Dissertation Reflections


As some of you know, I recently completed my dissertation. It took me four and a half years from admission to completion, though I will formally graduate this May. This was, apparently, a kind of record in our department.

I’d like to reflect a bit about the experience and hear from you about yours.


The dissertation writing process took me about 14 months. The “research” phase was ongoing; not only during the writing but long before writing all of the research I had been doing for classes or out of personal interest was leading me toward my thesis and the strategy for formulating it.

I was told that in, in humanities, in an ideal world, you research for (about) a year and write for (about) a year. So in two years you can have your dissertation done. I was also told, however, that it’s more important that it be done than that it be perfect.


The two years after since my daughter was born (Dec 27, 2014 - Dec 2016) were busier than ever in my life before. I dealt with some serious anxiety.

Anxiety can cripple productivity of course, but it can also stifle procrastination.

Unexpectedly, anxiety is a great motivator to get to work and stay on task. I’ve also come to suspect that I have low-level ADD, which comes with some benefits: hyperattentiveness. When I sat down to write, I wrote a lot and wrote for awhile.

Since I wrote 1-page a day for 14 months, I ended up with well over 400 pages of notes.


Dissertating is notoriously solitary work. You are the protagonist and the antagonist. Man versus wild.

However, at some point, suddenly, your primary task is to get a committee together to read and criticize your dissertation. They were all very cooperative, but it was a massive change of pace to try and coordinate the schedules of five busy professionals.

For me, one committee member had to leave because they were not available in the Fall, when I needed to defend. Another committee member had to leave to take a job near his fiance. That left two vacancies that needed filling on short notice. Thankfully, three generous folks stepped up to the plate and agreed to serve last minute – though only two were needed.

Job Applications

Hardly before the ink is dried, one must begin explaining one’s research to a broader audience. This is the “research statement” that affixes to many job applications.

After spending a year (or many years) disciplining oneself to communicate in language that is specific, nuanced, careful, clear, and precisely technical, one must immediately discipline oneself to speak in language that is clear, easy, forceful, and broadly accessible.

Good luck with that.


The defense was inevitably a bit nerve wracking. There are good resources online to help you prepare, in addition to informative coaching from recent graduates of your program.

People rarely “fail” – the goal is not just to pass but to pass well.

I wrote some notes, reminders, and re-read portions of my dissertation (if I don’t have it pretty well memorized now, I never will!) and went into the defense confident.

It last about 2 hours, and I thought it was a roaring good time.

Your reflections

How did your dissertation writing go? How did you keep focus? What other trials did you face with your committee and/or defense?