As the end of one’s PhD project is approaching, an almost mythically feared part of the project is also approaching: Writing the PhD dissertation.
When talking to PhD students, there is no doubt in their minds that writing the dissertation will be a terrible and unbearable experience. A time when you have no time for anything other than writing from early morning to late evening, without time for family and friends, with no surplus to stay free and have fun. In short, like a scientific prison stay.
When talking to former PhD students, e.g. in the form of current university researchers, the picture is confirmed: “Puha, so you also reached there? Hang in there, you should probably come out the other side – at some point …”.
If you look at his favorite PhD cartoon, the picture is also confirmed.
(“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham, www.phdcomics.com)
I even managed to get started on my PhD thesis about a year ago.
I went into writing my dissertation with mixed emotions: On the one hand, I was looking forward to writing three years of work together into one coherent document – on the other hand, I dreaded it for all the reasons that colleagues, comics and blogs had told me about.
The process turned out to be demanding, but also fun and positive.
Demanding, because – as one of the few times during the PhD project – there was a sharp and tough deadline; the date the final dissertation was to be sent to the opponents. For most of the writing process, this was a moment of stress because when did I finish all the chapters to this day? And what about the appendices and references and proofreading?
Fun and positive because it was not the scientific prison I feared and expected. It was in most of the process – barely three out of three and a half months of writing – “just” a regular working day of concentrated writing everyday. And then free in the evenings and on the weekends.
Fun and positive as well, because it was a focused process with a clear goal: A completed PhD thesis for a specific date. Of course, some choices had to be made along the way – which chapters to include? How should these chapters be structured? What results and figures? – but once they were made, it was just a matter of executing these decisions.
Fun and positive finally too, because it was a time to see the big contexts in the project. Time to pull the nose out of the details and take a look at three years of bird-watching work. How does Chapter Two relate to Chapter Seven? If I have this result and this other result, what does it mean?
I ended up using this part of the writing process to – relatively quickly – achieve results that turned into an article I hadn’t thought about beforehand. And which I probably never would have written if I had not been in the middle of the process of seeing the larger perspective and writing about my PhD project.
A colleague reminded me while writing my dissertation to remember to enjoy the process. You only write one PhD dissertation and you never get the writing process back. With writing my own PhD dissertation a little distance, I can only repeat that advice: Enjoy the journey, weave your work together beautifully, remember to stay free, and give it an extra skull for the past few weeks!
Is the process of writing the doctoral dissertation thus most delightful or most imprisoning? A little bit of jail, but clearly most delight.