You Have to Write How Much? Writing a Dissertation

Hello readers! I should start off by saying that I don’t think there’s any one correct way to write a dissertation. One of the more fascinating parts of attending graduate school is getting to pick the brains of my fellow students. For every person I’ve asked about the writing process, I’ve received a different answer. So this post is not a step-by-step outline of how to write a perfect dissertation. It is a collection of some general advice on how to approach writing. Seeing how other people approach the dissertation helped me, so I hope it will help you!

I Have to Write How Much?

Dissertation lengths vary quite a bit by discipline, so it’s important to keep in mind that my advice comes from my experience writing a dissertation in the humanities, and in history in particular. “R is my Friend” wrote a blog post about average dissertation length based on the data available through the University of Minnesota library system. Here’s a graphical representation of that research:

As you can see, the humanities pretty much all hang out at the top of the graph, meaning dissertations in those disciplines tend to be the longest. And there’s history, right at the top. Before you panic, however, keep in mind that dissertation length is influenced by a lot of factors, including your topic, your department’s expectations, and your advisor’s expectations. This is all to say that writing a dissertation is probably the most productive when you take it one day and one word at a time. In that spirit, here are some bite-sized pieces of advice to help you tackle what I lovingly refer to as “The Beastie.”

  1. Pay attention to what works, as soon as you start graduate school: You will be taking lots of notes – from your reading, from seminar, from meetings with your advisor – in graduate school, and you’ll be writing a lot of papers. Take note of what works for you and what doesn’t. I, for example, digest books and other material best when I can write directly on it as I read. It helps me to process everything before I sit down to discuss the book in seminar or write up paper notes. This might work for you and it might not, but keeping track of those trends, particularly when you’re writing a research paper, is a good way to do some early planning for how you’ll tackle your dissertation.
  2. Be flexible: While you want to keep track of what works and what doesn’t, keep in mind that it might change as you move through graduate school. This applies not only to the process of writing, but also to what you’re writing about. I was convinced I had to have a fully-formed dissertation project within my first semester of grad school. It’s a good idea to have some vague notion of what you’d like to do, but the nice thing about being lucky enough to attend grad school is that you can explore your options. You might find that this changes even as you research and write (in fact, it should), so be open to it! Is a certain note-taking style not working for you anymore? Switch it up! Are you finding lots and lots of interesting stuff about a topic you thought was tangential to your initial direction? Talk to your advisor about exploring other paths! This is your project and your contribution to your field – you should feel good about how it’s proceeding.
  3. Form a Dissertation Group: This can be a group of people from your department, or a cross-departmental gathering. However it’s populated, having a dissertation group can be a great resource. The one I was in met pretty infrequently – usually when one of us had something in particular we wanted to discuss – but it was nice to sit with a group of people going through the same thing I was. We were able to talk about our projects, about our struggles with research and writing, and bounce questions off of each other about a variety of topics. Everyone needs a community, and once you enter the strange and wonderful world of being ABD, a community tailored to that particular identity can be really helpful.
  4. Have a Dissertation Buddy: While having a dissertation group can be helpful, it can also be useful to have a dissertation partner – someone who is willing to read drafts of chapters, who will answer emails filled with self-doubt no matter how many you send, and who is available to just generally be your partner in the dissertation process. My dissertation partner is intimately familiar with my project and has read drafts of every single chapter (sometimes more than once!). She knows my project probably as well as I do, and she usually knows what I mean to say even if I don’t. How your relationship with your dissertation partner functions will vary from person to person, but the important thing is to find someone you jive with. And you should of course be willing to reciprocate.
  5. Build a Schedule: It’s fairly common knowledge that one of the hardest things about writing a dissertation is having the motivation and self-discipline to do it. It’s easy, most days, to skip writing for a Netflix binge or to let the plumber in or go grocery shopping. So my suggestion is to make yourself a schedule – long and short term – and stick to it as closely as you can. At the beginning of each month I lay out what I want to accomplish that month, and then at the beginning of each week determine what I need to accomplish in the next seven days to get closer to that goal. You know your own writing speed, style, and process better than anyone, so it’s best to create your own schedule. I, for example, write very fast, but then spend a lot of time editing. I also find it’s best to build in time to let myself walk away from chapters – it’s always easier to see your mistakes or where you need to improve when you’ve had some time away from what you’ve written. As long as you’re creating a schedule and keeping to it, it doesn’t matter what the schedule itself actually is.
  6. Write every day: I was lucky enough, pretty early in my graduate career, to attend a lunch with Eric Foner before he gave a talk on campus. I was just barely through my Master’s program, and so when someone asked for advice on writing/finishing a dissertation, I didn’t think it would really help me at all. But Dr. Foner gave a really thoughtful response that has stuck with me: to finish a dissertation you have to write. Every. Single. Day. But you don’t have to write pages and pages at a time. If you write one page every day for a year, you’ll have 365 pages. That’s a dissertation.*
  7. Give Yourself a Break: If there is someone out there who can do the writing and researching and unnamed and underappreciated work of thinking about their work every single day without a break, I want to meet them and shake their hand. The truth is, if you work continuously without a break, you’re not going to produce your best work. This isn’t to say that there won’t be times when you’re down to it and really have to give yourself completely to what you’re doing. It is to say that building breaks into your schedule – for dinner with your partner, for drinks with your friends, for game nights with your family – is healthy and good for you and your project.

