by Dr. Shannon Puechner, Minnetonka Writing Center Co-Director
My shoulders started to shudder, my breath caught in my throat and my eyes started to water. I collapsed on the couch sobbing and blubbering incomprehensibly… again. My spouse, Nic, and my middle-school-aged son, Braeden, rushed to my side, sat with me on the couch saying it will be okay. You can do this. In the final months of dissertation writing, when I was writing for literally 11 hours a day, this scene repeated a few times a week. We burned through boxes of kleenexes like nobody’s business.
When I started my Ph.D. program in literacy education at the University of Minnesota, I figured I was already a great writer, and that writing a dissertation would be just a more complex and much longer version of the same five-paragraph-essay type-writing I’d been doing since high school. This was definitely not the case.
Dissertations vary depending on the field of study, but they always involve doing “original research” meaning you have to ask a question no one else has asked, and conduct some kind of study to answer it. I did an ethnographic study which meant I observed a teacher in his class for a year, taking notes and audio-recording what I observed. This ended up being MUCH harder than I thought. It was really exhausting to paying attention to every little thing that happened in the class when I had already passed 9th grade English a 20 years ago.
It also produces sooooo muuuuuch data. Hundreds of pages of notes, hundreds of hours of tape. And when it’s time to write…. I had to re-read and re-listen to all of it, somehow deciding what tiny bits of it I want to write about. It was really really hard to narrow my topic with so much data to choose from. You sort of fall in love with your data and get really attached to all the hard work you’ve done, not wanting to leave anything out.
Once I was finished conducting research I had to write the actual dissertation. The weirdest and most difficult part was the lack of direction and structure in the dissertation process. There is no class, no teacher, it’s completely independent work. It was really weird to have no assignment, no rubric, no rules, no deadlines – it was all up to me – I could do basically anything I wanted.
Even more strange, although a dissertation is the biggest, baddest, hardest piece of writing you might ever do, it’s not really expected to be very good! Everyone knows a dissertation is the first time you’ve ever done writing like this, and maybe the first time you’ve ever done original research. In fact a dissertation is pass/fail! And in reality I don’t think anyone “fails,” if you managed to get it “finished” enough, and “good” enough, you pass. If it’s not good enough yet, you keep trying.
It took me five years, from proposing the project, to conducting the research, to writing the actual document and finishing my dissertation. On August 30th, 2018 I finally emailed my advisors the 293 page, 72,958 word document.
Honestly, I hated it. I was embarrassed and thought it was surely the worst thing ever, but no time to have too many feelings about it because on September 13 at 10am, I had to “defend” the dissertation which is also called the oral exam.
It isn’t really a test though. Your advisor won’t let you get to this part if it isn’t already good enough to pass. So really, it was just 40 minute presentation to friends and family, and then another 40 minutes of chatting with my 4 advisors who had (theoretically) read the dissertation. All of my practice sessions were horrible, though. I was stuttering, skipping important stuff and spending too long on unimportant things. Even the night before it was pretty bad. But the morning of my defense I woke up confident. When I started my defense it was really easy. I found I knew what to say, I was smiling, I didn’t even get sweaty hands or feel like my throat was closing up and my heart was pounding. It went really well. During my “exam,” my committee said really nice things and made me feel really great about my work. When it was all over they said, “Congratulations, Dr. Puechner!” and it felt absolutely fantastic. Somehow, even though I hated my dissertation just weeks before, I now really like it and I feel proud.
Since this is the Writing Center blog I do want to share a few things I learned about writing along the way.
- Parking Downhill: Because it was such a big project it (obviously) couldn’t be finished in one sitting. This meant it was easy to “lose my place” and have to spend a bunch of time trying to remind myself what to do next. A teacher at the UMN Writing Center taught me about “parking downhill.” This means at the end of a work session, before you leave your desk, you write yourself a quick note about what you did that day and, most importantly, what you will do next when you sit down. This was a LIFESAVER.
- The importance of having an audience: Because I could do basically whatever I want, and because I had about 100 times more ideas than I could possibly fit in my dissertation, sometimes it was hard to write anything coherent. I would blabber on with no clear point. Plus my voice was weird and artificial. But when I knew someone was going to read it, I could write like I was talking to them and it was so much easier.
- GET FEEDBACK! I used the UMN writing center almost weekly. It REALLY helped to talk about an actual human about what I was doing rather than keeping it all inside my head never knowing if I was making sense. I also met up with friends to read each other’s work as often as I could. I definitely couldn’t have finished it without these helps!
- Write behind yourself: I don’t remember where I got this advice, but it really helped. I found that whenever I wrote something I thought it was terrible because it never captured what I was thinking. But when you’re writing about really complex stuff, you can’t really write about what you’re thinking – it’s not fully cooked yet! You can’t produced “finished” writing unless you write about what you’ve “finished” thinking!