It’s almost sad, but pretty much everything I’ve ever said to my graduate students—at least in terms of what they need to know to help them write their dissertation—can be summed up by the following points:
1. Choose your topic wisely. Your choice of subject is very much like your choice of mate. This will either be the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship or the start of a bad first marriage. You’re going to be living with it for a long, long time. One way or another, you’ll be spending serious time together. Don’t let outside pressures make your choices for you. Other people don’t know what is best because you—and only you—must have a certain amount of passion going into the process. Passion cannot be manufactured. You can’t assume it will come later on in the relationship. Researching and writing your dissertation is, in effect, the courtship period of your professional life. If you’re not going to be in love with what you are doing now—be excited by it, look forward to getting back to it, be thinking about it with a real fondness, and a pleasant sense of possessiveness—my bet is that you aren’t going to begin to feel that way after three years. By that point, it will be nagging at you, making demands, and lots of other subjects will seem sexier. Everybody else’s pick will look like a better choice. If there wasn’t some real love at the beginning, you’re going to be in trouble.
2. Write for those who will be reading you in 10 years, not for those people who wrote about your topic 10 years ago. Write for those who will one day be your students, not for those who are your professors and senior colleagues now; keep in mind that, eventually, the readers who will be most interested in your work are those who will be looking up to you as the expert in the field. Too often we write in order to please our elders, our mentors, and the people who made a big splash when they first came out with their research and work. We spend a lot of time looking in scholarship’s rear view mirror, which is not really a safe way to navigate in terms of going forward. Knowing your stuff is one thing; being stuck in your stuff and unable to move is another.
3. Almost indistinguishable from point number two, yet significantly different and perhaps even more important, is the need to remember that you cannot count on the praise of others to keep you going. Ever. You will almost never get it and when you do get it, you won’t get enough of it. And when you do get it, it won’t be the right kind. Also, it probably won’t be the right person saying it. Or it won’t be about the right thing. It simply doesn’t work that way: Outside affirmation is nice for elementary school children and 12-step programs, but that’s it. Other people are not going to spend their time telling you that you are doing a good job. Adults don’t do that for other adults. Adults know they are doing a good job when they are not being actively criticized.
4. There are fascinating power imbalances in terms of the adviser-student relationship, and others wiser, more informed than I have written about them. But one thing I can tell you is this—even the best adviser in the world is not going to have enough time for you. My adviser was an enormously patient and generous man; there were times during my last year of graduate school when I clung to him like a starfish. But he might have described me as coming after him like a shark. I know for a fact that I was less needy than some other folks. I could divide my intensely narcissistic hunger for attention among the members of my committee, for example. And amazingly enough, I had a big group of friends who were willing to put up with me (n.b.: I happen to be a very good cook). Your adviser is there to advise, not to parent, not to edit, not to coddle—except in very small doses.
5. The perfect is the enemy of the good. You can rewrite, you can revise, you can refine, but the first thing you have to do is write. Of course what you write is going to be imperfect. The fun part, remember, is that what you think is good might turn out not to be (kill your darlings and all that) but more importantly, what you think is absolutely terrible might turn out to be a version of the most interesting idea you’ve come up with yet. You just might not be able to recognize it when it appears in its first incarnation. To revise before you know what you’re actually saying is not only to risk throwing out the baby with the bath water, but also to risk killing the wolf in sheep’s clothing. You want that wolf. You want the idea with fangs and claws and energy. It would be a shame to slaughter something wild and call it lunch. Perfectionism isn’t cute, it isn’t helpful, and unless you’re a tailor, an eye surgeon, or part of a high-wire act (literally, not metaphorically) it’s not a useful trait.
6. Only writing counts as writing. Long discussions over dinner, reading yet another piece of research, having yet another discussion over drinks, rediscovering yet another brilliant idea thrown out in an e-mail to an old lover and then quickly deleted, none of this counts as writing. Don’t kid yourself. Your dream-self, your cats, your dog, your spouse, your colleagues, your writing group, and your friends: None of them can write your book for you. Not even if you bribe them with treats. Only you can do it. That’s the hard part, and that’s what’s great, and that’s what you need to do. Go on then; get started.