What A Dissertation Is Teaching Me About Work

A totally accurate depiction of me in my office.

I offer the following lessons with the assumption that: a) sharing our experiences with each other is valuable; b) my lessons are specific and provisional, especially since I haven’t completed the dissertation; and c) what works for me may be counterproductive for you.

I. Don’t mistake time spent for productivity. This is not a 9-5 job. Taking up space in an office somewhere doesn’t get you closer to your goal. I have found that if I’m doing intensive writing, thinking, or outlining, the first two hours are my most productive. Hours 3 and 4 are moderately productive. Most days, hours beyond 4 are not suitable for intensive work.

Though I would often like to work more than I do, for a whole lot of reasons it is extremely rare for me to put in an 8-hour day of dissertation work. A 4-hour day is completely normal for me. And that’s fine! Don’t let arbitrary norms of what constitutes “hard work” guide your practices.

II. Be brutally honest with yourself. What doesn’t work in your first draft? What is the hang-up that has you scared to open up chapter 3 for weeks at a time? Facing these questions and resolving them may take intellectual creativity, but they require at least as much emotional courage. The thing you’ve worked hardest at in all the world is full of errors, problems, and just plain not-very-good writing.

III. Listen to your body. Some days a pen feels heavy in my fingers. Some days it feels like lifting weights to press down the keys on my laptop. Step away. Sleep. Exercise. Don’t drink too much! Take a walk in the sun. The little voice inside saying you don’t have time take a break from the dissertation and go do something healthy is a lie. An hour of work when you’re mentally and emotionally sharp is worth more than 10 hours of foggy work.

IV. If you live by your work you’ll die by your work. Here’s the thing: when you finish your dissertation you won’t be even a little bit more valuable than when you started it. You won’t be more important in any way that finally matters. If your work is your calling you are blessed, but your work is not you. You are loved, and lovable, right now. Everyone needs to know that. This, by the way, is one of the things Christianity does for me.

V. Set Realistic Goals and Let People Help You Meet Them. At a certain point, you do have to, you know, finish this monstrosity. I don’t have any secret sauce here other than trial and error. Too-ambitious goals can leave you feeling discouraged. No goals at all can let you fritter away whole months. So tell your advisor or a writing group that you’re going to give them such and such on day x. And do it, even if you know it’s a crappy draft. And then when the feedback comes and you want to cry, remember points II and IV.

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