So You Wanna Write a Dissertation, eh?

Last year, in an effort to outline the Ph.D. acquisition process, I wrote an article detailing the major components of the doctoral process. When I wrote the article I was a few months from becoming ABD (all but dissertation) with only a dissertation proposal to defend.

Well, I’m no longer ABD. I’m a Doctor (of knowledge, not you know medical stuff)

With my new Doctorate of Philosophy* in Sociology in hand, I felt compelled to share some of my experience with writing, revising, and ultimately defending my dissertation while the memory is still fresh in my mind. Grab your adventure hats friends because here goes Dr. Bri’s guide to dissertating.

A reenactment of me walking in to my defense

First a note about being ABD.

A Ph.D. student becomes a Ph.D. candidate when they become ABD. Being ABD means that one has defended her dissertation proposal, passed her general exams, and completed all her coursework requirements. Though ABD status in itself has no requirements other than finishing one’s dissertation, achieving it is enough of an accomplishment that people put it in their email signatures [And you know it’s real when folks put it in their email sigs]. ABD can be harrowing because it’s where a lot of folks get trapped in their doctoral process. It’s pretty easy to get wrapped up in work or family life when someone’s not pressing you with deadlines. But have no fear, the best way to avoid stalling out as ABD is to keep writing, keep working, and before you know it you’ll have a Ph.D.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

I defended my dissertation a year after I defended my proposal meaning that I collected the majority of my data, conducted all my analyses, and wrote my document within a year’s time. That seems like a lot—and it is—but it’s not uncommon or impossible. Here’s my take on the major parts of the dissertation completion process.

Data Collection: This is where all the fun begins. The amount of time spent here depends on your methods and the type of data you are using. If you’re set on using original data (like me) then you’re going to have to put effort into constructing and refining your research instrument (e.g. your interview guide, your survey, whatever you’re going to use to collect your data). The first version of your instrument won’t be perfect, you’ll have to conduct a few interviews or collect a few surveys from participants before you iron out all the kinks. It’s fine. If you’re researching human participants you’ll be shocked by how much people enjoy helping you out with your project. After you’re done with some portion of your data collection it’s time to move on to…

Data Analysis: This is where the rubber meets the road with your work. This is the phase where you take a step back from your transcripts (or data pools or survey responses) and you look for common themes between them. The analysis is where projects are made, theory is discovered, and you get a sense of what the hell you’re about to spend the next few months to a year writing about. Since my methodology required simultaneous analysis while collecting data I was able to find themes in earlier interviews to inform the questions I asked in the later ones. This section can be fairly anxiety-producing because it’s easy to become intimidated by the sheer volume of the data you’ve collected. But fear not, just because you collected the data doesn’t mean every single thing you documented has to be included in your final project. Honestly, of all your data only about 30% of it makes it to your final paper. When things get a little crazy or overwhelming when it comes to analyzing and organizing your data just take a breather…

What you want to do when you step back from your data and realize you got too crazy with the initial coding

So after you come back to your computer and decide to press on it’s time to write!

Writing: So you’ve got data collection out the way, you’ve identified some patterns in your data that tells us things about stuff, and now you’re ready to WRITE THAT DOC! I wish I could say there was a certain pattern I followed other than consistency…there wasn’t. This is where your feelings get hurt. This is where you doubt if you even care about this degree anymore (you do) and where you put your best work out there to have your committee members give you constructive criticism and feedback (read: rip it apart like a pack of orcas feasting on a baby seal). I did three rounds of revisions before my document was ready for defense. And even after defense, I had to add about 12 pages of work before submitting it to the graduate school. Your best ally here is your chair. Mine is a rock star who was committed to me finishing when I said I would be finished. By the time you’re ready to write, I’d advise you to detach emotionally from any of the drafts you submit prior to the defense.

I know you think each new draft is “the one” that’s going to get you the gold star of completion, but that’s for your committee to determine. As annoying as every track change that reads “explain/define/say more” is, it points to a hole in your work that you previously hadn’t noticed. It’s all to make your work better. In this stage, you write, you get feedback, you cry over the feedback, you have a minor existential crisis about your ability as a researcher and a writer, you watch Black Panther and remember who you are (a gahtdamn doctor to be), then you get back to the keyboard.

Be like Okoye. Throw your metaphysical wig at your dissertation by writing like the General of the Wakandan Army you are.

After you’ve written all you needed to write. It’s time to defend that puppy.

Defense: This is the grand finale. You are Beyonce and your defense presentation is Coachella. This is probably the first time you’ve seen your committee together since your proposal defense. You cram hundreds of pages of work and research into an easily digestible presentation and showcase it to your committee. This is when they grill you about your research choices, your data analysis methods, and your findings. You either pass or fail (you’re def gonna pass) and at the end of it they tell you “Congratulations, welcome to Ph.D. Gang” [insert appropriate hand signs here]. This is the part where you burst into tears of gratefulness or run to your nearest watering hole and use your new status as a Ph.D. to answer the research question “How drunk can a doctor get?”

How you celebrate is up to you. Just make sure to celebrate. You only become a doctor once in life.

Yours in the struggle,

Bri aka the chick stuck in customs at the Wakandan airport bka A Blackademic

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? –Matthew 6:27

*yeah it’s weird, but all Ph.D. are doctorates of philosophy even if you didn’t touch a single philosophy course


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