Friday, January 13, 2012

Writing the dissertation from afar.

Because graduate school is only one part of our multifaceted lives, we often find ourselves doing things we didn't expect to do over the course of our Ph.D. training — things that make it desirable for one reason or another to move away from our home institution, postpone our work, or otherwise revise how we think about our work and our degree. Sometimes this is family stuff, sometimes it is personal, sometimes it is just the good and the difficult of life, which keeps going even if we often feel like we're in a grad-school bubble. And then we have decisions to make: where to be, how to keep moving forward, how to stay motivated when life is full of so many other things.

As someone who has done most of her post-prelims work away from Madison, I thought it might be good to say a few things about the rewards, challenges, and pitfalls of writing the dissertation from afar. I've done this for joyful reasons — falling in love, getting married, wanting to live in the same city, that kind of thing — but it's definitely an ongoing challenge, one I think about every day (while also missing Madison). The nice thing is that the self-directed nature of the dissertation makes these choices possible; the difficult thing is that it is really, really hard to keep on task when you are far away from your intellectual home. Fortunately, there are a lot of things that have made this a workable proposition for me.

The first is the amazing UW Libraries. They have an amazing program called Distance Services, which allows patrons who live outside of Dane County to request books online and receive the loans in the mail. They even include a prepaid return envelope, so when you're done, you simply slip the book back in and pop it in the mailbox. I've praised this service before on my own blog, but it is so fantastic that I can't say enough about it. Combined with electronic article delivery (another excellent UW Libraries service), Distance Services makes it possible for me to take advantage of the UW's world-class collections even though I don't live in Wisconsin. It has been both a lifeline and a life-saver for me as I have been writing.

The second reason I have been able to mostly stay on track with my work while being away from Madison is the support I have received from professors, committee members, and fellow students at the UW. Whether this has been regular telephone meetings to touch base, a Skype-based dissertator group to keep me writing my own stuff and reading others', or just a "hey there!" email that reminds me that I'm not alone — these contacts have kept my spirits up or restored them when I've been feeling discouraged. I feel so lucky to be surrounded (if not physically) by so many great and supportive friends, colleagues, and faculty.

Another group of people I have relied upon deserves special mention: the support staff who have kept me on track with all the administrative stuff that's so easy to forget when you're not on campus — things like registering for HistSci 990 (the "I'm writing my dissertation now" class) and making sure I have all my information up-to-date. These folks — including our own Department Administrator, Eileen Ward, and the Fellowship Coordinators like Mary Butler Ravneburg at Bascom Hall — have been super accessible by phone and email, have been willing to make phone calls on my behalf and do legwork for me when something has gone awry or when I have had questions, and have even telephoned me when I'm about to miss a deadline. Their work is so often invisible and unsung, but it's what keeps this place running, and they have my gratitude.

Now the hard parts. Being away from one's intellectual home while one is engaged in the most challenging part of the phone Ph.D. process — actually writing that gosh-darned dissertation — is really, really, really difficult. Way harder than you think it will be. It's lonely (even lonelier than it usually is), and the matter of remaining motivated, on-task, and upbeat when no one is there keeping an eye on you, and when you don't really have a firm schedule, and when you don't have talks to go to or meetings to attend or the general campus stuff to structure your days, can be very tough indeed. (Basically, it has all the problems of writing the dissertation without being away — the problems are just compounded and intensified.)

Having been away from the UW on and off for a few years now, depending on my funding, I have come up with some strategies for writing your dissertation from afar. I'm hoping this will open up a wider forum for these issues, as I know I'm not the only person to have done this, and I'm sure there are many of us out here who would like to be able to swap stories and share ideas for how to keep on task.
  1. Write every day. This is the cardinal rule for the dissertation, whether you're away from your home institution or not, and it's in some ways the hardest one to follow. I know I've had a terrible time getting into a really solid writing routine, though part of that has had to do with my constant moving over the past year, which makes the writing really hard (see below). But writing every day, during the time when your brain is most active and alert, even if you only have one idea or write only one paragraph, is really the key to keeping the momentum going, the gears turning, and the pages coming.
  2. Develop a routine. This is one thing that's been difficult for me, as I've been moving around a lot this year, and moving takes a lot of time and energy. Every time I get into the swing of a routine, it has suddenly been time to change my location, forcing me to carve out a new groove for myself. Having five months in the same place, as I do right now, feels like a luxury, and I am ready to take advantage of it.
  3. Find a place to write. Again, this has been a challenge for me, as I do not work well at home (too many distractions), but I have been fortunate in securing an office during my brief stint at Cornell this summer, and this spring at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Even if your place is just the coffeeshop around the corner, the library, or even a set-aside corner of your apartment that you don't use for other activities, having a spot that is dedicated to writing really helps.
  4. Take breaks. While it's important to keep your focus on your output, "writing" is actually a whole cluster of activities — including thinking, sleeping, notetaking, daydreaming, talking, story-crafting, and reading — that ultimately result in coherent words on the page. I've found that going for walks is really helpful to my thinking. Sometimes it's best for me to go on them alone, other times I like to have a walking-and-talking companion, but I almost always return from any kind of walk feeling very glad that I took it.
  5. Nurture your support system. Having people to discuss writing and ideas with (not to mention to kvetch, complain, and commiserate with) is really, really important. Assembling a writing group that meets regularly is also a great way to impose deadlines on yourself and on one another in ways that no one else will do for you when you're at this stage. With VoIP and videoconferencing technology like Skype and Google Voice, you can even carry on a dissertator group with members all over the world, as long as you have a decent internet connection. This also helps you not become a huge annoyance to anyone you happen to be living with, or who is otherwise forced to come into contact with you regularly while you are going through the throes of writing. These people are just as important as your intellectual cohort, and you should be nice to them, for they will sometimes make you dinner or bring you a cup of tea or offer a welcome break from writing when you really need it.
  6. Focus on the dissertation, not what comes after. If you're on the job market, like me, applications and cover letters and research statements and all that can be a huge drain on time that really could be spent writing. I have tried to streamline this process by getting a good set of documents together for different purposes and different kinds of jobs (using a dossier service like Interfolio has been a big help) so that when a deadline approaches, I don't have to do too much scurrying around to get all my materials together and sent. What I keep reminding myself: no one will hire you if the dissertation isn't done, so writing is more important than applying.
I have colleagues who also swear by things like programs that temporarily disable your internet connection — and it's definitely important to have a software setup that supports rather than hinders your writing (a topic for another post!) — but these are the elements that have proven essential for me. I'd love to hear more about how others who are writing (whether in Madison or elsewhere) are negotiating the challenges of this stage. (Also see Megan's earlier post on writing the dissertation.)

