how I actually wrote my dissertation

One truly befuddling discovery that I made on academic Twitter was a mysterious and semi-terrifying breed of grad student: the kind who actually writes their dissertation steadily for 2–3 years, in the sense that they are constantly producing chapter drafts. What? How? Why? (I mean, good for them, and if this is you and this system feels right: more power to you.)

This post is for the rest of us.

I think there’s a myth among pre-ABD grads that dissertating is, indeed, a constant stream of activity, wherein one spends one’s days buried underneath piles of books and chipping away steadily at the beast. I certainly thought that was how it worked. As I got closer to finishing and my more senior friends did as well, the illusion was obliterated. I want us to talk about this more—not to “fix” it, because everyone works differently and prescribing a style as The One will only make people miserable—but to make clearer that, like most things in grad school, dissertating is not linear or straightforward. We know this intuitively, but we don’t often voice it, and so those experiencing disorientation or feeling lost may feel that way alone (when, in fact, community and support and commiseration would make the whole process a lot easier).

So, here is how I actually wrote my dissertation. The tl;dr: in about six weeks. (Yes, this hurt very much, and also less than I thought it might.) The longer version: more steadily over 3 years, but mostly through thinking, not putting words on paper.

Let’s go back to August 2018, when I defended my prospectus. That process was mentally and emotionally exhausting for me (I wrote about it here), so I gave myself a month off from research-related work. That turned into four months, largely for personal reasons unrelated to the dissertation. In any case, I reached January 2019 and felt panicky. I had signed up to present at my department’s IR workshop in February as a deadline to get something done. I’d gotten nothing done. (This is not true: I’d rested and recovered and also developed some new neuroses. But, within academia, we are not taught that those things count. Hence the narrative of nothing.)

At that point in time, my dissertation included a chapter on how ISIS had responded to state-level discourse on terrorism in France and Germany, an analysis driven by computational methods and close reading of a bunch of French and German-language ISIS propaganda. (This chapter has since disappeared into the abyss.) Collecting that propaganda and starting to read it felt like a doable task, and so I did that, building an empirical chapter based on the implications of a theory I’d thought about but hadn’t written yet. This got thrown into sharp relief when I shared some of the in-progress chapter with a friend five days before I was scheduled to present it, at which point they said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Everything you just told me out loud that you think you’re arguing isn’t in this chapter, and you need to go write that first or nothing you’re doing here will make sense to anyone.”

This was, for many reasons I’m not going to discuss in public, an extremely emotional conversation—as in, I had a full breakdown at a coffee shop and then spent the next few hours on the floor of my apartment. Let’s just say I have long had a difficult time not equating my work and the entirety of my sense of self. I also felt that I had finally accomplished something, only to realize, nope, most of what I’d written wasn’t actually viable! Ugh. I can say “ugh” thanks to the benefit of distance; at the time, I was distraught. Eventually, though, I picked myself off the floor. I wrote out of rage. (Someone said of the result, “I get the sense writing this was cathartic for you.”) I go back and read that draft and think, wow, I was furious at everything. But what I wrote was also true and authentic and pandering to no one. It was also not terribly well-received at my department workshop, but for the first time, my dissertation felt like something I got to be excited about.

I didn’t write anything else that spring: I was doing other things (service!!!) and also prepping to go to the field that summer, which felt like another doable task with discrete steps. I did my fieldwork, came back, and felt like I had something to write about. Obviously it was more complicated than that, but I had data that I had collected and so felt like mine in a way that using secondary sources didn’t, and those data had blown my theoretical framework wide open. Finally, I felt that I knew what my project was about, other than spite. And that felt amazing.

It also meant, in our linear idealized projection of what dissertating is “supposed” to look like, that I was behind. I thought about this constantly. I stressed about it because I was concerned and no one else seemed to be, and I couldn’t understand that. I still hadn’t fully grasped the reality that many people write their dissertations in a flurry at the end. Most of my good friends were in their final year of grad school, and they did not seem panicked about not having the bulk of their dissertations done. I panicked for them, because I am insufferable. It would take me a good while longer to internalize lessons from what I was witnessing about how dissertating actually works.

One year in

One year into dissertating, I had done fieldwork for one case study and written the first draft of an article based on it. Nothing of the dissertation itself was written.

