Jessica Winck, Assistant Director of the University Writing Center
As a representative of the writing center, I spoke this past weekend with some PhD students at the start of a dissertation writing camp. It was early in the morning and everyone had a cup of coffee and their computers open in front of them, ready to work. I looked around and remembered that dissertation writing can seem lonely, but when we think about it, we’re actually in good company.
I’m not implying that being alone is never desirable or needed, or that we must lean on others for comfort every time we write. We have to admit, though, that academia can make students of all levels feel isolated sometimes.
One of the most telling examples of this isolation is how PhD students have the option of renting a carrel in the library while working on a dissertation. Carrels are these little closets with a small window on the door, a desk, chair, and an overhead light that beams down on the flat work surface. For me, a library carrel isn’t an ideal space for working on a dissertation because such a space can represent, in a spacial sense, what we might feel like overall as PhD students.
There are some important ways not to spend all our time working in a small closet, whether that closet is an apartment or a library carrel. I’ve written before on seeking out your peers for timed writing, say at a coffee shop. There’s a myth in academia that we’re not successful unless we do everything alone. In actuality, there are benefits to working with others beyond getting rid of our cabin fever: you can keep each other motivated while also building the habit of writing that will be useful for years. Beyond these benefits, when we give ourselves the opportunity to be in the same place as other interested scholars, we’re likely to activate those habits of mind that interested us in academia in the first place. On that note, take part in a dissertation writing retreat where you can experience week- or weekend-long scheduled time for writing, reflection, and one-on-one discussions about your work.
I want to put forward one more view on how we’re not alone in this work.
Working on a dissertation is a chance to focus on your particular interests, likely the ones that motivated you to become a member of your field. If you’re like me, you got into your field because you’re captivated by its view on the world and committed to working on its most pressing questions. Plus, you want your work to make a contribution. When you’re counting your words or pages and trying to meet deadlines, let’s try to think of ourselves as part of these larger discussions that are happening every day. Like the rhetorician Kenneth Burke said, these discussions have been going on for a very long time, and they will continue even after we’ve left them. Now that’s really something, to be part of that. Every day that we work on our dissertations, we stay a part of it.