Sometimes it is hard to conceive of what a dissertation is exactly, and even harder to think of how you are going to write one. In this video from the first ever Dissertation Writers Retreat, Dr. Scott Sundvall (Center for Writing and Communication) and Dr. Michael W. Harris (McWherter Library) discuss these topics. Also make sure to check out the article linked below the video which dives into one of the central issues that block some students.
There have been a lot of words (and breath) wasted on describing your dissertation as a journey or quest. However, I think the two most indelible (and potentially useful) allegories for writing a dissertation are the Joseph Campbell "Hero's Journey" (as embodied via J.R.R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings) and the ascent of Everest.
What is so powerful about these allegories is that they both demonstrate how difficult a struggle it can be (especially as you approach the late stages to finish the document draft), but also that there is a return home. Destroying the One Ring, getting to the top of the mountain, that is only part of the journey. Likewise, finishing the document is only part; there is also the return: getting back to the Shire, getting down the mountain and back to base camp. Many times, the return journey can be even trickier because you may let your guard down. Also, sadly, there are no Eagles to whisk you out of Mordor.
Also, while the dissertation is a huge portion of earning a PhD, both the Everest and LotR comparison capture that the journey begins long before you even get to the dissertation. Bear in mind, by getting to this stage, you have already begun the journey to Mordor or to the Mountain.
Below, you'll find links that discuss these allegories, and then a narrative of the entire dissertation journey.
When I (Michael Harris) have discussed dissertations with graduate students and friends, asking for advice on getting through the process, I have found the Everest allegory to be the one I go back to most. When you think of the entire PhD as trying to climb Everest, the journey begins not at base camp, but deciding to leave home. It takes preparation, permits (applications), financial resources (assistantships, loans, etc.), and often a trip just to get to the place where the work begins.
For the Everest climber, to get to Nepal, you fly into Kathmandu and then have to undertake a long journey just to get to base camp (PhD coursework). Once you reach the foot of the mountain, you do not immediately set out. You have to acclimatize, take a few practice trips from base camp to camp 1 (the prospectus process and defense). And once that is done, and your sherpas and guides have started to affix ropes and ladders on the route up (the support of your committee and so many others), then you actually begin climbing the mountain. Moving from camp to camp, you slowly build up your knowledge of the subject through research and diligent work.
At some point in the journey up the mountain, none of which is easy, it starts getting even harder. The higher you go, the thinner the atmosphere gets, your body begins to slowly die, and every little movement becomes a struggle. As you progress in your dissertation, many of you may feel as if even getting words on the page every day is a struggle. But just like with climbing Everest, the goal is not always to get to the top, but to make it to the next landmark. The next camp. The next rock ten feet ahead. Or even to just take one more step. When you are struggling to finish the draft of your dissertation, some days just a few paragraphs or even a few sentences is a struggle.
However, the most important part is to make forward progress and to celebrate the little victories, along with the major milestones. Every successful arrival in a camp up Everest is a huge thing. Some people only make it to base camp, others to camp 1 or 2. Few people ever make it to camp 4, and even fewer to the top. And while it has gotten "easier" to make it up the mountain with guides, the summit is never guaranteed, and getting to the top is only part of the journey.
The website mounteverest.net says, "Most accidents occur upon climbing down. Be sure to have enough oxygen to come back. Don't relax for one moment." This is true for your dissertation as well. Finishing the document is not the end. There is still the defense of it, revisions, and the graduate school's approval. Even afterward, which you can imagine as getting back to Katmandu and boarding the plane home, there is so much more you can and should do: job applications, publications, and an entire career to come.
Much like making it up Everest, your dissertation and PhD will always be a part of you and with you.
To say nothing about your dissertation, graduate school in general is not for the faint of heart. It is a long and difficult road, so at times you will inevitably ask yourself: "Why am I here? Why am I doing this?" This is a hard question. It is not as simple as asking if you are passionate about your field of study (see video below). Rather, it is a question of why are you doing something so difficult and at times maddening and frustrating. Knowing why you are here will help get you through the really difficult days.
A common question we hear is, "When do I stop researching and when do I start writing?" The answer is, "Why not both?" Both processes only really end once the document is submitted and accepted. There will be times when you are doing one more than the other. The heart of the question is, "When does that flip happen?," but really, both processes are ongoing.
To "know" when that flip should occur is probably the hardest part. Feeling like you have "done enough" research to start "writing" and like you "know" enough to speak authoritatively about your topic is a hard thing, and is possibly why a dissertation that is more a series of articles is a bit "easier" to conceptualize. However, regardless of the structure or type of dissertation, it can be difficult to pinpoint.
Similarly, I have heard people say that "I am not a good researcher" or ask me "How do I become a better researcher?" My response to both is the same: there is no such thing as a "good researcher." There are only researchers who do not give up. Research is an exercise in creative exploration and as such really only takes perseverance. There is no magic combination to search, or that one hidden treasure article that will change everything. As Indiana Jones once said, "X never, ever marks the spot."
So what is the right answer? There isn't one, but it is a good idea to start outlining early, be prepared to change that outline, and know that there is never a time when the research portion should stop. Moreover, the feelings of anxiety that may accompany the writing process are things that can be helped by utilizing our campus and local Mental Health services (discussed on the Staying Healthy page).