“I Hate My Dissertation” and Other Writing Barriers

I knew it was coming. I’d seen enough students complaining online to know that it seemed to happen to everyone. This summer I finally felt it: I hate my dissertation.

I’m entering year 6 of my PhD program and I’ve heard all the complaints before. At this point, they’re either boring (I’ve been hearing/seeing the same complaints for years) or discouraging (nothing ever seems to change).

At the same time, as I wade through the murky middle stages of dissertation writing and prepare the enter the job market, I find myself referencing others’ complaints as a sort of pessimistic guide. So when suddenly, I found myself frequently and consistently thinking, “I hate my dissertation,” it was like coming to a fork in the road, leading to two very different reactions.

In isolation, that thought might have caused alarm. It would have been easy to spiral: Did I pick the wrong topic? Is my project not interesting enough? Am I not cut out for academic work?

But the last five years of witnessing graduate student complaints had prepared me well. My internal thoughts sounded more like: Ha, so this is what it feels like. Oh, I’m in the Valley of Shit. I’ve made it to the hating-my-dissertation stage!

Complaints, even when they are unoriginal, put words to our struggles. Lately, those struggles have been intensified for me (see again: preparing for the job market), but that has forced me to find workarounds.

Power in Naming

First, I’ve found it useful to name my struggles. I gleaned this idea from recently having read Michelle Boyd’s book, Becoming the Writer You Already Are, and revisiting Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, a book I read regularly during my time as a freelance writer. Pressfield refers the amorphous force that prevents us from doing our work as Resistance; Boyd lays out multi-faceted reasons why we as academic writers get stuck. With these authors in the back of my mind, I started a writing session one day listing out the reasons I was currently hating my dissertation. Put into list form, the reasons I had that day were:

  1. It’s agonizing.
  2. It doesn’t seem important.
  3. It’s not tied to some big, important, popular-topic research question.
  4. It doesn’t contribute anything to the literature.
  5. It’s boring.
  6. It’s not worth it.
  7. It won’t get me a job.
  8. No one will care.
  9. No one will hire me.

And there it was. The trail of mental vomit on my screen led me to my fears around the job market. I didn’t really hate my dissertation; I hated all the weight and pressure attached to it.

Following this train of thought, I realized this pressure didn’t just apply to the immediate future either. Recently, I’d been witnessing the success of an assistant professor I admire, who was publishing award-winning articles from her dissertation research and finishing up a book. So I’d inadvertently taken on this pressure too: my dissertation has to be award-winning. I have to produce award-winning articles from it, then an award-winning book, and that will lead to tenure. My fears turned out to be incredibly proactive, worrying years into the future.

Okay, Now What?

Writing out these thoughts was a wake-up call. I sounded unhinged. It was no wonder I’d been feeling incredibly resistant to and even resentful of my dissertation. Beyond recognizing that I needed to let go of the unrealistic and debilitating pressure I was placing on a single project, responding to other items on my list helped too.

Some of the reasons on my list are completely false: I’ve written a dissertation proposal and multiple fellowship/grant applications in which I explained why my topic holds importance, connected my project to larger research questions, and highlighted the contributions I hope to make to various literatures.

Some reasons just reflect that this work isn’t easy. It can feel agonizing at times (nailing down the right framing) and boring at others (in a word, transcription).

Beyond the list, it was no coincidence that hating my dissertation coincided with a period when I was overwhelmed and exhausted. I was at the tail end of teaching a six-week summer class that met 5 days a week and had been doing a good deal of new course prep nearly every day, all while trying to make regular progress on my dissertation and prepare job market materials.

The main solution to my problems was to get some good rest, once final grading for my class was done.

In the meantime, my temporary solutions were to set my fears aside and treat my dissertation like a job. Catastrophizing about my future wasn’t helpful; I just needed to show up and complete the nitty gritty tasks in front of me that day. Since teaching had to be my priority during that period, my dissertation was like an hourly job. It might not be a lot, but this (metaphorical) side hustle was going to help pay my (intellectual?) bills. Or something like that. The metaphor breaks down. The point is that I showed up, “paid myself,” and trusted that would be enough, even if it wasn’t a lot.

So as a counter to the list of reasons I hated my dissertation, here’s a list of what I did to trick myself into writing a hated dissertation:

  1. Brain dump/vent/freewrite about why I hate my work or don’t want to do it. Now that that’s off my chest…
  2. Read writing books. Little snippets at a time. I enjoy reading writing about writing. Writing books are usually well-written and force me to think about writing, which is only a short jump away from feeling motivated to write for myself.
  3. Change of scenery. A coffee shop or favorite spot on campus works well for me.
  4. Have a treat as I work. Get the café pastry that looks extra nice today. Listen to nice music. Keep snacks on hand.
  5. Set pomodoros or time limits of some sort. If I just need to get going, I’ll start with 10-15 minutes. Otherwise my standard is 30. Your sense of time gets warped while writing and it’s good to stand up and take breaks anyway.
  6. Social media accountability. I don’t think anyone else cares, but a short post announcing my goals for a writing session is usually enough pressure for me to close the app and work. I used to do this on Twitter (RIP); now I use Spoutible or Mastodon. Afterward, you can share your progress. Even if no one else cares, it feels satisfying to me.
  7. Real-life accountability. I’m grateful to friends who invited me to write or accepted my spontaneous, “I’m thinking of going to [café] soon” invitations to write together.
  8. The promise of rest or something enjoyable afterward. Hanging out with friends, eating out, or catching up on your favorite shows all work. “Work hard; play hard” is a tried-and-true cliché; getting the work done means I can “play,” or enjoy my downtime more fully. Doing nothing never felt so good.

There’s nothing particularly special or unique about any of these suggestions. But this is what’s working for me now. And after getting that much-needed, post-teaching rest, I just might have tricked myself into figuring out a decent contribution to the literature.

My advisor will let me know soon.

Wish me luck.

Image credit: @Saydung89 on Pixabay

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