Your Dissertation Should Not Be Your Best Work

One day in my seminar class for my Ph.D., my chair gave us all a revelation that her chair shared with her. Your dissertation is not supposed to be your best work you ever do.

You spend hours and hours being stuck and frozen by anxiety, feeling like you don’t know what to write. You feel overwhelmed and just are looking for anything to escape the feelings.

And at the root of those feelings of anxiety and overwhelming is the need for perfection. And perfection is coming up because you feel this pressure for what you to produce a perfect manuscript on the first try. Because after all, you’ve taken all the test, passed your preliminary exams, and just one step away from being called a doctor.

The truth is, you don’t have all the answers and nor should you have all the answers. The dissertation is a learning activity designed for you to demonstrate your understanding of the research process. Are you able to design, complete, and write up a research project? Once you have demonstrated that you are able to do that then you can be called a doctor.

That begs the question, how can you learn something and do it perfectly at the same time?

Learning is about taking in new information and applying it. This implies that there are going to be mistakes along the way. Think about it, when you were learning how to say your first words, no one was expecting your first audible sound to be a full 10-minute speech. No, your parents were excited that you were trying to express yourself. They even figured out what you were trying to communicate before you could say words. As you grew and developed, your audible sounds eventually became words in a particular language, like English.

The same is true for when you’re learning anything new. The same is true for the dissertation process.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do good work on your dissertation. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t let the pressure to make it perfect stop you from making progress on your dissertation.

So, what should you do instead?

Well, I’m glad you asked.

Your new goal is to write the shittest draft possible of your dissertation. I mean make it so bad that you would be ashamed to share it with your dog. There should be all types of typos and incomplete sentences. Because none of that matters at this moment. Getting words on paper and making progress is the goal. You can go back and edit later. But if you don’t write anything, you won't have anything to edit.

I even suggest sitting down and doing a brain dump. A brain dump is when you write down everything that is cluttering your mind. And that’s what you should do. At first, it will start with things that may not be related to your topic. You may say things like “this is dumb” or “I don’t know what to say.” That’s okay. You will then start to move into things about the topic. You know way more then you give yourself credit for.

Step 1: Set an hour aside.

Step 2: Sit down.

Step 3: Take your phone out and put it on airplane mode. Go to the timer setting and set it for 20 minutes.

Step 4: Take out a couple of sheets of paper or open a word document (also put your laptop on airplane mode)

Step 5: Write for 20 minutes.

Step 6: At the end of the 20 minutes keep writing if you’re in the zone. If not, then congratulate yourself for writing for 20 minutes. You’ve made progress.

And you just keep showing up every day putting in your 20 minutes at a time and you’ll have your draft. That momentum will propel you to build on that progress.

What do you think? Is this doable? Let me know in the comments!