Saturday, March 1, 2014

Surviving the Dissertation: A Recap

Thesis x8
Thesis x 8 (Photo credit: anthonycramp)
by GSAS Harvard University:

The following piece summarizes the dissertation panel sponsored by the GSAS Office of Fellowships, held on December 4, 2013. 

The panel, titled “The Dissertation: Strategies for Getting from Beginning to End of the Process,” featured PhD student Sun-Young Park, from urban planning, and postdoctoral fellow Naor Ben-Yehoyada, PhD ’11, anthropology.

The panelists helped to put students’ mind at ease about approaching the dissertation, primarily by emphasizing that nothing is written in stone: they both attested to the fact that their very first thoughts about the topic bore little resemblance to the final results. 

Both confessed that when they wrote a prospectus, they felt very unready to do so, but realized that it was time to take the plunge and write something respectable to submit. 

They urged students to think of the prospectus as just an initial phase of an initial idea; an agenda for exploration rather than a blueprint.

Park reported that when she was actually in the field doing research, she wrote a second draft of the prospectus, and it was much stronger. The same advice was given for the writing stage: start writing early, and then be prepared to return to your drafts and make them stronger. 

In the same spirit, she warned not to separate research from writing; you need to process ideas promptly that arise from research, or the ideas dissipate. 

She also recommended the use of writing software, such as Scrivener, which facilitated writing in installments, articulating ideas while they were still fresh. 

The main point is to try and make some progress, no matter how little at a time. She closed by emphasizing once again that it is best to think of the dissertation as a series of sprints, and if you keep at it, you will finish.

Ben-Yehoyada strongly reinforced Park’s recommendations. He observed that there are very different skills involved in passing generals, where you more or less are asked to present what you have learned, versus the dissertation, where you have to create something new. 

He also noted that in the field of anthropology, many scholars write diaries or keep a field journal, so writing is an ongoing endeavor, and the dissertation is largely a process of organizing what you are writing. 

He strongly emphasized that the dissertation undergoes many changes before it is finished, and even afterwards, stating that you can have even seven or nine versions. He particularly recommended circulating dissertation pages and getting feedback, which automatically entails revision. 

Now, as a postdoctoral fellow, he has set himself the task of writing his dissertation as a book, which it did not resemble at the beginning of the year, he says. In the end, he came to think of the dissertation as a job to get over with, on the path to writing a book. 

A Reminder

Scholarly Pursuits: A Guide to Professional Development During the Graduate Years is available online and in paper at the Smith Campus Center 350.
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