Jonathan Warren, who recently finished his Ph.D. in the History of Christianity at Vanderbilt University, reflects upon what he learned from writing his dissertation. Thank-you Jonathan! [Read more…] about Five Things Iâ€™ve Learned from Writing a Dissertation Series
Completing Your PhD
As I wrap up this series, two more things I learned from my dissertation comeÂ 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. [Read more…] about Five Things Iâ€™ve Learned from Writing a Dissertation, Part 3
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 Iâ€™m an ENFP and find it extremely hard to focus. Iâ€™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 â€œsitting musclesâ€ necessary for doing good scholarship. Everyoneâ€™s a little different on this score, but over time Iâ€™ve found that I really canâ€™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 Iâ€™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. [Read more…] about Five Things Iâ€™ve Learned from Writing a Dissertation, Part 2
Over the past six years, Iâ€™ve been enrolled in a Ph.D. program in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University, studying church history. For the past three years, Iâ€™ve been trying to write a dissertation, which is more or less like trying to write a bookâ€“but for three or four very persnickety readers.
More than once during this process Iâ€™ve questioned whether I would be able to finish. I never struggled with â€œimposter syndromeâ€ during coursework or comprehensive exams, but during the dissertation phase thereâ€™s been plenty of self-doubt. Mark Noll graduated from the GDR at Vanderbilt in three years â€“ so why was writing such a challenge for me? Did that mean I didnâ€™t have what it takes? Also, Iâ€™m an ENFP on the Myers-Briggs inventory, which means Iâ€™m easily distracted. Seventeenth century Puritanism was interesting for a couple of months â€“ couldnâ€™t I move on to something else now? I felt like the dissertation would never end and that I couldnâ€™t possibly keep myself interested in it.
This fall, I finally finished the dissertation. So now seems like a great moment to step back and reflect. Over the next few posts, Iâ€™ll share what Iâ€™ve learned during the process of writing:
1) You need cheerleaders, even if you donâ€™t struggle generally with self-confidence.
I suppose it is the case that there are some people who donâ€™t need any encouragement, whose massive erudition, work ethic, and overweening self-possession can take them right through the dissertation without any encouragement whatsoever. My experience, however, is that even people who are generally quite confident in their abilities get pretty discouraged about dissertation writing, especially if the process moves slowly. Thatâ€™s certainly been the case for me. If you can hammer out a draft in six months, then more power to you â€“ but itâ€™s taken me considerably longer than that. I needed validation that it was worth my while to continue writing even if I had nothing to say or couldnâ€™t find the focus to write something meaningful for days or weeks.
I have been fortunate to have a supervisor and a second reader that are not only colleagues but friends. Many Ph.D. students are not in this position. Their relationships with supervisors are frosty or even adversarial. Especially if you find yourself in this situation, but in any event, you need a community of folks to encourage you. Get plugged in with a local church and establish a close network of friends there. Be honest with them about how hard the dissertation process is. Consider putting together a prayer and confession team at your church that can walk through peaks and valleys with you.
Itâ€™s also important to practice the discipline of celebration. Donâ€™t turn something in without marking that progress with your community and doing something fun to break up the grind of daily writing.
Image by jarmoluk at Pixabay.com
Below is the final piece of a 4-part series by an anonymous contributor, a recent PhD recipient who has been involved with ESN and wanted to share lessons he learned during graduate school. In the fall he will begin teaching at a private Christian university. Praise God!
Click here to read Part 1, click here to read Part 2, andÂ click here to read Part 3 — be sure to check out the helpful conversation in the comment section onÂ 9. Donâ€™t be afraid to be known as a fanatical Christ-follower. ~ Tom
“Finishing-up” and “Moving-on-to-the-next-job”
12. Pray for the next assignment
In times of transition, I have found it helpful to pray for the next assignment (especially the people with whom I will work). Â This helps me to avoid getting burdened by sorrow about the friends I’m leaving behind, and reminds me that this entire earthly life is only a temporary sojourning from place to place until I go to my Real Home (Hebrews 11:8-16). Â As Hebrews 13:14 says, “For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.” Â This also reminds me, as I prepare to meet my new set of coworkers and friends, that my role is to serve them, agape-love them, pray for them, and point them toward Christ. . . . NOT to try to extract personal satisfaction or fulfillment from them. [Read more…] about 13 Ways of Looking at Graduate School: Part 4