A Week in the Life: Dissertating

by Anna Blanch on May 7, 2012

This past week has been an extended focused effort on removing a little more of the BUT from ‘all but dissertation’ (ABD). This process is rather opaque, and it can be difficult for those who don’t have much experience with things PhD related to understand what writing a doctoral thesis can actually entail. So here’s an excerpt of just one week. Every week is different (which is one of the things that helps keep me sane) and everyone’s experience is different. This isn’t comprehensive in terms of this week either. It’s a weird collection of notes and vignettes.

  • 0600: at my desk working on the stack of notes and articles that have been hanging around, some of which since the beginning of my PhD. time to be as paperless as possible, I know this will clear my head.
  • 0800: told my social networks that this ‘is the beginning of a ‘big’ writing/editing week PhD thesis wise. I’ll be sequestered in the front room (looking out at picket fences) seeking to pull together something resembling a draft of the whole shebang.’

  • 1045: going to pickup current draft of the whole document (as bitty as the last two chapters are) from the office supply store (all 126 pages of single spaced text). It cost the same to have all 126 pages of single spaced text printed there as at the university. They printed the ‘not quite a draft’ draft it on ‘proper’ paper and it did not feel worthy. I was reminded of all of the other things that have been printed/published that have not been worth the paper they’ve been written on
  • My “not really a draft yet” draft instagr.am/p/KBuBcbyPYN/
  • My blog post for the day: 8 weeks 6 days: self imposed deadlines and the phd dissertation – goo.gl/g6a0q #PhDchat #highered
  • Much writing, much of it slow and tedious.
  • After a brain-food dinner, it’s time for a couple more hours of editing.

  • 0630: thinking through plans and priorities for the day.
  • 0700: day begins with a skype call. Then coffee and vegemite on toast fuelled, some admin before a few hours of chapter 2 editing. [except that I didn’t manage to eat much of that toast before it got cold…]
  • Skype meetings/conversations with colleagues/friends in the US (2) and the UK (1) to discuss summer plans and travels and possible job opportunities. Encouraging, but slightly distracting from writing.
  • The quotidian accoutrements of the #phd dissertation writing endeavour http://instagr.am/p/KEWh_wSPQh/
  • 11:00: sometimes you have to let yourself get a little sidetracked by important and exciting conversations. Now is time to get back to editing/writing.
  • Every academic library needs a disco ball… instagr.am/p/KEWOKmyPQW/ from my last visit to the University of Newcastle library.
  • 10 Things To Do To Be An Effective Networker As An Academic – goo.gl/Jxocy #phdchat #highered

  • 0700: aiming to get rid of the pile of notes/odd collection of quotes I have sitting around this morning so i can just be working on the ‘not quite a draft’ document.
  • A doctor’s appointment. Moving countries can take some administrative wrangling.
  • Rule 921: always have reading material. Reading Alan Jacob’s pleasures of reading while waiting at the doctor’s office. #phdchat
  • I discovered that I’ve been quoted/linked to on the Guardian website re:NFL draft (ht.ly/axX8L) & conservatives4palin in the last week. The interwebs is a strange place.
  • Hard slog writing. Working through some articles from the 1960s.
  • 1700: a 5k run to blow off some steam and the fish and chips I had for lunch
  • Received an email informing me that my paper on Australian poets, Les Murray and Thomas W. Shapcott, has been accepted for ISRLC in Copenhagen in September.
  • 2000: exhausted, my mum woke me up when she called to have a chat at 2030.  Yes, i feel like I’m turning into my grandfather.

  • Filled in annual review form for my department and send some emails relating to my (soon-to-be-ending) role as convenor of postgraduate divinity students.
  • A skype conversation with one of my colleagues from ITIA who is also writing the final stages of her PhD. We are determined to graduate together. It was a pep talk of sorts for both of us and reminded me how much I appreciate the colleagues (who have become friends) that have been a feature of my graduate student experiences both in the US and the UK. We also talked about undergraduate courses that we’re hoping to teach in the next couple of years. She shared with me the fabulous Wabash Center’s Syllabus resource (supported by AAR), though unfortunately there are no syllabi relating to Theology and the Arts currently included.
  • 1100: the sun is coming out…getting my writing groove on #phdchat
  • 1300: sometimes adjusting your expectations can take the pressure off and enable you to achieve what you set out to! 😉

“There was absolute truth in the thing, something of wholeness and goodness which called to him from outside the dark tangle of himself…That it should have been accidental did not dismay him. He was wise enough to know that mutual love depends on accidents …” – Iris murdoch (Nuns and Soldiers)

