Dissertation Writing Obstacles: Proposal

I know, I know, do we really need yet another post about the dissertation writing process?! Much has already been written about writing and the interwebs are filled with various resources for students struggling with the writing process. While many of the struggles we face as students are similar (and believe me, the struggle is real!), people work in different ways and a lot of what I read and what people advised didn’t resonate with me. So I thought I would talk about my personal experience in case someone else out there finds it helpful. And besides, reading about writing basically counts as work, right?

Obstacles:

  • Fear & Anxiety – For many of us the dissertation is one of, if not the, most important thing that we produce during our time in grad school. It’s the culmination of years of work, research, knowledge gathering, synthesis, and thinking. It’s our capstone and it’s supposed to demonstrate “PhD level thinking” and analysis. Also for many of us, we hope to publish or use our work as a foundation for our future careers. Talk about a lot of pressure! For me, much of the fear centered on wanting to design well thought out research projects and produce “PhD-worthy” writing. Anxiety can manifest itself in different ways throughout the process. For example, at the outset it translated into wanting to do too much (see bullet number #2) and ruminating to the point where it seemed almost impossible (see bullet #4). And as more time passed and I become more delayed (see bullet #3), I began to fear that since I had been working on the proposal for so darn long, my supervisor would be expecting a truly magnificent piece of work (cue the vicious cycle). All this anxiety and fear got to the point where it was very difficult to sit down and write.
    • Helpful thing #1: Start small. Hand in a shitty draft, hand in an incomplete draft (just one section), just hand something in. Handing in something (anything!) is better than trying to produce something stellar right off the bat. Trust me, you have rounds and rounds of revisions before you get to the proposal stage, and it’s where you end up that counts. No one gets it right the first time – this is why we have supervisors and readers. Trust them to guide you in the right direction and believe me, once you hand in the initial draft and they don’t disown you – the worst is over. It is also WAY easier to write once you’ve started.
    • Helpful thing #2: Supervisors were once students too. It is very likely that they understand what you’re going through and it can be helpful to talk. Even if the strategies that they suggest aren’t up your alley, sharing your struggles can take some of the pressure off and clear the air. Either way, it can’t hurt.
    • Helpful thing #3: The dissertation as a whole is a big, gigantic undertaking and thinking about it as a whole can be overwhelming. Break it down into small, manageable chunks. It’s a lot less intimidating when the task ahead is “read 3 articles” rather than “finish lit review”.
  • Wanting to do too much – Friends, our research will never be perfect. There is no perfect study and no matter how hard we try, there will always be things that make us cringe or that we wish we could do differently. With each study I read, I found myself including more and more extraneous variables because they all seemed so important.
    • Helpful thing #4: Focus! Keep your central research question or aim (what do you want to find out/accomplish with your work?) in mind and don’t get sidetracked. Focus on designing a project that will answer your question and forget the rest. As you remove variables, make a list of studies you would like to do in the future or areas worth exploring, and include these in your future directions/discussion later on.
  • Time management/Other responsibilities – Lack of firm deadlines can allow us to become lax with our time and lose that sense of urgency. Deadlines become things that you wave at placidly as they drift by. It’s easy to let other things fill your time, especially if they seem “urgent” in comparison to the proposal, which can almost seem unimportant since there’s so much flexibility. If you’re anything like me, this can also lead you to overestimate the amount of time you have to take on other projects and responsibilities. This was a big one since extracurriculars are a big part of academic life and every new thing can seem like a crucial experience that you don’t want to miss out on.
    • Helpful thing #5: Treat your writing as if it’s your work (because it is!). Physically plan out your work days and tasks. I’ve seen two approaches to this one and I’ve fluctuated between both depending on what has been working. (i) Make a list of what you need to accomplish each day. And then do it. Don’t stop until you do (this is why small, reasonable goals are best). AND, keeping self-care in mind, stop once you accomplish what you needed to for the day. (ii) Schedule time instead of tasks. Have an idea what you need to do and schedule set hours to work, but be flexible with how you spend your time within those hours as long as you’re sitting at the computer and doing something work related. Remember to schedule breaks.
    • Helpful thing #6: It’s very easy to say yes to people since you make your own schedule. Quit as many things as you can and learn to say no! This is a tough one, I know. Let go of the side projects and committee work, or at the very least, be strategic about it. Ask yourself, is this a course I can take after I graduate? Is this going to provide me with skills or experience I don’t already have? If you feel like the cause is worthwhile or the organization is really in a jam, consider recommending someone in your place or forward it to your network.
    • Helpful thing #7: Related to this, it may be hard for others to understand why you can’t come out or participate in something because what we do may not seem like “real work”. Having conversations around boundaries (e.g., when it’s ok to interrupt and when it’s not) and reinforcing the fact that writing is work can go a long way to helping people understand and be supportive, and can take some of the pressure off.
  • Lack of routine – Without classes and other students, it’s easy to for the days to get away from you.
    • Helpful thing #8: Psychologically, having a dedicated spot for writing – complete with all the little things you need to work (e.g., a white board to quickly jot down notes) – can cue you that it’s time to work when you enter that space.
    • Helpful thing #9: Figure out what time (or times) of day you work best and schedule blocks of time around this. For me, this is often first thing in the morning and late in the evening (my theory is that I’m just too tired to be enchanted, and therefore distracted, by the world at these times). Come up with routines that will help you work during these times, such as pre-planning/making breakfast (cue the overnight oats) the night before in order to get the computer as soon as possible in order to minimize distractions.
  • Too much routine – Routines are great but sitting in the same place, looking at the same screen, drinking what feels like the same coffee can get a bit wearying.
    • Helpful thing #10: Shake up your routine to stave off boredom. The changes can be small, like putting on some ambient noise (e.g., the Harry Potter common rooms), or large, like working at a coffee shop or a library for a few days with a friend. Just be sure that this doesn’t cross the line into another form of procrastination.
  • Loss of motivation – I feel like I probably don’t have to explain this one.
    • Helpful thing #11: On those days when the end is so far afield that you think it’ll never come – remember why you’re here. For me, connecting to the reasons why the work is important and how it can be used to help people was (and is) an invaluable tool and source of motivation. This often took the form of listening to people share their stories – the ways in which sexual violence, and in particular the sharing of sexual images without consent, had impacted their lives, their families and friends, and their communities. If your work is more abstract, think back to when you first started this process and connect with your own reasons for continuing your studies/pursuing a particular line of work.

Good luck out there! You can do it!!!

P.S. I titled this post “Dissertation Writing Obstacles: Proposal” since there very well might be another post down the road about other obstacles at other stages (hahaha… I hope not).

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