Successful Dissertations

As I stated in my teaching philosophy, “the writing stage of my dissertation was an extraordinarily enjoyable and fulfilling experience. Admittedly there were moments of frustration, but in all, I thrived on the challenge and looked forward to working on it each day.” So taking that as a guide, I offer these thoughts for potentiating a successful dissertation. (Shoutout to Bill Worden and Jean-Luc Robin for paying it forward to me years ago)

Most graduate students will have an author, oeuvre, or period of keener interest, but that alone is not enough to complete the dissertation trajectory in a direct line. Defining the thesis’s thesis beings with asking questions. But all questions are not alike. Ask finite questions: who? what? when? where? why? how?. Perhaps also, to what extent? There is almost no room for compound questions like what are the x and the y of…. Good questions will have a fairly clear answer and more questions will flow from those answers. Sometimes this leads to a derivative postulate-question like, given that X is known to be central to the text, what are …?. My inquiry was framed:

  • Popol Vuh recounts the mytho-historical traditions of the Quiché Maya and it comes to the modern day reader via the seventeenth-century priest Francisco Ximénez of the order of Santo Domingo. Though Father Ximénez is appreciated for his act of conservation, little critical attention has been given to his role in the process. The oversight is particularly disconcerting given the opening statement of his prologue: “Esta mi obra, y trabaxo discurro q’ avra muchos q’ la tengan por la mas futil y vana de las q’ he trabaxado, asi lo pensaran muchos; y yo lo discurro al contrario, porq’ entiendo ser la mas util, y neçesaria.” My investigation is founded on the question, Why does Father Ximénez believe this to be his most important, his “most useful and necessary” work?

An easier dissertation begins with selecting one question whose answer will guide the inquiry and signal the end of the dissertation objective. The question must be tightly defined. Instead of vaguenesses like “what are the influences that shape Lorca’s authorial voice,” ask “what is the greatest influence on Lorca as manifest in Bodas de sangre?” Trying to identify all influences is impossible, provokes drift, and invites dissent. In pursuing the “greatest influence as manifest” it is possible to dismiss a vast array of minor statements, footnotes, and rabbit trails. It makes for a solid citable source for subsequent scholars. It helps to state alternate questions in the opening paragraph of the proposal and introduction and then explain why your one question is distinct and worthy of specific exploration.

Once the inquiry is adequately framed, it is time to begin writing—immediately! No one could ever research everything that is written about a given subject, but if the underlying question is adequately crafted, no amount of research will answer the question. A tight question negates any “requirement” to be an omniscient writer. A dissertation is necessarily an investigation never before undertaken so ti is sufficient to be a subject-matter expert. Moreover, as the one who seeks to answer that unanswered question, it is important to develop the academic legs of one who is an authority in her own right, not the student proving to the world that he did his homework. The dissertation does not have to write linearly. Every aspirant should probably have all chapters in development from the start and over the course of time all the chapters will fill themselves in. It then falls to the newest expert to stitch them all together.

Summer is the dissertation writer’s best friend, particularly if the proposal can be defended in late spring. I submitted my proposal at the end of January, revised in February/March, defended in April, and sstarted actually writing in May. Momentum builds and carries so that one will have the drive and enthusiasm to plow through the busy fall semester without neglecting the dissertation. I completed my dissertation in December and defended the following January. To be very candid, I maxed out my student loans and wrote a letter to family setting forth my survival expenses for the summer. Three family members divided the budget among themselves and delivered. Writing a dissertation is no time to pinch pennies. I spent around $1,000 just at Staples that year. Dozens of 3-inch binders, cases and cases of paper, high-capacity stapler, high-capacity hole-punch, toner and ink, cork board, white board, dry-erase markers. I also ate many pounds of tuna (my go-to body-brain fuel) that year.

Just as life matters, mind also matters. A sleepy or fatigued mind is not conducive to generating scholarship. Dissertation writing is equally prone to distress as it is to exuberance. There is something to be said for pressing through adversity, but there is room for medical assistance. Over-the-counter sleep aids containing diphenhydramine are linked to agre-related cognitive decline. There are various therapeutic prescription medications available (Sonata, Lunesta) which are absolutely not habitforming. Th thing about such medications is that they will be of no use after a clinic visit two weeks later.