*Anne Lamont is a fiction writer, but her book, Bird by Bird has some great advice about the writing process. My advisor gifted me a copy once I became ABD and it was a great way to start that phase of my career. I also return to it from time to time when I need a boost of inspiration. And how can you not love a line like “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people,” especially when it’s so applicable to a dissertation?

Contribute to my next post!

Hello readers!

Right now I have a blog post in the works about academics’ attitudes toward dress, but I need your help! I’ve worked up a short survey with some basic questions about academia and dress, and I’m hoping you’ll fill it out and give me some evidence to work with! All the answers are anonymous, so feel free to be honest! Just click below to go to the survey. It only takes five minutes!



I Follow You on Twitter! Social Media and Networking

Hello blogreaders! After a long absence, a cross-country move, a summer course, and everything that goes along with being an advanced graduate student, I’m back! Read on for my take on social media and networking.

Really? Twitter?

In my last post on graduate students and conference networking, I mentioned that I “met” two historians on Twitter – Megan Kate Nelson and Theresa Kaminski (Theresa has a new book out – “Angels of the Underground.” Go get it), but I wanted to devote a separate blog post to how to use social media for networking.

I joined Twitter in 2009 for one purpose – to follow celebrities and celebrity gossip in real time. I thought for a long time that that was all Twitter – and most other social media – was good for. I bought into the idea that somehow “social media” was a bad word (well, two bad words) and that nothing serious could ever take place there. Over the last seven years, however, I’ve discovered – as has most of academia – that social media, and Twitter in particular, is a great place to go for networking. More and more universities and even university departments have official Twitter accounts, scholars of all disciplines “meet” on Twitter to discuss their work, and it can be a useful tool for networking-building. As I mentioned in my last post, all graduate students are encouraged to network, and using social media to do so is another way graduate students (and more senior scholars) can expand their network and their comfort zone.

My Social Network

I started using Twitter to build an academic social network a little over a year ago. One of my graduate professors is on Twitter, and we follow each other. One day, she tweeted about Megan Kate Nelson, whose book Ruin Nation I had read in a graduate seminar. I piggy-backed off of the original tweet, replying that Ruin Nation is my favorite Civil War book, and boom – academic social network started. Following Megan (and her generous decision to follow me back) helped me to build an academic social network quite quickly.

Okay, but now what?

Filling your Twitter feed with university departments, scholars, and academic publications is easy enough, but what do you do once you’ve developed an academic social network? Like networking at a conference, you need to be a bit more proactive than we, as academics, are sometimes comfortable with. The good news is that we can still hide behind our computer screens to a certain extent! So here are six ways to use social media to build your network.

  1. Promote yourself. Have a new publication? Get mentioned on your department website? Find something exciting in the archive? Tweet it! Promoting yourself – or even just congratulating yourself on very real accomplishments – can feel icky. But, as we’re all often told, the only way to get yourself out there is to put yourself out there. You’ll be amazed by how much support you get!
  2. Use hashtags. There are TONS of academic hashtags out there. There are hashtags that can connect you with other scholars in your field and with other graduate students. Some of my favorites are #PhDchat and #PhDlife (this one is usually pretty hilarious). If you have other favorites, leave them in the comments!
  3. Interact with other scholars. I have used Twitter to chat with other scholars about their work, my work, the Olympics, the election, running socks, and a lot of other things. Building a network shouldn’t just be about having somewhere to discuss your project or the job market (although it’s great for these things – I just had a chat with a PhD candidate in English about the job market today!). It should also be about building support, in many forms.
  4. Get help! I contacted one of my former students – Amanda Sterling, now the Social Media Coordinator at the Corning Museum of Glass – for any input she might have on this post, and she made the excellent suggestion of using Twitter for help with research. As Amanda says, “Whether you need to pull contemporary material directly or you need help tracking something down, social media can help you with your work.” If we’re all willing to travel to archives to track stuff down, why not use the networks of lots of other academics to help?
  5. Establish yourself. Amanda also suggested that using Twitter to promote yourself and your work, and to engage in discussions with other scholars, helps to establish yourself as an expert in your field. This is particularly useful when you consider how long publication can take. Let everyone know you’ve already arrived!
  6. Follow conferences. Finally, Amanda points out that given that most conferences now actively cultivate hashtags associated with the conference and sometimes panels, you can “attend” conferences that you might not be able to afford to see in person. This is another way to keep yourself current on new scholarship and find people who are interested in the same things you are.

