Five Things I’ve Learned from Writing a Dissertation, Part 2

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Boston Public Library

Last time I explored how important it is to have a supportive community while writing. Here I move on to lessons 2 and 3 from my dissertation process:

2) Be realistic about how much time good writing takes.

I mentioned before that I’m an ENFP and find it extremely hard to focus. I’m also very social and tend to get depressed if I spend too long in the library researching and writing. One of the initial challenges for me in making progress on the dissertation was developing what historian Heiko Oberman calls the “sitting muscles” necessary for doing good scholarship. Everyone’s a little different on this score, but over time I’ve found that I really can’t make any good progress in writing without at least three hours of uninterrupted time to work. Part of it has to do with the rhythm of writing. I spend the first hour distracted by other projects, life logistics, and so on. The second hour I finally get down to business and lose myself in the writing process. The third hour I’m wrapping up, completing footnotes, tying up loose ends in the writing and jotting down thoughts that I need to follow up on in the next session.

I’ve discovered – quite painfully – over the last three years of writing that an hour here or there is not sufficient to get anything done. In fact, I’ve learned not to even look at dissertation materials if I only have an hour – it’s a great way to get overwhelmed and depressed and feed the “imposter syndrome” troll.

3) Time management, organization, and focus are utterly crucial, especially once life outside the dissertation enters the picture.

It would be a massive understatement to say that I struggle with disorganization and time management. Some people have a range of things they are good at. I do not. I am good at using words, processing lots of information, and hanging out with people. That’s about it.

Dissertations, by contrast, require lots of basic life skills that other people seem to come by natively, things like the ability to keep a neat desktop, organize and retrieve random bits of paper on which important details are written, spend a number of hours consecutively researching the same topic instead of veering off into social media or other – vastly more fascinating – research topics. After three hours of researching seventeenth century Puritanism, suddenly the state of marriage in America seems like the most pressing issue imaginable, and one which demands my immediate attention and concern. Amazingly, at such moments I find inspiration to complete an application or craft an email on which I’ve been procrastinating.

My level of disorganization and failure to manage time well were little charming peccadillos until I had kids and started working full time. When life beyond the dissertation entered, it was a different story. It is difficult to stress how revolutionary and transformative having kids is, in both delightful and challenging ways. The most immediate challenge of having these little people in your life is that your time is no longer your own. You are aware of how fleeting the baby years are and how many memories you miss if you stay later to work on your dissertation. And just as importantly, your spouse, who is trying to keep this tiny being alive while you are writing your magnum opus, is likely waiting on you to get home.

Another challenge is that you are tired, more tired than you have ever been in your entire life. If the baby had a rough night and kept you up the night before, he or she is still going to wake up at 6 a.m. If you stayed out having fun with friends, the baby is still going to wake up at 6 a.m. You don’t really have the option to sleep in on Saturday anymore.

A third consideration is that babies require a lot – a lot – of gear. Gear needs to be organized so you can find it. And, perhaps more importantly, gear costs money, so you might find that a grad student stipend is no longer sufficient for your family’s needs and that you need to start working full time. All of a sudden, organization, focus, and self-discipline seem like a big deal.

Here’s how the addition of babies impacted me. My first child was born right after I turned my prospectus in. Then it took me over a year to turn in a draft of my first chapter, which was garbage. I had to start the first chapter over again, and then it took me three more months to turn something usable in. By then I had worked out some of the disciplines necessary to writing efficiently – but, as I would soon discover, not nearly enough. My wife was pregnant with our second child, and during her second and third trimesters I hammered out four more chapter drafts, and I was poised to dash off my last chapter when my second child was born. Then it took me an entire year to write the draft of my last chapter. Now, granted, during that time I took a full time staff position with InterVarsity at UT Austin, which required raising a substantial ministry budget, and I moved halfway across the country to start the work. There was a tremendous amount of upheaval during that time window. But still, had I begun the work necessary to build in habits of self-discipline and focus, I could have written the chapter a lot more quickly.

Next time, I’ll wrap up with two more things learned from the whole process.


Image: Boston Public Library, courtesy of tpsdave at Pixabay: http://pixabay.com/en/boston-public-library-403068/

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Jonathan Warren

Jonathan Warren ministers to graduate students and faculty at the University of Texas at Austin with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship along with his wife Tish. He recently finished his Ph.D. in the History of Christianity at Vanderbilt University, and he and Tish are ordained priests in the Anglican Church in North America.

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