For now, though, it's time for me to take a walk.


  1. Amrys, thank you so much for this wonderful post. While I am at least in Madison, I've had a particularly hard time writing lately, between having broken your #1 rule over the break and too much focusing on #6. Your observations definitely apply nearly as much to dissertating in general as to dissertating from afar. But as someone who is looking at a strong possibility of dissertating from afar next fall, though, I've particularly appreciated hearing your thoughts. I'm hoping that some of the several other dissertators who are out of town will add their feedback here. And I want to talk to you more about this "in person" at our next diss. group!

  2. Absolutely! After I had written the guidelines, I thought to myself, hey, what's so special about being away anyway? It's all the same, just harder. You're totally right: it all applies, no matter where you are.

    I did have one thing I wanted to add, which was that exercise is really helpful. Yoga and running have been my physical outlets (in addition to walks), and the times I have been doing these a lot have been the times I have written the most.

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  4. Agreed, and that is something I'm especially bad about. It seems like time spent exercising takes away from writing time, but it's the opposite.

    One other thing--we should have a post here about the value of/how to start dissertator groups. I'll put it on my list, but encourage others to try to beat me to it.

  5. Wonderful post, Am.

    Although I've been feeling productive over the last two weeks, this post reminded me that I haven't actually written a single word toward the chapter that I'm currently supposed to be writing. It's easy to fill time with tasks that seem productive (for me, that's often organizing tasks and lists), but not actually WRITING ANYTHING.

    My goal this semester is to follow the golden rule (#1). Even when the daily output is a sentence or just a few bullet points about where I want to go with the narrative. I've also found that creative writing can sometimes spur my diss writing. Finally, it has become very clear to me that the exercise thing is mandatory for me. It's really the only way I can managed stress effectively. Taking up snowboarding again has been one of the best decisions I've made in ages. And as I wrote this, you guys were clearly thinking the same thing....

  6. As someone who is anticipating time away during my dissertation (when I eventually get there!), I really appreciate this post. Trying to anticipate the future, especially when in graduate school, is extremely difficult but it is good to hear that others have worked from afar and made the best of it. I will definitely be returning to this post when I get to the dissertation phase and the "should I move?" decision. Thanks, Amrys!

  7. My pleasure. It seems to me that this is a very common practice (finishing up while away), but that there aren't a lot of explicit structures in place to support it. It would have been really helpful to know about the library's distance services, for instance, before I moved. I only discovered that service by accident, in a conversation with Robin Rider. If I had known earlier, I would have been ordering books from the get-go!

    The "should I move?" decision is always a hard one. I think if I had known exactly how difficult it was going to be to be away, I might have thought about it even longer and harder than I did. I don't think I would have decided differently, but I would have been a bit more chastened. It is worth mentioning that I did have a long conversation with one of my committee members about the move, and he was very helpful in getting me to be proactive about dealing with some of the challenges in advance, being up-front about what I was going to face, and giving me ideas on how to keep the distance from becoming an insurmountable problem.

    I guess the short answer to the "should I move?" question usually goes something like this: If the degree is all what's important to you, no, you shouldn't; but you can, and you might, and it may be absolutely the right thing to do. Because for most of us the degree isn't the only thing that's important.

    The other issue is, of course, funding. Fellowship awards have made all of this mobility possible for me, and if you're TA'ing for your funding (as I was for part of the time), you can't be away (hence a bunch of rather exhausting moving back-and-forth for me). And sometimes that might be the answer. Teaching and writing has its own challenges (another post topic?), but it does tend to make the moving question moot. Unless you are able to find teaching employment elsewhere, which several of our dissertators have done (and I have done at times as well), in which case, more power to you.

    In other words, there is no one model for how to live your life while you're finishing up. It's (sometimes liberatingly, sometimes infuriatingly) open-ended.

  8. So clarifying, Am! Now if I only I could take these useful things that I *know* I should be doing and turn them into things I *am* actually doing (even if not from far away).

  9. Haha, yes: do as I say, not as I do! Would that I were always following my *own* advice too.