Either you or someone you know is headed to graduate school this fall, maybe for a law degree, a master’s of some sort, or perhaps to become the world’s leading scholar of being fabulous, which is what I’m doing. People go to graduate school for different reasons. For those of you jumping off to business or law school, you know it’s nearly impossible to make those six figures, plus signing bonus, and to get that ride home from late nights at the office in a black car without a couple fancy extra letters behind your name. And if you’re joining the professoriate, you’re obsessed with some aspect of culture and you want to live a life of the mind—which, I have to say, is kind of awesome. Maybe your career goal is to be a tenured professor at a Top 50 university. Good luck with that! My goal is to write a book that will get me on Chelsea Lately, and maybe if I could be the Grace Jones Professor of Popular Culture at some university, that could be cute, too.
As you future eggheads make your way into the Ivory Tower, or into your dissertation writing if you’re already on this side of the moat, there are some important things you need to know about writing a dissertation that nobody will ever tell you.
The first thing is that nobody knows what a dissertation is, not even you. When you start your graduate program and see that at the end of it you have to produce this minimum 200 page magical, earth shattering document, you probably think: “Oh, that’s easy.” Ha! These are not just any 200 pages. These are carefully researched, expertly detailed pages full of blood, sweat, and maybe splashed with a little bit of red wine that demonstrate your heretofore unrealized intellectual prowess. As you plod through this thing, more than once you will feel overwhelmed and unable to write anything. THE DISSERTATION!!! will trip you up because you feel daunted by the task of producing material you’re comfortable showing your thesis committee, whose very emails, phone calls and recommendation letters can help decide whether you land your dream job at that Top 50 school.
Part of dissertation writing is figuring out what a dissertation is in the first place, unless I’m doing it all wrong, which is possible. There are numerous guidebooks out there that claim they can show you how to write your dissertation in 15 minutes a day. There are writing groups and programs that give you tips and tricks on how to write productively. I think this approach works for some people, but you know what? No program or book or group or software can tell you how to do this thing. And that’s because the dissertation is not really a thing as much as it is a process, a process of learning to be and hear your own voice, of being the omniscient master of your research material, and finally of being an expert on your topic of choice. I’ve found it best to read scholars I like and to emulate their work while adding my own little bedazzled twists. At a certain point, you leave the student stage and stop reading just for seminar prowess and you move into the producer of knowledge category and begin to understand how to create knowledge for an audience.
When you start writing, somebody will inevitably tell you, “The best dissertation is a done dissertation.” This doesn’t mean that it’s okay to go hog wild and turn in whatever. Remember, the last thing you want your committee to say when you go on the job market is that your dissertation is a hot mess, though it would be really funny to be on a search committee and see someone’s dissertation described like that—“Ryan’s dissertation on luxury in China is a piping hotttt mess.” The real meaning of the phrase “the best dissertation is a done dissertation” is that at a certain point you just have to stop. There are always more books to read, more case studies to invoke, more secondary sources to plug in. And this means that another crucial thing to know about dissertation writing is knowing when to stop reading, writing, and researching. Just stop!
I think the most important thing about writing a dissertation is to know yourself and your writing process. I know that sounds fairly easy and maybe flippant, but it really isn’t. Can you believe that I’ve made it this far into my graduate school career and never outlined anything until the third chapter of my diss? I never outlined a single academic paper. Then, one day, the mass of material I had was so vast, I decided it would be easier if I just outlined it. I did, and it completely changed my entire approach. I also learned that it’s better to think in terms of word count versus number of pages. I do that trick where I write everything in single space and then I have, like, 20 single spaced pages and I’m all, wow, this is like going to be 50 pages of text when I double space it! And it always ends up being something ridiculous like 31 pages, which really pisses me off. So then I started counting words. Each day I start writing, I put the current word count in the document header so I can see my progress. Much better results!
Word count goals, people. Word count!
Also: remember to take breaks. You can’t dissertate for 20 hours a day. I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. So, binge on reality television! Masturbate if that’s your thing! Go out dancing! Cook a big meal! Window shop! These are all things that help your thought process, even if they don’t necessarily produce your desired page goals for the day.
As I near the end of my own dissertation—just so long as my committee doesn’t see this and decide to fail me!—I’ve realized that the dissertation is a process, not a thing. And I know this last bit is going to sound crazy, but no matter how much you think you know about histories of Mexican immigration, or whatever, you will not know what your dissertation is about or even what you’re arguing until you’re basically done and typing up the title page.