Some humble suggestions on writing a dissertation . . . (some practical advice)

As most of you know, I just completed the manuscript for my dissertation a few days ago, and will defend this May (see HERE).  Most of you also know that I did this in a little under 1 yr from the time I took my comprehensive Ph.D. exams.  At Baylor, at least (and I would assume elsewhere?) 4 yrs is pretty aggressive and  not the standard.  It has been a very rewarding and encouraging process, but I wanted to demystify it a bit and offer some of my humble suggestions that may be helpful to those who are or will someday write a dissertation:

1. Most important: drag your hook.  Dr. Charles Talbert, NT prof at Baylor, is the one to whom I must credit this phrase.  By it he means early in your Ph.D. coursework begin to carve out your topic, and inasmuch as you can, write about or toward it in your various papers you write for your many seminars.  They will not always be entirely germane, but it gets you deep into a topic.  For instance, two papers that I wrote (and one which I published) have made their way–with varying degrees of change and expansion–into my dissertation.  That was of tremendous help.  The expansions, then, are not too difficult because you already have a solid basis for what you are arguing.  By dragging your hook, you come out of comprehensive exams knowing exactly what you will be writing on, which leads me to . . .

2. Assuming you have to submit a proposal and then a prospectus for formal approval before you begin your dissertation writing, dragging your hook will be invaluable.  I have known many folk who have ended up waiting a year or longer because they don’t have their topic nailed down.  This isn’t a criticism by any means; some very fine dissertations will no doubt arise from those who haven’t dragged their hooks!  But this approach ultimately helps out with time and getting a jump on things.  I took my comps the end of April/first week in May last year.  By June I had my proposal approved, and by July my prospectus was written and formally approved at the August meeting.  I was already writing chapter one prior to that.  So you can see, dragging your hook has  a great number of advantages.

3. As to writing itself, I would offer the following advice, some of which may seem obvious, but will be palpably more difficult to handle when you are actually writing:

      a) The dissertation is not your magnum opus, despite how much you want it to be.  At the same time, do take it quite seriously, and make a contribution to the field.  It will only make that which comes after much easier.

       b) Know what times you write best, and block that time out for only writing.  I would advise also against writing in a place that you associate with other things.  I found writing in my office at Baylor very difficult, but if I wrote in my library carrel it was a breeze.  No distractions. 

       c) Write something, even if just  a little bit, every day.  Admittedly, I did not do this, but it is an ideal for which one should strive. 

       d) If you become stuck on a particular topic or idea, just try to get the basics down.  There is always editing later, and your advisor will hopefully be helpful in allowing you to bounce ideas off her/him.  But don’t let writer’s block get the best of you.  Even if it is just an outline or brainstorming in the middle of the chapter, get it down.

       e) Keep a pen and paper next to your bed at night.  Odd sounding, right?  I can’t tell you how many times I have had an idea as I’m falling asleep, or in the middle of the night, and been too lazy to get up and document it.  This way you don’t lose the idea, and you don’t have to get out of bed!

       f) Know that there will ALWAYS be something more you could cite or discuss.  You will NOT be able to cite everything, nor should you unless your dissertation is an annotated bibliography (yikes!).  Pick out and isolate the most important and germane works and articles and focus on them (that said, my bibliography is 20 pages–it could easily be 100!!–but one needs to be mindful and selective of what is relevant and warrants comment).  This point I think is most important in the history of research part of chapter one.  An example: I could very easily have had a section dealing with Pentateuchal composition, various source and tradition-history models, etc.  I don’t.  It isn’t what I am doing.  Similarly, I could have had massive sections on how the Jacob cycle has been interpreted within the past 50-100 years of scholarship.  I don’t.  My focus is tight, and intentionally so.  I treat only those materials that look at the issue of divine deception in Genesis.  Being tight and focused will help keep you sane.

