Recently, a much-loved friend asked me for advice on dissertation-writing, not because I’m any paragon of efficiency, but because she knew I’d struggled myself. She wanted to know if I had any words of wisdom about getting through the process with a minimum of pain.
My immediate impulse was to decline to answer, on the grounds that I am utterly unqualified to advise anyone on writing without pain. My next impulse was to solicit advice from my friends via Twitter, and I got some wonderful responses. There were some terrifically helpful practical tips, but one that really got me thinking was from my friend Franky Abbott, who suggested the importance of recognizing “that the dissertation is antiquated process training and not a reflection of your total worth.”
This is a truth that’s only become fully apparent to me in my post-grad school life, and I thought that this might be something useful I could offer to my friend. While of course I knew in a theoretical way that what I was writing was an exercise rather than a finished product, this knowledge meant little to me in the hothouse of grad school. Now, a couple years after leaving Yale, I see that what I was doing was learning how to write scholarship. My dissertation is no great work of genius, I know that, but I feel no need to apologize. The world didn’t need another dissertation, but I needed the opportunity to learn to write one.
So here’s what I told my friend, and what I would tell myself if I could: You are more important than any damn dissertation.
The dissertation is a training process, and the finished product is infinitely less important than emerging with your own mental health intact. The years that pass and the people you love and the things you do are what really matter. You’ll write something wonderful because you are who you are, but even if you don’t, your friends and family won’t care, because they love you and know you to be brilliant and funny and kind and complicated.
You are a grown adult human being with priorities and interests and wishes that differ from those of your committee, your dean, your DGS, and other grad students. If you get nagging emails from the grad school about your timeline? Ignore them. If your adviser doesn’t get what you’re doing, ignore him, too. The people that ask you how many pages you’ve written and how many chapters you’ve finished and where you’ve published and when you’re going to be done? Fuck ’em. They’re noise. They don’t know you.
Take lots of walks, get lots of exercise, take time off, make friends, be nice to other people who are in the same boat and help them whenever you can.
Get to know librarians and archivists. Use a citation management system. Consider using Scrivener instead of Word. Digitize everything you can. Back up your data. Figure out what times of day work for you and write then. Do the 15 minutes thing. Respect the indirect work that contributes to your dissertation — conversations with friends, seemingly unrelated books, long walks.
I don’t have to tell you to work hard, because I know you will. And there are lots of times when hard work is what’s called for. But there are other times when the thing you should do is to go easy on yourself, and the real challenge of the process is figuring out which is which.
The most important thing is, your friends and family know you and love you, and that has nothing at all to do with your dissertation.