[GRABS YOUR LAPELS] Listen to me.

I know you want your dissertation to be good, BUT YOU NEED TO WRITE A BAD DRAFT.

[Releases lapels. Pours you a sparkling water.]

The absolute BIGGEST problem that I have with every client is that they work on their dissertation for too damn long.

I don’t say this to you as someone who magically understands dissertations. I made this mistake when I was writing too.

I think it has to do with your perspective on the process as you are going through it compared to when you’ve completed it.

When I was writing my dissertation I really wanted it to be good. I wanted my committee to be awed by it. I wanted it to be smart and well-written. I wanted it to be impressive. I wanted it, in short, to need no revisions.

Here’s the truly wild part: I passed my dissertation defense with NO REVISIONS.

Yup, you heard that right, I made a thousand cranes and I got what I wished for: a pass with no revisions after my dissertation defense.


Even though I lived the dream there were still significant problems with my final dissertation. Due to a weird series of formatting errors there was a 15 page section that was, inexplicably, repeated in Chapter Three. There were typos.

It was not perfect.

But it passed.

(I may owe a significant debt of gratitude to my chair’s belief that a dissertation is an institutional document.)

Even dissertations that are passed without revisions have flaws.

A friend of mind deposited her dissertation with a typo in her motherfucking title.

I’ve read numerous deposited dissertations (aka, passed dissertations) riddled with typos.

This isn’t because there aren’t smart people proofreading the document and I don’t think it’s a problem of too many chefs either.

What is much clearer when you are out of the process is this:

Your dissertation is a draft.

In an ideal world, your dissertation is a manuscript that you will turn into a couple of articles and a monograph. It’s a basis for future work not a final thing.

For all of the blood, sweat, and tears we put into our dissertations the hard truth is that they are the beginning of our scholarly careers, not their culmination.

Nobody cares about your dissertation.

And that’s not because it isn’t great or valuable. It is both of those things!

It’s because your scholarly career is built on the things that come after your dissertation: the articles, the anthologies, the monographs, the classes, the postdocs, the professorships, and all that jazz.

So, let’s scale this backwards.

Your finished, passed, deposited dissertation is a draft of your future scholarly work. What then is the draft of your dissertation you turn into your chair for her feedback?

It’s a draft of a draft.

Given that we turn it multiple drafts of our dissertation to our committee we are, at best, turning in a draft of a draft of a draft.

Let me use my own dissertation as an example.

My deposited dissertation was meant to be a draft of my future scholarly career.

This means that the draft that I submitted to my committee before my dissertation defense was a draft of a draft.

Which means that the final draft I submitted to my chair, before I got her approval to submit it to defend, and therefore submit it to my committee, was a draft of a draft of a draft. And that was *the* most finished product my dissertation chair saw.

But I submitted so many other drafts to her! I think I sent her 5 drafts of chapter 5 which means the first draft I sent her was actually a draft of a draft of a draft of a draft of a draft of a draft of a draft of a motherfucking draft.

We spend so much time working to get our drafts as perfect as possible without realizing that our most perfect draft is, at best, a draft of a draft of a draft.

It’s hard to see this when we are in the process, but when you understand that the draft you are working so hard to make perfect will never be the final draft but just one iteration of your project it can significantly decrease your dissertation anxiety.

When you submit a near final draft to your chair she’s going to give you feedback. Then you’ll write another draft incorporating that feedback before you submit it to your committee who will also give you feedback which you will incorporate before you deposit. And that’s when you are almost done!

Every other draft is even more stages of revision from being done and yet we tend to treat them as if they are the final judgment of our scholarly prowess.

At a certain point our desire to make our draft as perfect as possible doesn’t significantly improve the draft but it does significantly delay our timeline.

Without knowing your writing style I can’t give you a hard and fast number of when you should let go and let your advisor edit but I can tell you that for most of my clients that number is 80 percent.

That is, when you feel you are 80% done with your dissertation draft you are 100% ready to send it your advisor and get feedback.

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Marushka · March 10, 2020 at 9:34 pm

This is great advice – and I enjoyed the “typo in the title” anecdote!

    Jaime Hough · March 12, 2020 at 3:52 pm

    So glad you enjoyed it! You know, her dissertation is amazing but done is better than perfect 😉

      Marushka · March 12, 2020 at 4:13 pm

      Amen to that!

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