Wednesday, November 15, 2017

On Dissertating

An old acquaintance, seeing my blog post from yesterday, emailed me this morning. He, too, is enrolled in a doctoral program and he was shocked to read how much progress I had made on my own project since July. He asked if I would offer him some tips which I'm glad to do. Of course, these are not the musings of an expert: I'm still in the throes of writing, although I am glad to see I have far more pages behind me than before me. So instead of this being advice about what worked let me frame it as some thoughts about what is working.


  1. Treat writing like your job. Theology students in Boston College's doctoral program have their whole fourth year to write without any teaching obligations. Accordingly, I have treated the task of writing as my full-time job. Monday-Friday, usually 6:50 in the morning until 5:00 in the afternoon. Lunch breaks, workout time, and a nap are built into this schedule. 
  2. Think, and write, in sections. So I apportion in my mind how long a section should be, make a preliminary sketch of the argumentative moves I need to make, and I execute the section. Each night before I go to bed, I look over my outline and cast my eyes over the relevant texts in order to refresh my memory. 
  3. Don't be frivolous. I often see Twitter posts or Facebook updates from students writing their dissertations and I am shocked at how much time and energy they waste "curating" some type of public image. Every minute you spend thinking about a clever Tweet, or making a meme, is one less minute for you to focus on your project. Frankly, I'm aghast at how many inane tweets I come upon when, after dinner each night, I scroll through social media to see what I've missed throughout the course of the day. 
  4. Learn to say no. Sure, it'd be fun to accept an invitation to review a book that tangentially touches upon your research, but is it going to make a significant contribution? Of course you have a brilliant article idea when you're eye-deep in your central argument, but this does not mean you should undertake writing it. I would apply this to blogging or online contributions: if it is not peer-reviewed and if it is not going to get you a job, the benefit simply doesn't seem to outweigh the cost in time and energy. 
  5. Edit daily and Don't Be Afraid to Kill Your Darlings. This is my practice: each night I re-read the day's writing. On Friday afternoon or, if I'm traveling, I re-read the week's work and edit the hell out of it. Even your most beautifully crafted sentences, not germane to your thesis, should be summarily executed on the charge of treason to thought. 
  6. Know Your Advisor. I have, perhaps, the greatest advisor imaginable: he's kind, brilliant, has a great sense of humor, and knows how to temper criticism with copious encouragement. He is a mentor and a friend, a cheerleader and coach. I'm lucky. But having an open channel of communication has been so helpful. 
  7. Find Balance.  I have found it helpful to balance priestly ministry (on weekends) and musical performance (on weekends) with my writing. Between July and mid-November, I have traveled on about 75% of the weekends and I celebrated Mass 100% of the weekends. This means I work really hard during the week (no drinking, not much television) in order to allow me the time to do things I love on the weekend. 
  8. Buy a Whiteboard. I have a big whiteboard next to my desk with a bunch of dry-erase markers. Sometimes when I'm in the shower, or exercising, something "clicks" in my mind and I need to write it down: whiteboard! Each morning, I put up key words or concepts I need to keep in mind that day: whiteboard! I can then cross these out at the day's end. Not for nothing, there is no feeling more satisfying than being able to erase it at the end of a day, or a chapter, and start all over again. It's downright cathartic. 
  9. You Can't Read Everything. I think I have read just about every word my figure - William Desmond - has written. The secondary literature is also pretty manageable, although it continues to grow. Yet my secondary figures - Pierre Hadot, Charles Taylor, Richard Kearney, John Caputo, Merold Westphal - are vast on their own. So how did I engage? I read and engaged them in a very focused manner. I guess one lesson I've learned is how to discern the value of a given text and assess whether, and how, it might advance my own work. 
  10. Own Feeling Like a Fraud.  Throughout this process, I have swung between feelings of mastery and competence and feelings of being an utter fraud on the verge of being discovered. It's chastening and humbling. Then again, as a theologian, I'm trying to speak of a Mystery beyond human concept. Cool comfort, to be sure, but comfort nonetheless. So I own being a fraud and rest content that I'm not alone in feeling this way. 
So, yeah, there's ten little ideas. As I've said, they are things that are working for me. I think, as of this morning, I've written ~270 pages and I've got, maybe, 50 left to go. Well, I need to do an intro (8-pages) and a conclusion (12-page). In the end, I'm aiming at a 350-page project. Longer than I'd imagined at first but needfully so. At my current pace, from start to finish writing will have taken six months. Prior to this, I read intensively for about six months and I've read, and re-read, many of those works during this time.

Truth be told, I've enjoyed writing. It can be tedious, daunting, and it's a true marathon. But it has been a true privilege to think along with great minds and to try, feebly as I might, to make a contribution to a field.  
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