Last week, Aimée wrote an important post about graduate education and the tacit knowledge that is required to achieve success in the PhD. She wrote:
“Graduate education is a complex social universe with a lot of moving parts, and the heavy and numerous explicit obligations disguise the substantial amount of tacit knowledge and cultural competence required to succeed at it. We know the what of grad school: coursework, TAs and independent teaching, area exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation, and some professional activities like publishing and conference-going. Applying for grants. Applying for jobs. But the how and sometimes even the why is mystifying.”
Aimée’s post asked readers to join the conversation and make the implicit explicit using the #tacitphd hashtag, and several people took to Twitter to comment, in addition to commenting on her post. Both the tweets and comments are great, ranging from simple protocol, to deeper discussions on how to think about your thesis proposal, exams, and work/life balance. You can see the Storify here:
As several people pointed out, the how of the dissertation-writing process is one of the more difficult things to understand. Part of this is a normal not-knowing, in the sense that you can’t really understand how to do something like write your own original work until you start to do it. But part of this knowledge is, for whatever reason, little taught and infrequently discussed. I had furtive conversations about writing the dissertation with newly-minted PhDs, and occasionally my colleagues, and then, happily, I took a grad course from the Writing Studies department, which helped me think and write about the writing process, and pointed me to some great resources (How to Write A Lot is one of those essential books.)
This summer, coincidentally, I’ve spent nearly all my time (aside from a few conferences/courses) writing writing writing writing the dissertation. And, as is normal, the Writing has been Hard. It is hard to piece together hundreds of different historical, literary and theoretical sources, and build an argument based on the evidence you discover. It is hard to shift your argument when it doesn’t seem to match what you thought when you first read the source two years previously. It is hard to revisit an author you read in your first graduate degree, and rethink what you thought then. It is difficult to make sure all the ideas you have cohere, and that they flow logically over hundreds of pages. It is hard to know where a section of writing should go: this chapter, the next, the introduction? It is also very hard to pass on that writing for someone else to read, especially when you feel it still has some major problems to be worked out.
There are, of course, the easy writing weeks, where the words seemed to fly out of your head and onto the page, where every morning you get a thrill opening up the computer, because you know exactly what you want to say next. These weeks are amazing, and exciting, and will make you remember why you started this PhD in the first place.
But the easy parts of dissertation-writing are not necessarily the parts that need the implicit made explicit. So, with that in mind, I’m offering one bit of advice with regards to dissertation writing, probably what I’ve found to be the most difficult: letting it go (when it’s not perfect).
One of the things we tend to think about the dissertation is that is has to be perfect. And, it seems, the longer we take working on something, the better it must be. Contrary to what you may think, however, the Dissertation is not the final product, the book ready-to-be-published. The dissertation-as-publishable-book-model is not a particularly useful one. Instead, it’s better to think of the dissertation as a first draft, something to return to later, a hoop to jump through to finish the degree. And get in the practice of being okay with your draft-y work being seen by many before it is as “perfect” as you think it needs to be.
So, how do you get in the practice of letting go of your writing?
1. Join a writing group: meet up with a couple of colleagues/friends to exchange draft-y writing. If you don’t have a writing group, ask someone in your PhD cohort if she would be interested in exchanging her work with yours and commenting on it. One of the best experiences I’ve had in the PhD was exchanging writing with a friend while we worked together to write papers for a workshop. It helped keep me on track for the workshop, months in advance.
2. Send your stuff to your supervisor before you think it is “perfect”: If you’re anything like me, you would rather be stuck for weeks trying to fix a problem section of writing rather than sending it to your supervisor for comments when it is a mess. Don’t be like me. You will waste days, or perhaps even weeks, of your life. If your supervisor is willing to look at draft-y work (and most are, or should be), send it away. Don’t tinker for ages trying to make something perfect when what it really needs is another set of eyes, and some sage advice.
3. Trust your supervisor when she says it is ready to go to your committee: If your supervisor says it is ready to go, it is ready to go. Don’t wait for days to press send on that chapter. Your committee will thank you for giving them the extra time to read it, and your time to completion will be reduced.
How have you learned to let go of your writing? Do you have other dissertation-writing advice? Leave a comment, or add to the Twitter hashtag #tacitphd.
2 thoughts on “#tacitphd: On Letting it Go (when it’s not perfect)”
From my own experience as a student, and from having watched, now, many grad students as a supervisor, I think that 2 is a crucial piece of advice. As a student I spent a long time on the “it's not good enough, I'll take some time to make it better … oh no, maybe it's better, but now it's not good enough for something that is so late!” treadmill. And one of the skills I'm always trying to work on developing as a supervisor is being able to convince students to send me stuff to read (a) before they waste months in the trough of “it's getting different but it's not getting better” and (b) it's early enough to steer them away from avoidable dead ends or from taking on avoidable battles.
Relatedly, it's important to develop a good work plan with your supervisor, and a good work plan will break the task of composing the damned thesis into many smaller chunks, with opportunities for lower-stakes feedback. It's easier to fix the lathing if it doesn't have several layers of plaster over the top. For the student, getting smaller amounts of more specific feedback is going to be more productive than what she'd get after putting the supervisor in a position to have to ask “where do I start?” when confronted with something months of work have been invested in (where a bad idea might be basic to everything else you've done, for instance).
Great points! Sadly, I think too many students fall into this trap. I know I did and that's in spite of having a great supervisor who sees my work at all the stages.
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