Creating a social academic network gives you access to much more than in person networking does (although that type of networking is useful in its own ways). You can use it to get a heads up on new scholarship, job postings (I highly recommend following the American Historical Association’s Career Center – @Historyjobs), and gives us a way in to networking in real life. So think of social media networking not just as an end, but a means to an end. It can be a good first step if you’re nervous about putting yourself out there in other scenarios where there might be pressure (like conferences). And most importantly, social academic networking gets your name out there – the best networking goal of all!

Wait, a Social Media Coordinator?

Before I sign off on this post, I wanted to say a word about Amanda’s position at Corning. If you ever needed evidence of the increasing importance of social media (and let’s be real, we historians love evidence), the fact that Social Media Coordinator is a position at a museum like the Corning Museum of Glass should do the trick. Amanda graduated with an MA in Museum Studies from Syracuse University and was almost immediately hired by Corning. If you’re into museums, glass, and an #emergingmuseumbadass, follow Amanda at @amsterli.

Have more to add about social media and academia? Leave me a comment!!


Can I Give You My Card? Conferences and the Anxiety of Networking

Conferences and Grad Student Anxiety

Beginning very early in my graduate career, I was told attending conferences would be beneficial to me in a lot of ways: it would give me the chance to get my work out there (“there” being the ephemeral and poorly defined arena in which graduate student work gets discovered), to meet other scholars in my field, and to network. I knew, objectively, that these were all things that I should be doing, but I was also reticent. Why?

Because I was terrified.

As a grad student, there are a lot of reasons to be terrified of conferences and the networking opportunities they present. First, I found myself wondering how my work – in its most nascent stages (and coming, at least from my point of view, from a woman who was still basically an undergraduate) and which would probably change – could possibly matter in the larger scheme of things. It never occurred to me that conferences were all about works in progress, not presenting perfectly polished (as if such a thing exists), ready-to-publish pieces.
Second, if I was doubtful about the quality of my own work, I was absolutely certain that senior scholars (senior, at this point, referring to anyone in their second year of grad school all the way up to established scholars in my field) would have no desire to meet me. Why should they? I was a neophyte to the study of history (or so I thought) and I couldn’t imagine what other historians would gain from a conversation with me. Wouldn’t it be presumptuous and a little ridiculous to assume they would be delighted to engage in one?
Finally, there is something that comes from working in academia that makes one accustomed to interacting with people with a page, or a screen, or a phone in between. You would never approach a journal editor in person and ask them to publish your work – the process simply does not work that way. You would never walk into a university history department and ask for a job – again, process is king. So walking up to someone at a conference, extending your hand, and offering a business card always seemed, to me, intrusive and strange and uncomfortable.

If It’s So Terrifying, Why Network?

As a graduate student (or really, a scholar at any level), getting your work “out there” is important, even if “there” is only to the three or four people who show up for your panel.
The Q&A – and particularly the “Q” part of that equation – is instrumental to this process. Learn to embrace the questions, even the ones you can’t answer. Learn to embrace saying “I never thought of that,” or “I don’t know, but I’d love to find out,” or “That’s a great question!” Even unanswerable (for the time being) questions will help to think about your project in new ways (or lead you to a better one!) and your audience will feel gratified that they chose a panel that featured a scholar who is willing to learn. Think of it as sending your work out to get input back, rather than kicking it out at 18 and hoping it comes back one day with enough money to take care of you in your old age.