  • Blog post: reflections on literature and religion (or theology) – goo.gl/Sdzzc

  • 11:00: 800 words to go to hit my 70,000 word goal for the week. I figured out a solution to a structural problem with chapter four. Still have to write it, but it felt good to feel like I know how to pull it together. Getting there word by word instagr.am/p/KLrXJGSPeR/
  • 14:00: So at some point I thought writing in orange ink on yellow paper was a good idea :/ http://instagr.am/p/KLzm74SPSK/

It also occurred to me that Mr Gillies, my sixth grade teacher was right to give me a D in hand-writing. I had trouble deciphering my own scrawl.

“And when people cease to be surrounded by beauty, they cease to hope. They internalize the message of their eyes and ears, that they are not worth very much, that they are in effect less than fully human.” – N T Wright; Surprised by Joy

  • 1800: This has been a pretty intense week for our little cottage with me trying to get my wordcount to 70k (which i did) and my housemates, being in the middle of exams. i might still be working after dark on a friday night, but at least i have a glass of wine and my sister is making salmon.This is awesome. I am blessed.

  • 0650: time to get a few hours of writing in!
  • 1000 Understanding western, eastern, central, & southeastern europe was more complicated than I thought! – goo.gl/Y2NXA for #overlandtooz
  • 1130: for the first time during my phd I booked myself a massage. It was much needed. Apparently sitting all day writing isn’t very good for your back. Who knew?
  • 1300 slow cookers have served me very well during graduate school. A beef and vegetable stew with gluten free dumplings and rice is on the menu for tonight. Back to writing.
  • 1500 finished up some theory notes. Lots of thinking about the boundaries between literature and religion and literature and theology. There are boundaries, but I’m still not sure how to articulate them. Would love to get my hands on Cassie Falke’s Intersections in Christianity and Critical theory. But alas it is published by Palgrave and I might need to sell a kidney in order to afford it.
  • 1700 played with the structure of chapter four for a while and decided which of Nesbit’s short stories need additional focus in this chapter. I don’t think I could add another genre to this thesis if I tried.
  • 1730 some letter writing to friends.

After dinner with housemates and an episode of House, I went to bed around 8pm. This was a lighter day in comparison to the rest of this week, but I still feel like I’m running a marathon.

  • 0615: a little early morning blog admin, emails, and drafting my post for transpositions next week. I really enjoy it when an idea comes naturally and mulls around a bit in my head rather than having to push things. I rarely write well when I’m working against myself.

Even when you want to just be writing, it is very difficult to keep the realities of life at bay. You still need to eat, bathe, sleep, relate to the people you live with, and take care of pressing personal administration. The stuff we all need to do as part of society and institutions, like universities. It’s almost impossible not to drop the ball on something. I struggle with the idea of letting people down.

  • 0915: the birds are particularly loud this morning. i’m glad to know that the real and apparent necessity of working seven days a week will not last beyond the next 3-4 months. Happily, I’ve managed to avoid it for most of the last 3 years. in this I do miss my church family in Scotland. I’ll be glad to see them in a couple of weeks, knowing that a sabbath with them will help my heart rejoice.
  •  0929: I can hear the bells of a church that’s only a couple of blocks away. There’s a peace in the stillness in my heart as I take a moment to reflect, a moment to pray for this day and this week.
  • 1000: today’s goal is to edit up my research priorities document. It deserves a snappier title because it is the bee’s knees . My RP is a document where I track every reference that needs to be found, books and articles that needs to be read, or have notes taken, every paragraph that still needs editing, every comment by a supervisor or proofreader that needs responding to or requires action. It becomes more and more useful as a project progresses – it helps me to get stuff out of my head and onto paper in  a way that can be ticked off or crossed out (so satisfying). It’s also where I track the standardised usage of any abbreviations and any systematic research of databases/indexes if necessary. If i can figure out how to turn it into a printable, that is into something that could be adapted for other people I would – maybe this is a post-phd task. I also track my current word counts per chapter as against my original plan.
  • Eisenhower and I revisited a little meeting of the minds we have every now and then.

     Plans are nothing, but planning is everything” – Eisenhower.

  • The RP document is now almost fifty pages long, but at least I feel like It’s part of a roadmap for the next stages of iterative writing and editing.

So there’s that – a week of vignette and notes on the dissertating process. What have you found helpful in your own writing? or what do you sharre with your own family and friends about the process?

Listening. Observing. Relishing. Writing. Photographing. Reflecting.

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