Thursday, April 10, 2008

More glittering gems from my outbox: finishing the dissertation

I don't update this thing very often, but I'm on e-mail all the time, and the profound wisdom and sparkling wit just comes jetting out of me like one of those lava fountains in Iceland. So I'm going geothermal here.

A recent correspondent asked me about dissertation stuff, and this is part of my response:


....The most honest and useful advice I ever heard about dissertations came from Darren. I wrote to ask him what finishing was really like (this was when I was still a few months out). Tragically I've lost his original reply, but the gist was, "Eventually you will realize that you can't finish by treating the dissertation like a day job. It is a godforsaken monster that will continue to ruin your life until finally you've had enough and you just decide to kill it. After that, you may put in impossible hours and push yourself right to your limits, but you will finish. It's the only way I know to do it." [Darren, if you have the original thing you sent, please feel free to resend it or post it as a comment. UPDATE: Darren just posted it in a comment, below, and as I suspected it's much better than my paraphrase.]

That was certainly true in my case. The only thing that finally made me face finishing was my committee's insistence that I needed to get it done that semester. And even then I spent the first half of the spring of 2007 treating the diss. like a day job. It wasn't really until the final month and a half that I went into overdrive, literally staying up past my bedtime every night and gradually letting every other concern in my life slide. It sucked, bigtime. And after I filed I didn't look at the diss. at all for about three months. But I did get it done and filed.

It might be possible to just decide, "Okay, I'm going to finish my dissertation now," no matter where in the process you are, but I doubt it and I wouldn't recommend it even if it is possible. I think it's more like trying to climb Everest when there's a storm coming. There is some point up the side of the mountain when you are close enough to the summit to make a dash for it. There's no point in starting the dash until you're that close; otherwise you'll just exhaust yourself and possibly die of exposure. So for now just keep grinding away, a little here and a little there, until you are (a) sick to death of it and (b) close enough to make a run on the summit.

I read some books on writing when I was trying to write my diss--possibly more displacement activity--but none of them were worth a damn. The book that I wish I'd had then but only discovered recently is Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, which I cannot recommend highly enough. It's shelved in the Self-Help section at the bookstore, which strikes me as perverse. It's not really that. It's more like a personal philosophy on how to think about your work and all the things that keep you from getting it done....


I do recommend The War of Art, to everyone. Jarrod put me onto it. It's a short read, but pithy, and decidedly non-lame. I put it up there with Paul Graham's essays in terms of great writing about how to do useful stuff in the real world.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just ordered a copy of Pressfield's book; thanks for recommending it! It's definitely been a struggle working on my book and trying to motivate myself to do some other projects, so hopefully it will have a positive impact on my writing.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Darren Naish said...

Here's my text (edited for decency)...

Matt: Any words of wisdom? [on finishing the thesis]

Darren: Sadly, not really. As you might recall I went through a profound dark phase before killing the fucker. My only advice is something that is already familiar to you: you have to summon the power to WANT to kill it, and then GO GO GO, work all night to break its back, even if that means no sleep for a week. This is, literally, the >only< way I managed to finish it. Those few hours here and there just weren't enough. It might also help to plan some big celebration for when it's done: this is what we did, and it honestly did help. I had a whole day of pub-going, then a big dinner party, then a massive [... deleted ...]

5:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


It is a very nice and great post.But I think this is, literally, the >only< way I managed to finish it and those few hours here and there just weren't enough. I think it might also help to plan some big celebration for when it's done.

1:23 AM  

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