Dissertation Diary: Lessons Learned Thus Far

Wow. I thought I couldn’t get much worse at keeping this blog up to date, but it looks like I’ve proven myself wrong. I do hope that my oh-so-strong readership is not disappointed.

These past few months have been a whirlwind: I’ve attended lecture after lecture (and wine reception after wine reception); I was working full-time at what may have been the best internship ever; I took a week off from real life to go on holiday to a country I didn’t know existed before I went. Now I’m back to making my dissertation a priority.

Which explains why I am currently sitting in the library, writing this post to procrastinate.

By now, I’ve been working on my dissertation for a solid three months and a bit. In this time, I’ve come to realize a few things, which I have decided to share on this blog.

So here you go. Leah’s five tips for writing a killer dissertation.

1. Reach out to your connections. Don’t have connections? Make some.

Don’t be afraid to get in touch with people if you have questions you think they can answer. Even if you’ve never met them before – a quick email or tweet won’t hurt, so long as what you’re asking is actually relevant to the person you’re contacting. Don’t go wasting anyone’s time with stupid questions. And yes, there are such things as stupid questions.

What I’ve found is that people love answering questions about their own research, if only because it’s rare that people ever ask them it. Even if someone’s research isn’t directly relevant to yours, listen: something that person says may spark inspiration. Some of the most valuable conversations I’ve had in preparing my dissertation have had nothing to do with the medieval manuscripts or 60s/70s books I’m writing about.

2. Stressed? Take some time off.

Self care is not a luxury – it’s a necessity. You can’t do your best work if you’re stressed and/or freaking out. You just can’t.

If you find yourself stressed, or if you find your eyes blurring because you’ve been staring at your computer screen for too long, stop. Take at least fifteen minutes to do something – anything – that has absolutely nothing to do with your dissertation. Watch an episode of Come Fly With Me. Make a cardboard castle. Eat an entire large bag of Skittles and then tweet about it. I mean… these are just recommendations. It’s not like I’ve ever actually done any of these things.

Stop judging me. I can feel you judging me.

3. thesaurus.com is your best friend.

I’m not saying that you should look up every word that you’ve written and change it to the longest and fanciest-sounding word the thesaurus suggests. No one likes a showoff. That said, mixing up your word choice can make your work much more  enjoyable to read.

Just make sure that you approach the thesaurus with caution. If you decide that you’d like to replace one of your words with a word you found in the thesaurus, you best be darn certain of the replacement word’s definition. thesaurus.com may be your best friend, but dictionary.com is that smart other friend who’s got your back when your best friend thinks it’d be funny to pull a 3 Idiots word swap on you.

4. Try to do at least a little bit each day.

Some days you’ll be more productive than others, of course, but it helps to do at least a little bit of dissertation work each day. Not up for writing new material? Read a relevant article – maybe make some notes. Look over stuff you’ve already written and do some editing. Productivity doesn’t have to mean writing 1,000 new words.

Doing a little bit each day also helps to maintain a dissertation mindset. I don’t know about you, but I find that if I haven’t looked at my dissertation for a few days it’s especially difficult to get myself back into the mood.

Stay sharp, stay smiling.

5. Scope out a change of scenery.

I do most of my work at my desk, in my bedroom. I’m comfortable there, and as soon as I sit down at my desk something in my mind clicks and I am ready to write.

This said, working in the same place for too long can feel suffocative. Move around. Go to a library. Tote your laptop over to your local Starbucks, buy the cheapest drink they have available, and then steal their Wi-Fi for a few hours. #noshame

Come to think about it, a Starbucks coffee would be pretty good right now. Perhaps it’s time for me to take my own advice and move.

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