5 hacks for blitzing your dissertation and getting back to practicing

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Ah, summer. The time when graduate students find a quiet spot, crack their knuckles, and resolve to finish their theses and dissertations. Freedom from the shackles of a terminal degree never felt so close! 

Then one teeny problem emerges: the nagging realization that a) this is going to be a lot of work, and b) there are many things WAY more germane to our careers, interests, and well-being. All of a sudden, the motivation train grinds to a halt, still astride the platform. Sigh.

I feel you; that was totally me last summer. Every hour spent on my dissertation was one less hour for other things and one more hour I was very, very annoyed. So I decided to blitz it. I finished writing my dissertation in a few weeks of full-time work. Life went on. I passed.  

You can too. To minimize the pain, I recommend these 5 easy steps.

1. Acknowledge that this is NOT your magnum opus. The most honest and experienced professors will tell you that a dissertation is a means to an end. As one told me more bluntly, "Everyone knows that dissertations are not usually very important." Someday, you may make it an article or book. Someday, you may take the time to dig deeper, becoming a world expert in that field. Today is not that day. Today you should finish the damn thing and get back to practicing. 

2. Pick the topic where you can see the farthest down the road. Let's say you already have a list of topics you're interested in. How to pick? I say, if you already know what research you’ll do and what you’ll say about it, that’s a potential winner. However, if for a certain topic, you can only see as far as “I’m gonna gather as many primary sources as I can find and see what they say!” you will not be practicing for a very long time.  

3. Make an outline with the requisite number of chapters and no more. Six is totally fine. If you need more chapters to finish your topic, reread steps #1 and #2 above. Now, most people make it to this point just fine, but stall big time before actually starting to write. Others dive headlong into research, digging up interesting source after interesting source, delaying writing because they “don’t know enough yet” (reread step #2). Stop researching. You cannot (unfortunately) turn in your brain full of knowledge. You have to turn in a pile of paper. Go on to the next step and start writing TODAY.

4. [LISTEN CLOSELY TO ME NOW] DICTATE YOUR PAPER. Set a timer for ten minutes and place the most delicious snack you can imagine just out of reach. Then pick a section of your outline, go into Google docs, turn on voice dictation (or use Dragon or other software if you like, but the free stuff is totally usable these days) and JUST TALK FOR TEN MINUTES. Pages and pages of content will magically appear in your document. Relax when the timer goes off. Luckily, cleaning up dictation errors is easily done as you enjoy your treat. Rinse and repeat. 

Dictation has been around forever, but the software is more widely available, cheaper, and more effective than ever before. When I worked as a law firm secretary in college, partners still dictated documents onto tiny little cassette tapes, which we played back on these specialized tape recorders with foot pedals to rewind and replay. What we used to do laboriously is now done invisibly and admirably by Siri and Alexa and Google Home. If you don't have your own secretary on call (oh how I wish), why not take advantage of the technology? 

At some point over the last few decades, I think we adopted the notion that writing is what happens when we sit in front of a computer screen. The truth is that writing has always been about what happens in your head. Dictation WORKS because it reflects the structure of your thinking. If your dictated text is messy, disorganized, and wandering, your typed-out writing would have been too. Clarity of mind is the fastest way through a paper. If you don’t yet have the clarity, go back to step #3 and flesh out your outline. You should be able to stare at your outline and just talk about it into your computer's mic.  

5. WRITE FIRST, SUPPORT LATER. As you're talking/writing, anytime you feel like a pesky reader will say, “What’s your support for this?” make a small note however you like (I type "[CITE]" so that I can Control+F the brackets later) and MOVE ON. This way, your paper only has the support it needs and mostly comprises YOUR ideas. Every time I’ve tried to start with the sources - bookmarking, taking notes, copying passages - I end up debilitated, drowning in quotes and diluting my own voice. By submerging yourself in sources first, you become a slave to them rather than the other way around. If you like living in a library, by all means, do it that way. But, be advised, you cannot practice in the library. Or eat. So. 

BONUS TIP: find an advisor or reader who is neurotic about your document’s potential weaknesses. These weaknesses could be a certain analytical angle, a writing or editing skill, or a body of knowledge. Pick someone who will be so bothered by your weakness that they will literally fix them for you, or at least flag whatever concerns may arise in your defense. One of my dear readers, a real nit-picker, basically formatted all of my citations for me. Thanks, reader! I hate formatting citations. Flashbacks to law review subciting, anyone?


Best of luck and best of snacks to you all. Just do it and be done. You’ll never look back. I promise.