4. Schedule regular meetings, or have regular access to your advisor.  S/he will be invaluable in trying out ideas and, if they know the field well (which presumably they do if they are directing your dissertation) these discussions will be all the more rewarding.

5. Write the entire piece from the outset as much as you can as a book, not a dissertation.  My second reader, James Nogalski, has been very helpful in this regard.  Chris Heard has also made this suggestion to me.  This means different things to different people, but my sense is that if you pick up any sound volume from the LHB/OTS series, or SBLDS, or other series that publish dissertations or revised dissetations, observe what they have done, and try to shape your work like that.  Hopefully I have done this and publishing the piece will not be too brutal!

7. Lastly, and this may be the biggest “duh” on the entire list: truly have a passion and love for your topic.  You will be spending A LOT of time on it.  Be certain it is something about which you are passionate, because if it is not then the dissertation can quickly become something that you hate doing.  Another anecdote: regular readers of this blog know well my passion for the Jacob cycle.  I also genuinely and staunchly believe I have made a significant contribution to the field, and done something that no others have done.  Those two items in tandem–a love for my topic and the feeling I am making a contribution and doing something of consequence–has been a great motivator for me.  I can honestly say, with the manuscript done, that I look forward to continuing to work in the Jacob cycle and expand upon what I have done (perhaps by looking at later Jewish interpretations of the Jacob cycle for how they negotiate the idea of deception; in many instances it seems that they explicitly shift the focus from Jacob to God, which supports my conclusions in tremendous ways). 

Others who have/are writing dissertations, what have you found helpful, encouraging, motivating, or necessary?


8 thoughts on “Some humble suggestions on writing a dissertation . . . (some practical advice)

  1. Rick Wadholm Jr says:

    While I have not begun PhD studies yet (hopefully in two years I will be accepted and beginning), I just submitted my Master’s thesis proposal this last week. Its no dissertation…only a minimum 130 pages…but it will consume the next year (as it has consumed significant portions already of this year and the year before). I appreciate the advice, both for future studies…I’ve already mentioned my dissertation proposal to the professor I am applying for Ph.D. studies under…and for my Master’s thesis.

  2. CJ Williams says:

    Hi there. I’m glad I stumbled on your blog! I too am in the final stages of my Ph.D. dissertation at the Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University (formerly Baltimore Hebrew University). I’m writing on the origins of David’s Mighty Men as reflected in 2Sam 23 and 1Chron 11. You give some good advice regarding dissertation writing…most of which I learned the hard way! I’m currently Prof. of OT studies at Reformed Presbyterian Seminary in Pittsburgh, and share your obvious love of the Hebrew Scriptures. I just wanted to say good luck with your defense. I’ll be visiting here in the future. I’ve also recently started a blog so come by and visit sometime. Take care!

  3. Cherry says:

    I’m glad that I came across your blog. The point that your are making here, makes complete sense to me now as I’m writing my Master’s thesis and I have done few things opposite, that are giving me hard time now. I’m surely going to apply the tips provided by you in my future studies (PhD).
    I’m into 3.5years of masters research in materials engg and still struggling to get thesis done. My advisor is very demanding and she barely finds any time to spare ideas or check reports, so that kind of messes up the situation. I have done significant amount of research till now and I would also like to PhD in the same project .. so that I could do further research on this project. But as it has already been 3.5 years into masters I would like to be done with PhD in 2 years from now, which could be possible as I can adopt the continuation of my current project. Well, I’m stuck at deciding whether defend with my thesis now (it will take 2 months more) and then start a PhD, or
    2. just consider my masters a non-thesis and start PhD where I can put my masters research all together including PhD research in one dissertation.

    Do you think, taking option 2. will matter in terms of career? Will it still be counted as research experience of 5years at academia.
    Do you suggest to take option 2?
    Cos, I’m kind of getting a sense that option 1. will take longer for PhD. I’m also concerned career wise. As, I would like to do research in industrial or companies and not academia.

    Thank you.

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