Monday, November 11, 2013

A Dissertation Writer’s Dilemma: How to get Back on Track after an Unexpected Break

Miss A Writes a Songby , Dissertation Gal:

Let me ask you this: have you ever started a project and then let it slide for a while? How did that make you feel? Did you ever finish the project?

Well, a year ago I was set on completing my dissertation by the end of 2013. That’s in seven weeks and two days, just to be clear.

And I am nowhere near that finish line.

So what happened? I can make all kinds of excuses, but I don’t think I will. I want to be honest with you and say that I had choices - many choices. Every day. And it was the culmination of those little choices that has slowed me down.

Let me just say that I am back on track (but man it’s a fragile balance right now) and I wanted to write about the process of returning to a long-term project after you’ve been away for a while. For writers, it’s especially difficult.

Now tell me if I’m wrong, but I feel like writers - when in the zone - immerse themselves in their work. They live and breathe the work, whatever it is, and are always thinking about it.

Sometimes it feels like that anticipatory pre-Christmas rush we used to get as kids; other times it feels like a stye in the eye: always there, ever annoying. It’s a great feeling when you’re on the path, and a horrible one when you lose your way.

I’ve felt many emotions during the dissertation process: frustration, exhilaration, guilt, pride, fear, courage, happiness, sadness, laziness, fortitude, creative days, stultifying weeks, the need to justify and accuse myself simultaneously, defeat, hope, and desperation.

But when I get down to it, I have one underlying thought: I must finish. So here is the purpose of this post:

1. To show other dissertation writers that they are not alone in their struggle to finish the d#$% thing;
2. To open up about struggles and to talk about solutions;
3. To open a conversation for anyone else who needs that extra push to get going again.

You are not alone

We all go through life. During February of last year (two months after I defended my prospectus) I started to feel discontent with my life, my career, my direction.

I felt an urgent need for change, and this need compelled me to spend hours upon hours creating a freelance writing website, updating resumes, placing my profile and information on countless Internet job boards, networking, and spending hours writing customized cover letters to all kinds of businesses. I wasn’t sure what I wanted; I just knew I needed a change.

This need for a change, and the energy I put towards the new company website and freelance writing, inevitably detracted - substantially - from the work on my dissertation. I got sidetracked for about 7 months (eeek) and am paying for it now.

But I don’t want to spend too much time on my story. I want, instead, to talk about getting back down to business after you’ve been sidetracked.

1. Roadblocks are Normal

If you are going through writing roadblocks, you are definitely not alone. Everyone struggles. Writing is hard. No one expects us to get it done overnight. I think it’s the largess of projects that somehow get in the way.

I mean, most writers know how long a piece is going to be; however, once the project starts and keeps on going, it seems somehow longer, harder, more difficult, than it was in the original outline.

I have felt a whole lot of guilt over the last year. Guilt for not working faster, guilt for not finishing on “schedule” and guilt for the sacrifices my family has gone through during my studies.

2. Do a little Every Day

If you write only one page a day, that’s 180 pages in 6 months. Double that amount and you’ve got a book or a dissertation.

Part of my problem is that I’d let myself get distracted with work and other things for weeks at a time, thus losing momentum. I can’t tell you how much time I have wasted trying to remember where I left off the last time. It’s stupid.

3. Backwards Outline 

I will talk about this in my next post, but if you have chapters that you feel are discombobulated, go through a reverse outlining process to see where the holes are. This has been tremendously helpful for me.

4. For Moms

I highly suggest carving out some time and getting away from it all so you can concentrate on your work. I don’t know about you, but at home I can’t sit down for 5 minutes without someone needing something from me. And then there’s the constant pull of laundry, dishes, cleaning, and errands.

I swear, there’s not enough time in the day to do everything, and sometimes the only way to complete a large chunk of your work is to remove yourself from all distractions.

I like going to a cheap but comfortable hotel and surrounding myself with work and nothing else. Of course, we can’t do this too often (my husband certainly wouldn’t like that) but we can do it a couple times. So plan well before you go. Make a to-do list and stick to it.

When I wrote my comps, I stayed at a hotel for 3 days and wrote over a hundred pages. It can be done.

5. For those who doubt why they ever started

Right now, it doesn’t matter why you chose to start your PhD. What matters is that you finish.

Anyone who has worked on a long-term project knows that there’s time, effort, hours, money, pain, headaches, and family strife involved. So finish the darn thing and make it all worth it. That’s what I’m telling myself.

6. Have a Specific Goal Every Day

Today I have two goals: 1. write a blog post; 2. rewrite chapter; 3. using my reverse outline. The revision is going to be tough because I am basically reorganizing the entire thing. I have to ask myself “what was I thinking when I wrote this draft?”.

7. Join an Academic Writing Network for Support

A couple weeks ago I joined a fantastic academic writing group affiliated with Linked In. There are thousands of members, all in some kind of academic stage. Many are PhD’s and many are just starting the journey.

It’s a great way to commiserate with others, to get advice, and to share what you have learned throughout your own graduate work.

8. Don’t Get Frustrated with Archival Red Tape

If you are in the middle of archival research you are probably going through some measure of red tape. I didn’t realize what a hassle getting in the door to the archives could be, but I took the steps and am now waiting to get the go ahead from the specific library and will make my plane reservations.

Just know that there is a lag time between finding out which archives you need, where they are, and getting there. Plus, you have to plan a trip (if the library is out of town) - this can be hard for moms.

9. Finally, be positive

Be excited. Remember when you first started your PhD and you couldn’t wait to get into the research aspect? Even if you don’t feel like that now, pretend and act like you do. If you choose to be happy in the process, you CAN be happy. And I believe that a happy writer is a better writer.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on finishing long-term projects like this and overcoming obstacles. Please comment below!


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