Dissertation Writing: External Deadlines

Expanding on my earlier post about some of the tools I use for writing and revision, I want to talk about how I manipulate my life to give myself structure, accountability, and a schedule. In other words, I have to set up external factors to motivate my writing because at its worst, writing a dissertation is isolating, exasperating, and draining. There are no clear deadlines, no discernible markers of progress or success, and that makes it hard to keep moving forward.

One of the most successful things I’ve done is to find external deadlines. While my department does have clear expectations about when the prospectus should be filed after the exams (6 months), almost everyone exceeds that deadline without consequence. (Give any writer–or grad student, for that matter–an inch on a deadline, and we’ll take a mile.) So knowing that firm deadlines motivate me, I’ve done two things to make substantial progress on my dissertation: I presented work at a conference and I applied for a research fellowship.

When I applied to present at Conference X, I had been working on my prospectus unsuccessfully for a year (gulp). I had been involved in a dissertation group and my advisor had seen drafts, but I wasn’t getting the proposal (or my thinking) to where it needed to be. My advisor suggested that I set it aside and begin working on a chapter. While I resisted this advice at first (I *really* wanted to get through this hoop), I eventually realized that this fit into what I already knew about my process: I suck at introductions. I always skip over them and write them later, sometimes even last. And to a certain extent, the prospectus functions like a¬†speculative¬†introduction to the dissertation. At about this same time, I saw the CFP for Conference X, a national conference whose theme was almost exactly the topic of my dissertation. I knew I had to go, not only to present my own work to a theoretically ideal audience, but to meet scholars in my field, hear papers and lectures, and network. So I picked my best idea from the prospectus (one which felt the most concrete and manageable, a good starting place), and wrote the abstract.

The process of writing the abstract, and eventually the conference paper itself, pushed my thinking in exactly the right way. When I had been floundering through the prospectus before, it was because I had been lost in the Big Picture. Doing the conference paper, however, allowed me to start up close and in detail (my strengths as a writer and researcher), and build my Big Picture around that. The conference paper also gave me that priceless feeling of progress and accomplishment, since I now felt like I had a “draft” of a chapter–well, at least a 10-page seed for one.

But doing the conference wasn’t enough. I still needed to file my prospectus. Enter the research fellowship application. At the time of this application, my funding for next year was up in the air. I was in panic mode, doing a ton of online research for dissertation, research, and travel fellowships. I found one that I was really excited about, although it was a little unusual. (While my work is¬†interdisciplinary, I’m in an English department and on the surface, the funding institute probably seems like a strange choice.) My application included writing a 5-page research statement, including the purpose of my research and my methodology. Basically, I had to write a prospectus. But there were some key differences:

  1. I had presented part of my work, which gave me a concrete foundation for thinking about the Big Picture;
  2. I had a real audience, which made a huge difference in how I presented myself and my work;
  3. I had a real (really desperate) purpose, which I didn’t have before.

As soon as I had submitted my application, I revised this research statement and submitted it to my advisor as my prospectus; it was (finally) approved. (I did not get the dissertation fellowship I had applied for, but did accept the travel fellowship they offered instead.)

As I write this research narrative, I realize that luck, timing, and desperation seem to play a big role in the progress I’ve (finally) been able to make. And while those might be significant factors, I think it’s also been about finding myself an authentic audience and giving myself a real purpose in writing.

But I also have to be careful; now that I’ve tasted the tantalizing authenticity of writing to real people that I don’t know, I have to also resist that temptation. While these external outlets forced my progress, they can also tempt me off course. I can’t spend all my time applying for fellowships, attending conferences, or even thinking about publication–I’ve got a dissertation to write.

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2 Responses to “Dissertation Writing: External Deadlines”


  1. 1 antonella esposito March 19, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    Good post, I share same feelings, even if I am at the beginning of a doctoral journey. In particular, I agree that external deadlines push you to focus on your research problem and produce any output, giving up procrastination due to methodological weaknesses, inexperience and…lazyness.
    Moreover, I think that writing for a ‘real’ audience or readership, helps you to progressively find your voice as a researcher. This motivates and reinforces the solitary work in progress of a dissertation.
    Thanks for sharing it!

  2. 2 Karenmca April 3, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    This merits a proper blog posting one day!, but can I add that for me, the best motivation for getting that thesis submitted – on time, I might add – was the knowledge that 25 years earlier I had given up on an uncompleted doctorate. (That’s a long story, so I won’t go into it here.)

    But believe me, having spent a number of years disappointed with myself for NOT completing – actually, with quite good reasons for the apparent failure – I was 110% determined to get this one finished and submitted. Let’s face it, not many folk have two attempts at a doctorate, and I’ve never met anyone that had a third!


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