I have very little memory of what I was doing in the fall of 2019, besides revising that article and teaching. We’ll consider this time forgotten in light of the pandemic, which arrived rapidly in 2020 and proceeded to crowd out anything and everything else. The week before UW–Madison moved everything online, I finally spent some good time trying to build my theory chapter. When we went into lockdown, this got saved in a folder I didn’t open again until June 2021, over a year later. I ended up throwing most of it out, because by then my thinking had changed dramatically. More on that soon.

I had once again signed up to present at a department workshop because I find deadlines motivating and it had become very clear that no one else would set them for me, no matter how much I asked for regular check-ins and gentle shaming. This deadline was for a different chapter, because I figured I’d have the theory done by then (lol). I do not recommend trying to tease apart the discursive games of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and also wrangle a bunch of Python code into submission during the first few weeks of a global crisis while confined to your house where you live by yourself. I think I ended up with 17 pages of crap? I didn’t touch that chapter again for six months.

My original plan had been to spend the summer of 2020 in Washington, DC doing field research for my second case study, and I expected that to unfold much like my research in Germany: collect data, rethink everything I thought I knew, write article or chapter in a blaze of glory. Obviously this didn’t happen, and my pivot to virtual interviews and the limitations I ran into led me to rethink much of the research strategy for that chapter. And even if it had happened, the uprisings following the police murder of George Floyd would likely have changed my thinking anyway. The logics of abolition and the deeper work of Black and brown activists are central to my now-completed dissertation, and I do not think that would be the case had national events not led me to explore that work further. As it stood, we were in a pandemic and I was going on the job market and also I ended up having to move and also some of my close friends moved out of the state and also there was an extremely consequential national election coming up and also there was impetus behind anti-racist organizing in a way I’d never witnessed.

All of which is to say: I’d set lots of deadlines to get things done, and once again, the narrative my brain told me was that I’d done nothing. I was also now two years into dissertating, allegedly, and more stressed, more tired, and floundering about while trying to get a job. And, I felt, I had so much more to do.

Two years in

Two years into dissertating, I had finished most of the data collection for my dissertation and published one article that was “from” the dissertation, though that felt disingenuous to say because the chapter versions of neither the theory nor the empirics from Germany actually existed. I had 17 pages of nonsense on Iran that would have to be reworked entirely, and so, for all intents and purposes, that chapter didn’t really exist either. Nothing of the dissertation was written.

I’m sure people at this point will be thinking “but you had an article” and “pages that need revising are still pages” and so on and so forth. I heard it from faculty advisors last fall as well. In my mind, though, another year had passed and I had almost nothing to show for it and no one else seemed concerned about that. I was panicking; why was I the only one? By that point, I understood that the bulk of a dissertation often gets written in a frenzied haze in two or three months before one’s defense. I’d just watched four very close friends go through that exact process, and they were all brilliant and incredible and hardworking (independent of my bias as their friend). So, it seemed, rushing at the last minute was just how it worked for many people, and the line that you’re supposed to have a bunch of chapters done ahead of time was a load of malarkey. It took me a while to internalize that and apply it to myself, and in the meantime, my anxiety was having a moment, let me tell you.

I knew that, for me, being “done” with part of the dissertation meant having chapters refined to a state that they were coherent and not completely embarrassing. As a writer, I revise constantly, and almost no one has ever seen a true first draft of something I’ve written; most things I choose to share for the first time are on at least their third revision. That is a lot of upfront work, but it saves me the trouble of getting comments on things I know I need to do but just haven’t done yet. I also knew that I was operating at about half capacity already in the fall, because, surprise, a global crisis takes a lot out of you, and I figured the market would also take a lot out of me, so I had no idea what sort of state I’d be in come the spring. Starting early and chipping away at things seemed to make sense, logically, if I ever wanted to finish the damn thing.

I proceeded to…not do that. I started and finished a coauthored project in fall 2020 that I liked doing and don’t regret at all, but it was a side project, so I spent time writing that instead of writing my dissertation. I implemented some additional deadlines—conference presentations and a special issue article, all connected to dissertation chapters—and only sort of met them, in that I revised the 17 pages of crap into 30some pages of slightly less crappy crap and dropped out of a conference because I was trying to write, I was really trying, and it just wasn’t working. I set some ambitious goals over the winter break of converting my published article into chapter form, which felt like a small task that I knew would make me feel better, and finishing a draft of my U.S. chapter. I ended up not getting a job I interviewed for, being crushed by that, and also having to do teaching prep while continuing to be on the job market, so I gave up on the dissertation for a month. That distance was good, and healthy, but it was not enough.