Interacting with senior scholars can be fun, for you and for them!
I had an experience while checking in to my hotel in Providence, Rhode Island for the OAH this past April that changed my perspective on introducing myself to more senior scholars. While the front desk employee was checking me in, we got to talking about what I was doing in Rhode Island for the first time. When he discovered that I was attending the OAH and presenting my work there, his face lit up and he said “I can’t believe I’m meeting a REAL historian!!!” He was an undergrad working on an American studies major, but had a real love for history and he was thrilled to talk to someone. I thought about telling him I wasn’t yet a “real” historian, but I was so caught up in asking him about his project and where he was applying for grad school that it never came up. It wasn’t until I walked away that I realized how excited I was to talk to him. Later at the conference, I introduced myself to historians Lizabeth Cohen and Dorothy Sue Cobble – giants in my field of labor history – and they were generous and kind enough to show real interest in and enthusiasm for my project. It didn’t occur to me until later that they might have been feeling the same way I felt when I was chatting with the hotel’s American studies major. I also attended the Western Association of Women Historians’ annual conference in Denver last month, and had a chance to chat with a few historians I had “met” on Twitter (more on social media and networking coming later!), Megan Nelson and Theresa Kaminski, and I was blown away by their generosity and kindness toward me. They, like Professors Cohen and Cobble, seemed genuinely pleased to meet me and hear about my project. This is all a long way of saying that you might think other historians have no interest in your project, but my experience on both sides of those encounters leads me to believe that most historians are open to, welcoming of, and excited to interact with younger scholars. So go for it!

It gives you a chance to build a community.
I have to admit that the first time I asked someone if I could give them my card (at this year’s AHA career fair), I felt odd. I half-expected the person I offered it to to say no. Instead, he asked me to remind him where I was from and what I was interested in. I was shocked by how easy it really was to make connections, and how receptive people were! Asking if you can give a person you’re in conversation with a card is the best way to begin networking. And the best reasons to network are not because you think it will immediately lead to a job (it really very rarely does), but literally because of the network building itself. Since I started handing out cards and just generally putting myself out there more – particularly on Twitter – I have begun building a network that I rely on for scholarly news, support, and just generally as a way to enter the world. I think perhaps it would be helpful not to think of networking as building a network of people that might be useful to you, but as community-building that is mutually beneficial. Communities support each other, in tacit as well as less easily definable ways, and in this age, that can’t help but be a good thing.

How to Network

So, how do you network/community-build at a conference as a grad student? Below are my five tips to keep in mind at your next conference!

  1. Go to conferences!  This might seem obvious, but really, start going as soon as you can. I started at Master’s level conferences, which helped me get comfortable and hone my skills before I started applying to any of the major conferences. Go to as many as you can afford to go to (and as many as you can handle without losing your mind and neglecting your work). The more you go to, the more people you’ll meet.
  2. Print business cards!  Some schools offer them for their graduate students, some don’t. Find out if your department does and if not, order your own! I designed mine at and have received numerous compliments on them. They also make me feel super put-together at conferences, which boosts my confidence!
  3. Be brave – scholars you admire will no doubt enjoy hearing why and how their work has influenced your own. Tell them! Just keep the fangirling/boying to a minimum – this is a professional setting after all. (Feel free to fangirl later. I always do!)
  4. Go to graduate student receptions.  It might seem like networking with other grad students is a waste of time since they’re in the same place you are, but one day these people will be your colleagues, and you never know what they may stumble across that ends up being helpful to you and vice-versa. Again, this is all about community building.
  5. Invite people to coffee/for a drink, etc. The worst someone can say is no, but it gives you an opportunity to talk more extensively and at the very least gives you a means of introduction in follow-up emails.

Have other suggestions for how to network at conferences? Leave me a comment below!

Welcome to motorcityclio

If, by some chance, you have stumbled on this blog dedicated to history, Detroit, and the fine art of finding your way post-graduate school, welcome! This is my first foray into blogging, and so I hope we can take this journey together. My plans for the blog are simple: to use it as a platform to share my thoughts about history and the study of history, to write, and to share my journey from PhD candidate to employed, contributing member of society!

I have – like many people, I’m sure – considered starting a blog for a long time. But – like many others – I always balked, because what could I possibly have to say that anyone would want to read? I attended the Western Association of Women Historians conference in Denver this past weekend and after attending a panel featuring Megan Nelson (@megankatenelson) and Theresa Kaminski (@KaminskiTheresa), I decided it was time. After all, I’ve been spending all of this time researching, writing, and editing a dissertation (more on that later) with the hopes of turning it into a book, and there’s no guarantee anyone will read those, either!

I have also, as I consider my post-graduate career, been thinking a lot about what to do with this PhD I’ll have. After attending the American Historical Association’s conference in Atlanta in January, I have been more and more open to the idea of a non-academic career path. Part of the reason I even went to grad school to begin with was because I felt like there were women whose stories I could – and should – tell to a broader audience. The job market is – as it has been – a scary place for newly minted PhDs, and I wanted a way to tell these stories and share my thoughts about the study of history while I navigate it.

So, welcome. Feel free to leave me comments!