How to Write Your Dissertation

Remembering to Stay Human and Stay Sane

I recently had a former student approach me for advice about applying to doctoral programs in the humanities. What follows is an expansion of that advice (apart from warning about the job market) for a general audience. If you come to me, asking about grad school, these are the core essentials of what I would say. This is what you need to know up front.

Doctoral studies will instigate a personal crisis. This is inevitable. This is especially true of the writing of your dissertation. Nearly half of all doctoral students in the humanities never complete their degrees and the dissertation is the usual reason why. Only rarely would coursework pose a hurdle because, frankly, courses are what you’re good at; otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Hopefully you have already overcome a significant personal crisis. It is not that I hope you have suffered; but we must all face our own struggles and my hope is that you have already developed the habits necessary to overcome one crisis. If not, the dissertation will be a crisis indeed.

You must face the austere horror of the blank page. You must sit down and create something from nothing; or, at least, you must sit down and fashion something functional and whole from a mass of raw material.

Yes, you must sit down and write. But in order to do so without losing perspective, burning out, and/or freezing in the paralysis that perfectionism can induce, you must achieve a certain balanced discipline.

The same resources that you would need to guide you out of depression, addiction, or an existential crisis are those that you will need to get you through the dissertation. In fact, it may be best to think of the dissertation process itself as a mental illness, an addiction, or an existential crisis. You need to sleep, have fun, exercise, enjoy time with friends, eat well, go outside, and find a hobby. In short, you need to do the sorts of things that happy, whole human beings do. And, yes, you need to research and write in the midst of that; but do not forget to be human.

You’re still figuring out who you are. That’s what your 20s are for. (If you’re older, in terms of self-knowledge you likely have an advantage.) Your dissertation will help you find out who you are and who you are not. Maybe you are a historian, a literary critic, or a theologian. If you are not one yet, maybe you can become one. Or maybe not. You may not be who you think you are. You may end up discarding some old version of yourself in the process.

The process of developing original research should shape you into the person you seek to be. Regardless, doctoral work in the humanities promises to reveal and define who you are as a human, for better or for worse, with abundant growing pains along the way.

P.S. The job market is terrible. Please do not consider further study of the humanities primarily for reasons other than the pursuit of knowledge. As a career path, doctoral studies in the humanities resemble a path off the edge of a cliff. Do not mistake the survival of some for an encouragement to jump. See this helpful infographic for data.

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