Words on Paper

by Brian Bialkowski

Inside Higher Education
September 6, 2005

So you're still in graduate school, you've finished everything but your dissertation, and you're facing a pretty bleak academic future. You've been warned of graduate student attrition, shrinking job markets, tenuous adjunct work, a long and painful journey on the tenure track, and recurring bouts of insecurity and depression. Such dire predictions don't matter because you've invested too much time, effort, and money in graduate school to walk away without a guilty conscience. With so much discouraging news, how are you supposed to complete your dissertation?

As a former Ph.D. candidate at a major research university, I, like so many of you, have read, seen, and lived all the gloomy descriptions of academic life. I have questioned my past decisions and future plans, and at several points even contemplated calling the whole thing off.

Then, a funny thing happened at the end of one summer: I decided that I just needed to finish. Eight months later the dissertation was complete and gathering dust while I awaited an early-fall defense. From the whole process I learned certain lessons that, despite their helpfulness, didn't strike me as information that many professors are willing or ready to share. So to other graduate students and, perhaps, faculty looking for a novel way to nudge their wards toward completion, I offer my secrets to finishing the dissertation.

The first great secret about finishing is that there is no great secret. In my case, I had no sudden burst of intellectual insight, nor did I happen upon the forgotten piece of scholarship that suddenly brought all my arguments together and cleared the road for completion. There were a few stretches of frenzied writing and excessive caffeine consumption during which I lost sleep and became, shall we say, not fun to be around. But it would be an unfair exaggeration to characterize the eight months that it took to complete the lions share of the writing as isolated and monkish toil. In fact, I held a part-time job throughout the whole process and even taught an upper-level course of about 35 students. In the plainest terms, I just plugged along.

Its hard, though, to sit down and simply begin to write. After all, the dissertation isn't just any piece of writing; its the capstone piece of scholarship that will summarize your entire educational history, rightfully earn you the highest of academic degrees, and define you as you take your first steps into the scholarly life. A dissertation is different from the 15- to 25- page seminar papers that you can now crank out in a weekend. Not only are the individual chapters two or three times longer than anything you've written for your classes, but they have to fit together into a larger project than anything you've ever conceived. It has to be great.

Which brings me to the second great secret of finishing your dissertation: Stop telling yourself that the dissertation has to be great, that it has to redefine your field, that it has to be such a wonderful piece of scholarship that you will be able to trigger a bidding war between publishers the day after your defense. A dissertation doesn't have to be great. It doesn't even have to be good; it just has to be good enough.

If you need to be convinced of this, don't go to your department mailroom and peruse the dissertation propped on a stand thats the one that garnered a dissertation-year fellowship from the university, won the Dissertation of the Year award from a national scholarly organization, and landed its author a plum tenure-track position at Big Time U. Instead, take a brief trip to the forgotten corner of the library that houses those somber rows of black volumes stamped with years and last names. Flip through a few of the thicker ones that seem remotely related to your discipline. Read their tables of contents. Skim their opening chapters. While there are sure to be some diamonds in the rough, for the most part you'll find that few dissertations qualify as great writing. Even if you miss some of the stinkers, you'll come across a number that leave you muttering, Wow, I can do better than this.

You see, while second-guessing their own arguments and puzzling over whether vaguely-worded suggestions from a faculty member represent incisive comments or off-the-cuff and undeveloped thoughts, many Ph.D. students, including at one point myself, forget that they are already expert enough in a subject to produce a manuscript that will satisfy their committee. Thats not to say that they can dump any argument on paper provided it stretches to 250 pages; instead, I merely suggest that they already know enough information and are familiar enough with at least the most significant works in a particular area of scholarship to put together a sizable and relatively original piece of work within that area. Of course, that work will be subjected to committee members comments and criticism, but such criticism tends to grow more particular in focus as the larger project begins to coalesce.

You need, then, to complete something and get it in your committee members hands. How do you do that in the quickest and most efficient manner possible? The answer is my third and, I confess, my favorite secret: words on paper.

Try repeating it. Words on paper...Words on paper. It sounds simple enough. Say it a few more times. It feels good, doesn't it? It starts to sound like a chant, a motto, or mantra. Its almost like reverse meditation instead of repeating om or one to empty your mind of all thought and action, you repeat words on paper to reign in your wandering thoughts and commit to writing.

What do you write? Well, almost anything. The point is simply to sit down and write. Even the most accomplished and prolific novelists, short story writers, and essayists often begin their day with a writing exercise. Except for a handful of manic geniuses out there and even the quality of their work will probably be disputed heavy revision is the norm of composition, not the exception. You may set down some positively horrendous prose, but you will also express some of your arguments and provide you and your committee something tangible to work with and develop.

If all that is not enough to help you trudge through your final task as a Ph.D. student, I have this one final bit of advice that is either hopelessly pessimistic or brutally honest, depending on your point of view: nobody is really going to care about what you write.

Recall again those past dissertations that you glanced at in the library. How many of their authors names are still on the tip of the tongue in scholarly circles? How many fewer are remembered for the particular piece of work that you flipped through? In writing a dissertation, you only have to satisfy your adviser and readers to the point that they sign off on it, after which it will be bound and stashed away in the library. Even if you view your dissertation as the first step towards a future career and hope to publish it as a book, you should realize that most dissertations are revised substantially before they're suitable for publication. Despite its length, it is simply not the equivalent of a book. Whats left is nothing more or less than a graduation requirement.

This all sounds incredibly cynical. Readers out there will respond to my comments with a vigorous defense of the virtues of research and scholarly curiosity. They may even rightfully point out that my suggestions only fuel the deeper problems of a system that is leading students to produce timid, ponderous, and even unreadable dissertations. However, that is not students problem to fix. Until institutions and the profession as a whole address that problem and adjust their graduate curricula accordingly, graduate students will remain stuck in that system, and will have to play by its rules.

Just remember that pages here and elsewhere have been filled with anecdotes of graduate student burnout and dropout, and statistics that confirm the frequency of such disheartening experiences. For every student who finishes a graduate degree, there is another one that burns out or fades away, and if you've been around long enough, you've learned that a good many stumble when the time comes to write their dissertation.

Cease your soul searching, turn away from the ubiquitous warnings about the profession, and give up your lofty dreams of producing a work that will earn you a place in the annals of scholarly history. Stop second-guessing yourself, stop imagining that you are writing a book for future generations, and write.

It wont be easy and it wont be pretty, but eventually you will finish. Sure, some of your work may be unreadable, but other parts will surprise you at their quality, and will be more concise and polished than anything you ever expected. It wont be perfect, it might not even be good, but it wont matter. In the end, you'll have words on paper and your degree in hand.

Brian Bialkowski is a senior writer/editor at Penn State. He received his Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Iowa in 2004. He has thought about revising his dissertation on hermeneutics, film adaptation, and Merchant Ivory into a book manuscript.