Five Things I’ve Learned from Writing a Dissertation, Part 3

Jonathan Warren shares the last in a three part series. Explore Part 1 here and Part 2 here. 

As I wrap up this series, two more things I learned from my dissertation come to mind:

4) You need to strike the proper balance between research and writing.

One of my besetting issues during the entirety of my Ph.D. program was the sense that I always needed to know more about the topic than I did before I could write about it. My tendency was to consume more and more information, compile more and more detailed notes, and then try to spit it all out on the page. I did this every semester during my coursework, and I often had to take incompletes because of it.

The most traumatic (and memorable) experience I had in this regard was of writing a paper on Thomas Hobbes for a “Theodicy in the Western Traditions” seminar. I had never read Hobbes before, so I read all ten volumes in the Molesworth edition of Hobbes’s English Works and over thirty secondary sources on Hobbes’s thought before I wrote a single sentence in Microsoft Word. I don’t want to talk about how long that took me, nor how overwhelmed I felt when I finally decided the moment had come to get down to writing. Do not, under any circumstances, repeat my error on this point. Start writing before you feel like you have enough to say. Let this be your maxim: “editing is tough, but it’s the most important part of writing.” But you can’t edit unless you have something to edit.

5) Your dissertation just needs to get done.

When I began the process of dissertation writing, another kind of difficulty befell me. I felt an acute need for my dissertation to be significant – to be a watershed in the scholarship of transatlantic Puritan scholarship. As I worked on the first chapter, I kept trying to connect it other important themes in intellectual history – the “passage to modernity” stuff that Louis Dupre and Charles Taylor have worked out, for instance, or the history of reason that one finds in the work of Amos Funkenstein and Peter Harrison. Thankfully, after a year of struggling to connect my research to these trajectories of research, I turned in those pitiful seventy pages to my second reader, who was kind enough to tell me two things:

  1. what I had written sucked, and I needed to start over.
  2. I needed to stop trying to be impressive and write what my sources allowed me to write. If I wanted to write a book on the history of reason, that was what tenure was for.

In my heart, I already knew the first point. But the second was really, really liberating. And so, dear reader, I urge you to take my second reader’s advice. Your dissertation is your “fishing license.” Just finish it. Don’t be impressive. Just produce something you can defend to your committee.

Dissertation writing was an immensely formative and maturing experience for me, as these posts have hopefully demonstrated. I have wished many times that I could go back with the wisdom and habits of attention, research, and writing I gained along the way and begin the process again. But the point of the dissertation is simultaneously to prove that you can make a substantive contribution to your field and to train you to make further substantive contributions. Your future work builds upon what you have learned in the arduous process of building the habit of scholarship. So entrust yourself to God wherever you are in the writing process and however you are feeling about it, in the well-founded hope that God will give you the maturity and skill you need to finish in His timing.

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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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    Jason commented on March 17, 2015 Reply

    I feel like I’ve been reading my academic biography. I, too, really struggle with time management when it comes to research and writing. It always seems that when a research paper deadline is looming, I tend to want to tidy up far less important items than to tend to the task at hand. I’d rather polish my armor than face the dragon. Anyway, thanks for the helpful advice–I’ll definitely keep it in mind when dissertation research begins in earnest after exams this fall.

  • David Parry commented on September 14, 2015 Reply

    Hi Jonathan,
    I’m not sure if you will still be checking comments here. I just read through your series properly and could likewise identify with many of your struggles – I also feel like I need big blocks of time to get writing done and have a tendency to feel like I need to read everything before I am qualified to write. I appreciate your encouragement. Thanks for writing.

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