Finishing the Dissertation

April 01, 2003

The other day, as I clipped together the pages of an article I had written and sent it off to a journal, I paused to enjoy a sense of, not completion, but contentment. It reminded me of how I felt when I carried the bound copies of my dissertation across the Bloomington campus of Indiana University.

I am in a different place now: I have my Ph.D. in hand, I'm spending this year as a fellow, and will start my first tenure-track job in English in the fall. So the confidence and contentment with which I sealed my journal article into an envelope is very different from the uncertainty that I felt when I began my dissertation. I've come to realize that writing my dissertation is what helped that uncertainty to fade. I'd like to offer some lessons I learned that might be helpful for the many graduate students now struggling to write their own dissertations.

The first chapter was the hardest. Based on my own experience and that of others, I can say that it is not unusual for the first chapter to take a phenomenal amount of time and a greater number of revisions than any other part of the dissertation. Don't let this get you down. You're working in a new form and you don't know what a chapter should be until you've written it. I wish I could say that you'll have smooth sailing once you've mastered the first chapter -- I can't. But here's a tip that might help you maintain an even keel as you navigate your way through later chapters.

Observe the rhythm of your work -- the ups and the downs -- and remind yourself of that pattern when you hit a low point. In writing my dissertation, I went through a mood cycle that was repeated in every chapter. I loved beginning chapters, because I loved reading sources and learning new things, and I liked thinking, in a very general way, about how I would use those sources.

But as I began to write, I would have to face the crisis of each chapter -- the particular challenge that it posed -- and every chapter posed a different challenge. In my first chapter, the problem was how to convey why some frequently ignored texts are interesting. In my second chapter, it was how to find a niche for myself so that I could say something that had not yet been said about George Eliot. In my third chapter, it was how to handle an author whose politics I increasingly disliked, and in my fourth chapter, it was how to craft a coherent narrative from a tangle of archival sources.

Grappling with these problems was demoralizing, because I didn't have faith that I would solve them. Each of these difficult phases seemed interminable. But just by keeping at it, I did solve the problems, and once I was beyond the crisis in each chapter, my mood improved. Once the chapter had its shape, I enjoyed writing, and even more, polishing it.

What I learned was that I always go through that cycle in my work, not only in writing dissertation chapters. And I can sustain my energy and determination by remembering that the dismal low points, when I felt like I would never be able to say something new about George Eliot, were followed by great satisfactions.

Avail yourself of writing groups if they're useful, but don't feel guilty about ditching them when they're not. In the early stages of writing the dissertation, a writing group of doctoral students in my field was a great source of motivation and feedback. Providing reciprocal advice for each other's projects built a sense of community that was encouraging.

There came a point for me, however, when I needed to tune out other people's voices and just be alone with my work to stay focused and get it done.

Revision may be easier if you put it off until later. Sometimes procrastination pays. When I received comments from a committee member about my first chapter, I felt overwhelmed. I didn't revise the chapter immediately, because I wanted to draft the entire dissertation and revise the chapters at the end, once I could see the project as a whole. I did, however, receive feedback on each chapter as I completed it so that those comments could shape the chapters I had yet to write.

When I returned to my reviewer's disheartening comments -- long after I had received them -- they all made sense to me. I had grown into the comments. I was able to use them productively, and they also served as a yardstick for how much I had learned about writing in the process of drafting the dissertation.

Be realistic about your timeline. Give yourself a break and don't set deadlines that will only make you miserable when you can't meet them. Revision, particularly if you leave it for the end, may take longer than you had planned. As I faced the revisions that I had to do, I felt like I had sprinted toward what I thought was the end of my marathon endeavor, only to discover that the finish line was around the corner and up a two-mile-long hill.

Identify the people around you who provide useful support. Among the things that I came to appreciate as a result of writing the dissertation are the loyalty and generosity of people who care about me, especially since I wasn't always the most enjoyable person to be around.

I often felt that my moodiness during points of resistance in my writing made me unfit for social interaction. So I am grateful to those who not only tolerated me but stood ready with sympathetic ears and encouraging words.

Relish epiphanies. There were unexpected, wonderful moments of grace as I wrote. One of those moments came when I stumbled upon the title of my dissertation as I was finishing my George Eliot chapter. I had wrestled with the title for a long time, trying to think of something clever and brief -- I wanted a three-word first line.

But it was while talking to my husband on an airplane that the title just came to me. He had read a draft of my George Eliot chapter and we were talking about it, and I explained how much of a breakthrough that writing it had been.

My dissertation traced the trajectory of Victorian cultural attitudes toward theatrical women that culminated in the centrality of theater and actresses to the early 20th-century women's suffrage movement. It was not entirely clear at the outset, however, that I would find the tight links that would connect Victorian literary representations and Edwardian political activism. I explained to my husband that the Eliot chapter serves as a keystone because it demonstrates that the significance of actresses in Victorian culture sets the stage for the theatricality of the suffragettes. And my mouth dropped open, and I said, "That's it. That's my title: 'Setting the Stage.'"

Remember that you're doing this for yourself. It was helpful for me to think of my dissertation in these terms: I'm never going to climb Everest, or run a marathon. But the dissertation is an adventure and a feat of endurance that provides a sense of accomplishment proportional to the struggle that it requires. In that sense, Sir Edmund Hillary's comment, "It's not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves," is an apt description of writing a dissertation. For me, it was a tranformative experience that required me to overcome fears and develop new abilities.

At the end, and only at the end, did I realize how much I had learned. It was far harder but also far more rewarding than I had ever thought it would be, and among its greatest rewards were the things that it taught me about myself and about how I work and think.

Renata Kobetts Miller earned her Ph.D. in English from Indiana University in Bloomington in 2001 and holds a postdoctoral fellowship at the City College of the City University of New York, where she will continue to work as an assistant professor in the fall.