Make it Something You Love

This is probably the most important lesson I learned.  Writing a dissertation takes so much time, that there is no sense spending all that time on something you are not passionate about.  When I first started  working on my dissertation, I didn’t really see how it would be possible to research something I loved because I didn’t really want to research anything. I wanted a PhD to be qualified to support and prepare teachers, so I was willing to write a dissertation to be able to do that.  I was pretty ambivalent about the research process, though, and didn’t see myself as a researcher. The dirty truth is that, when I was planning my dissertation, I didn’t really want to research anything.  What I did want to do, however, was go back to Indonesia and spend time with the community of teachers I had worked with previously.  So I figured out a way to do that within a dissertation study.  I think scholars are supposed to say that they sought out a compelling research study and were motivated by that, but I was motivated by the opportunity to spend 6-10 months living in the tropics again.

Much to my surprise, by planning my dissertation around something I loved, I ended up finding a compelling research study – and I was happy doing it. Sure, there were times I was NOT happy, but overall, it was an enjoyable process (or at least I can say so now that it is done!). The great thing about a dissertation is that you can design the study yourself (or you should be able to), so I was able to work directly with teachers and to be in classrooms throughout the data collection process.  One of the most valuable parts of the study, from my perspective, was bringing my novice teacher participants together as a professional learning community to discuss their teaching together and share ideas.  Many of them were my former students from when I had taught there from 2011-2013, so it was really rewarding to see them in their own classrooms and to support them during their early teaching careers.  If that is all I had done during my 8 months in Indonesia, that would have been enough to justify the time and effort.  The dissertation is a bonus.  Looking at the full 315 pages now, the most meaningful parts are the sections where I include participants own voices and share their experiences.  I didn’t anticipate how rewarding it would be to share their stories and to build on those stories to find meaningful implications.  Now that I’ve finished conducting my own study,  I can see myself continuing to do research in the future.  I don’t know where I’ll be next year, but I’ve applied to a few assistant professor jobs that require both teaching and research.  Wherever I’ll be, I know that I’ll be happy if I find ways to work in settings and on ideas that are interesting to me.  And if I have a comfortable chair.  And maybe some champagne.