Thankfully, in academia, you only write your dissertation once.
Most graduate training is oriented towards research and writing, but the art of research and writing is less evident in the formal curriculum. And if your graduate training has shaped you into a confident and competent scholar, you have still never written a dissertation. A dissertation is unlike other products of research and writing like journal articles or books. If you’re fortunate to have good mentors (which I am), then the process of writing your dissertation feels like cobbling together separate but related articles or book chapters that you could easily modify after you are “finished” your dissertation project. But the dissertation project looms in front of any doctoral student like a giant moose you’re supposed to tame. Moose-tamer is not a job I expected to do in grad school.
This semester, I have been co-instructing/observing an undergraduate senior research seminar. The course is run much like a master’s level academic research workshop where students have their own research projects and where we work through the finer issues of scholarly research from collecting and analyzing the data to writing up and presenting one’s findings. Teaching this class has been the best personal learning. Much of learning how to do academic research happens by actually doing it, making mistakes, and fine tuning your skills for your next project. You can take a class in research methods or about some specific subject, but synthesizing the two is not always straightforward. It is truly an art, and teaching others to do has made me a better scholar.
It’s been easier to approach my own dissertation project as I contextualize different parts of the research process for my students. For instance, I will admit that writing a literature review has never been my strong suit. I understand the broad literature but figuring out where I fit has always been a challenge for me. There is a serious breadth and depth of literature in the sociology of education (education in general, really). Maybe I have felt like I could always read more or cover more of the literature in my review. Maybe I’ve been pressed for time and could not review as much as I wanted to. Maybe I’ve been hesitant to take a stand in my own research.
But who says you have to write that part first? With my dissertation analysis mostly finished, I finally know what the project is about. Writing the literature review for my dissertation proposal, how could I know what to highlight, what to hold back, or what to critique? I had a sense of the holes in the broader fabric of knowledge but felt unsure of my critique. I have always struggled with this part of research because I have always tried to write it first. As the project nears completion, I can see more clearly where it fits into the broader literature.
Something about my dissertating and my teaching experience this semester has emboldened me with a new confidence, though. When I sent that last analytical chapter to my advisor, I didn’t know whether to celebrate or cry. I know being “finished” the writing does not mean that I am actually “finished.” In academia, you are never really finished anything. So now I am back to reviewing literature and fine tuning the theory and literature chapter. The moose is getting a little easier to manage.