I had some more deadlines. An article that would form part of the U.S. chapter was due to a special issue at the end of March, so I wrote what I thought was a truly atrocious version of that by sheer force of will. (It got an R&R with minor revisions, so it was clearly not as awful as I remembered; even my panic brain can do okay work, it turns out.) The 30 pages of slightly less crappy crap was scheduled for presentation at ISA, so I revised it again into something I also ended up mostly trashing, in the end. We hit May. We hit June. I had no job, no dissertation, no mental or emotional health, and a lease that was up on August 15. I knew that the dissertation would get done, because it had to, but I also feared it would be absolute shit, and I wasn’t here to produce shit, I told myself. If I was here for six years and ended with shit, what was it all for.

Two things happened that drastically changed the course of events for me. First and foremost, I got a job. I knew where I was going to live in August. I knew I’d have an income in August. A good chunk of the panic was gone. And, I stopped fighting the way I know I always write—in bursts, usually at the last minute, because I trained as a journalist and that’s kind of how it works—and did one long burst from late May until the end of June.

I’ll tell you I wrote 215 pages from scratch in June, and that’s sort of true. It’s true insofar as no dissertation chapters existed prior to June, and I legitimately wrote the introduction, theory, and conclusion from scratch during that month. But I did not write them from nothing. The act of “writing” is actually a conglomeration of reading, musing, discussing, engaging, thinking, and then maybe putting words on a page in something resembling their final form. I may not have been making sentences in a Word doc named “Chapter Whatever,” but for three years (and, realistically, longer than that), I was immersed in discourses of terrorism and white supremacist violence, because I genuinely like my topic and engage with it for fun as well as for work. So much of my dissertating process was like ethnography, in that I placed myself in the settings I needed to engage with in order to write and soaked and poked day in and day out. So when I did sit down to formulate the final thing, the ideas were all there, and they were ready because of that constant engagement, because writing is not just writing.

A large chunk of my U.S. chapter is drawn from the coauthored paper I pursued during fall 2020 that I initially thought was a side project that had nothing to do with the dissertation. Another bit comes from a piece of public scholarship I got solicited to write the previous summer. (Many thanks, Lawfare.) A few paragraphs in my introductory chapter are pulled directly from that rage-fury workshop paper that poured out of me in February 2019. The opening hook is the same one I wrote for my job talk, before I knew for sure how I wanted to begin the dissertation. It’s all relevant. Everything builds.

Someone told me that it was possible to sleepwalk through the last stages of dissertation-writing. The process for me felt a bit more active, but the idea of something automatic does resonate. I’ve described it to others as “magical exhaustion” in that you are tired, so tired, but your brain somehow still brings everything together, and you look back and go, how the hell did I do that. How the hell did I write 215 pages in a month. How did I synthesize conference papers, articles, talks, years and years of immersion, into a coherent thing. How was this messy process actually one whole.

(And if this is you, staring down the barrel of a mostly-unfinished dissertation: it can be finished, and it will be. It is far further along than you realize. You may not believe that now, but you’ll come to. I did.)

That was way too much sap; just tell me your timeline.

Fair! For those who want an actual breakdown, here’s mine, by chapter. Like I said, every iota of turning things into chapters happened in six weeks in spring 2021. But the foundations of that process have deeper roots.

IntroductionLong definitional rant: February 2019 (from the rage-spite workshop paper)
Opening hook and motivating examples: October 2020 (from my job talk)
A bit on positionality: February 2021
All the rest: June 2021
TheorySome framing work: March 2020
All the rest: June 2021
Germany chapter (empirical chapter 1)IRB/fieldwork prep: January–May 2019
Fieldwork: Summer 2019
Article-writing: August–October 2019
Revisions: January–February 2020
Reworking/expanding into chapter format: June 2021
U.S. chapter (empirical chapter 2)Data collection: August 2019–January 2021 (on and off)
Final section: July 2020 (from a public scholarship piece)
Large chunk: September–December 2020 (from a side project)
Another large chunk: December 2020–June 2021 (on and off; from an article for a journal special issue)
The rest: April–May 2021
Iran/colonialism chapter (empirical chapter 3)Data collection: January 2020
First stab: March–April 2020
Second stab: October 2020
Third stab: November 2020
Fourth stab: March–April 2021
Final stab: June 2021
ConclusionAbout five days in June 2021
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