What I Learned about Writing a Dissertation through the Retreat
I would like to begin this post by echoing what Barrie says in her post. Like Barrie, I have worked as an Assistant Director in U of L’s Writing Center since the fall of 2010, and I am sad to leave this space for many reasons, most of which is the community of people who have supported me as I work on my own dissertation. This community includes not only the incredible staff of the Writing Center, but also the various individuals I have worked with as a consultant, all of whom have taught me a great deal about writing. It has been a pleasure to be a part of this Writing Center, and I could not choose a better way to end my experience as an Assistant Director than by working at the Dissertation Writing Retreat.
Every day last week, I watched a group of ten dedicated Ph.D. candidates enter the Writing Center, select a table or other writing space and write for several hours, taking few breaks and simply committing to the process. Participating in this retreat taught me a lot about writing a dissertation, and it also reinforced much of what I already knew. First, and probably most obvious, the retreat reminded me that no two people approach the process in the same way, so it is important to measure your success only against yourself and not others. For one person, success might be drafting a solid paragraph in a day, whereas for another, success might mean drafting four to six pages in a day. Of course, no one can write an entire dissertation in a week, and, fortunately, no one tried. Instead, each individual participating in the retreat set realistic, achievable goals, and I think most people met them (and I met my own goals, sitting in my office, writing while the participants were writing).
Probably the most important thing I learned during the retreat, though, is the importance of having a community of people to write your dissertation alongside. This community can be fairly diverse. For instance, I consulted with a Ph.D. candidate in Mechanical Engineering and a Ph.D. candidate in the Humanities. Because both of these individuals are in different fields from one another and from me, much of our time was spent discussing their individual projects, with each of them explaining to one another and to me what kind of research they are doing, how dissertations are constructed in their fields, and how they as writers were approaching the process. On Thursday, I led a workshop on overcoming obstacles to writing a dissertation, and as a group, everyone participating in the retreat discussed some obstacles that were arising and how to approach them. One of the suggestions I made at that time, which I personally have found beneficial in writing my own dissertation, is to try to explain your project to a person outside your field of study. By doing this, we are forced to think very carefully about what we are trying to do and how best to articulate our ideas to others. Thus, this community of people to write your dissertation alongside does not necessarily have to be just other Ph.D. candidates, but it can include anyone in your life—a parent, a child, a spouse, a sibling, a friend, etc.
For me, personally, watching a group of ten people sit and write or discuss their dissertations for eight hours a day pushed me to work on my own dissertation. Having a community of people who are also writing dissertations to meet with and discuss your work is also beneficial, then. I would encourage anyone who is writing a dissertation or a thesis or really any piece of writing to develop a similar community, a group of people who make you feel accountable to them, as well as to yourself. Seeing other people writing (and struggling) along with you is powerful and motivating in a way that writing in isolation cannot be. Certainly, there are times when we have to find space by ourselves to write, and doing so has a value of its own, but having a community of people to engage with, even if that engagement is silent, while writing a dissertation, is important.