Ask anyone what Graduate School is about and the first thing they will probably tell you is that you have to write a thesis. In reality, we all know that Grad School is about a looooot of different things (some of which we had no idea about before we started our Grad School journey), but I think we would all agree that the main goal is to pop out that dissertation and leave a trace of ourselves and our contribution to the research community.
So, is it just me or are others also faced with the ironic situation that the one thing we should really be doing also happens to be the one thing we devote the least time to in our everyday PhD lives?
Of course, there are many steps to complete before even beginning to write the dissertation. First, you argue, you need to get all those other pesky requirements out of the way (depending on how your Department works) – coursework, Comps, the research proposal, etc. Then, if you’re in an experimental field, the next phase is devoted to obtaining Ethics, recruiting participants (or finding animals, growing cultures, whatever you’re into!) and testing – oh, so much testing. (By the way, have you ever tried to use your lab keys to open your front door at home? Testing can be draining.) You can’t POSSIBLY write during this period, right? And, after all, you need to have something to write ABOUT, don’t you? It’d be atrociously silly to start writing papers when you might have to re-think, re-analyze, re-organize and re-write it. And, needless to say, there are all those urgent interruptions along the way – the kinds with deadlines (conference abstracts, conference presentations, paper reviews), the kinds with heavy expectations (attending meetings, being involved in other work in the lab, participating/organizing departmental events), and the kinds with neither, but that we simply cannot live without (Facebook and various other procrastinatory activities).
While it is true that the everyday life of a PhD student is often filled with everything and anything but writing, it can be quite detrimental to go down this path without making a conscious effort to carve out some writing time early on in the PhD process. It’s true that the thesis marks the finish-line, but this doesn’t mean the actual writing process must take place during the final phase of the PhD. Once our actual research is underway, there’s a whole lot we could write about – and probably a whole lot that won’t have to be changed substantially – while we are collecting and analyzing data.
For one, the general introduction. The theory and main research questions will (hopefully) not change dramatically, even though we will have to add to it and tweak it – perhaps add another angle or research question – depending on our findings later on. The methods sections – no matter how we will decide to break up our work into separate papers and which journals we will choose to publish in, the methods section(s) could at the very least be written in bullet points as soon as we have our protocol for Ethics and our stimuli. Writing down specific hypotheses and predictions – even if in isolation, in list-form – is also extremely helpful before analyzing the data. It not only helps us think through what we expect to find when we begin to look at our results, but finding the words for these expectations will prove useful for writing up the results and discussion sections later on. There’s definitely plenty to write about – always. Even early on.
So, what’s the problem?
I think one main issue is the daunting nature of the task. I mean, “thesis” is a scary word. “Dissertation” is even more obscure and intimidating! But it really doesn’t have to be. If we break it up into chunks, especially over a longer period of time, it becomes more manageable. Also, it’s important to get totally rid of the idea that writing must be linear, perfect, comprehensive and final. To me, writing bullets and taking down notes from papers we read is ALSO a form of writing, and in many ways it’s absolutely critical to arrive at the final product. Writing is definitely not linear but more circular; we can write bits and pieces we are sure about, and move forward or go back as we please. There is no rule that writing begins at A and ends at Z! It is also unrealistic to expect our writing to be comprehensive from the start. It is normal to have holes in places that will need to be filled and adjusted later on. I often leave myself little comments in red, like “insert better transition here,” or “find more evidence for this”. The important thing is to get it out – to pull the ideas out from the depths of our minds, and to transform all these ideas into some words – not even the best words, for now. Making sure it all flows logically and clearly, in an eloquent style, can come as a later step.
Another issue is what a good friend of mine calls the “butt-to-chair problem”. Even if we HAD stuff to write about as we go along, it seems impossible to find time for writing with all the interruptions we face, doesn’t it? Before we know it, days and weeks roll by and we have been recopying the words “write intro” from one weekly to-do list to another since last summer. Yikes.
My attempt to solve this “butt-to-chair problem” is what I call my precious “Writing Wednesdays”. Since the beginning of November, I devote one day a week to reading and writing. I don’t do anything else. I don’t schedule participants or meetings. I avoid making social plans, unless they are after 7pm (which is the time when I usually stop working for supper). I started doing this religiously – silently at first, then eventually let my colleagues and supervisor know not to look for me on Wednesdays. The religiousness is critical here – if you break the flow even once, it will be tough to get back on track.
I stay home on Wednesdays, because I feel like I write best from home. I wake up early, do some warm-up tasks (like reminding myself of what I did last time, or returning emails) until my brain comes online. And then I devote the day to writing, but my definition of writing is a bit broader than the traditional sense of the word: I accept writing in bullets, outlining, writing notes on papers I read in order to draw connections with my own findings, writing bits of one section and then moving onto another. As long as I read and write and think through SOMETHING that advances my thesis. I begin the day with a general idea of what I want to accomplish by the end of it. For some, it helps to set a concrete goal, in terms of number of words/pages, or a particular section. The important thing, though, is not to set unrealistic standards for the day, so that you won’t be disappointed, and you won’t begin to dread your Writing days.
To motivate you to carve out your own writing time, I’ll tell you that since the start of November, I’ve written the first draft of my general introduction, outlined 2 papers (with filled-in bullet points for the Methods sections), summarized my preliminary results for one experiment, and I’ve thought-through my predictions for two other experiments (by comparing my study with similar studies that are already published). Doing nothing but reading, outlining and writing for one full day a week has allowed me to stay organized, to stay on top of the relevant studies I should be citing in my own work and, most importantly, it has lessened the feelings of overwhelmedness associated with the words “writing my thesis”.
Try it, and let me know if it works for you! And remember to stay positive, and give yourself a bit of time for breaks…like writing blog posts 😉 Hey, at least it’s still writing…