Posts Tagged ‘dissertating’

Long ago, around the time I was starting graduate school, or maybe even when I was still just considering it, I recall someone telling me something to the effect that you finish graduate school once you reach a point where you hate your dissertation. Or being a graduate student. Something like that. The upshot was that it’s once you’ve had your fill of being a grad student and writing a dissertation that you hunker down and finish.

Well, I think I’m about at that point.

Essentially, I took a whole year off from working on my dissertation. I finished the first full draft at the end of January 2009, and while I read through it a couple of months later to do some proofreading, it was only in early February 2010 that I sat down to start making revisions.

I was fortunate that the comments I had from my readers were extremely positive and indicated that there weren’t major problems. There were some things that I needed to fix, a few points that needed more explanation or development, but it was all relatively minor.

Anyway, earlier this month, after I finished writing lectures for the quarter, I finally got around to starting the revisions. I looked through the comments I received on my drafts, made a list of corrections, pulled out the relevant books, and got cracking. It took a little more than a week to get through the initial pass. The worst of it was the beginning, since the biggest revision was rejiggering the introduction and first chapter, mostly to shift sections around, but it also required me to reshape Chapter 1 slightly.

I submitted the revised Introduction and Chapter 1 to my writing group as my quarterly contribution and got some helpful feedback. Today I finally got down to making those changes, though I probably didn’t do justice to all the feedback my colleagues offered.

I’m just finding it hard to summon the motivation to make substantial changes. A large part of it, I suspect, is that I’ve known I could more or less coast on the initial draft I finished writing last year. And I’ve certainly improved upon that, based on the comments from my committee and my writing group. But I also feel like I’m at a point of diminishing marginal returns, where it would take an obscene expenditure of time and effort to generate minor improvements in quality.

On some level, I’m telling myself I can get away with what I have because it leaves something to revise if and when I publish my dissertation as an honest-to-goodness book in the next few years. But I’ve also been writing my dissertation like a book manuscript to minimize the amount of work I’d have to do down the road. And my committee members have commented that they’re impressed that my dissertation reads more like a book than a dissertation.

Anyway, I just feel more and more like I’m ready to throw in the towel and run out the clock. The sooner I decide I’m finished with revisions, the sooner I can give it to my committee and schedule my defense. And the sooner I defend, the sooner I can advance to goofing off until graduation.

It’s just odd, because in a lot of ways I feel like I have senioritis, even though I’m a (theoretically) responsible adult and on the cusp of receiving my doctorate. It’s also odd because I don’t think I really suffered from senioritis in high school or college.

Of course, I still have the important task of deciding whether to change the title of my dissertation. I’ve been using the same boring descriptive title I’ve been using ever since I had to list a working title on grant applications several years ago. But more recently I’ve been toying with the idea of changing to something quirkier or cleverer, or at least resurrecting the informal title I devised long ago: “Springtime for Dubček and Slovakia.” I haven’t decided.

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For some odd and illogical reason, I decided this week to tackle the unpleasant job of sifting through all the footnotes in my dissertation to make sure I had my citations entered according to the proper citation style and hadn’t accidentally given multiple full citations for the same source.

It sounded like a simple task, the sort of thing I could hammer out in a couple of hours.

Boy, I was way off.

As you can see below, here’s what the actual task looked like:

Prologue: 17 pages, 18 notes

Chapter 1: 19 pages, 27 notes

Chapter 2: 46 pages, 89 notes

Chapter 3: 50 pages, 97 notes

Chapter 4: 46 pages, 93 notes

Chapter 5: 39 pages, 69 notes

Chapter 6: 38 pages, 67 notes

Chapter 7: 46 pages, 88 notes

Chapter 8: 33 pages, 67 notes

Epilogue: 8 pages, 9 notes

In case you didn’t bother counting, that’s a grand total of 342 pages with 624 footnotes. I converted them to endnotes and just printed the notes pages so I could edit them more easily, and wound up with forty-five pages of single-spaced text. I actually only counted up all this stuff after the fact, which is probably a good thing, since it might’ve been too daunting to know in advance exactly how deep I was getting myself.

Of course, this is probably one of those cases where I’d have been better off using Zotero (or EndNote, the commercial equivalent) to create my actual footnotes. But for reasons described on the “Tech of Diss” page on this blog, I decided it to pass on that. I doubt Zotero would’ve saved me much time when it came to creating the footnotes originally, but it probably would’ve spared me the hassle of having to fix individually every instance of a single source. Live and learn.

It also didn’t help matters that I’d pick up on one thing to correct — say, truncating the subsequent references to a single archival source —  halfway into my editing, which meant I’d have to go back to the beginning to make sure I caught all of them. So, I wound up having to make multiple passes, which is why it took the better part of three days to get it all done.

Still, I’ll probably have to do this again later on, once my committee reads the whole thing and gives me recommendations for changes. And I still want to rewrite the Prologue and Chapter 1. Plus, I still have another chore of a task ahead of me in inserting the images into my text. Right now a lot of notes have reminders that I need to insert the picture in question.

Oh well. That’s a task for another (three) day(s).

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Hmm, I should probably try to get started on Chapter 8 this weekend. I did a good job of tending to lots of tasks big and small this week, like reading ahead for my class and doing some application stuff.

Sure, I still need to type some notes and tend to a couple of other small things. But by and large, I’ve freed my calendar until at least Tuesday to work on the dissertation.

It’s tricky, because I really would like to get Chapter 8 and the Epilogue drafted by the end of this quarter, which is certainly doable. But at the same time, I made an agreement with my adviser this week not to give him any new chapters (which means anything since Chapter 3) until after this quarter, since he’s overloaded with teaching and lecturing commitments, unless I end up with a position somewhere and need to get the ball rolling on defending pretty quickly.

Plus, the faculty member I had been hedging on having as the third person on my committee told me this week he doesn’t think he should do it, since it’s not his field and he feels like there are other faculty who would be better qualified to judge my area. That may be true, though the reality is that I have the two faculty who know the most about my area of the world on my committee already, and unless I go outside the department or university for the third member, I’m probably not going to find anyone with extensive knowledge of my subject regardless. Mainly I wanted someone who had seen some of my work from a research seminar where I wrote the paper that turned into my first article and much of Chapter 7, who would also be an excellent set of eyes for checking grammar and style to make sure my prose is really polished.

So, I still need to find a third member of my committee. I’m not out of options, and there’s at least one logical candidate, but I continue to play the waiting game. My original choice for the third member was going to be contingent on when I got a job and planned to defend due to sabbatical conflicts, and it’s not like I’ve gotten beyond the discussion phase with a third committee member.

Of course, there’s always the thorny issue of agonizing a bit over finding a job. Should I have already heard back from the school that interviewed me two weeks ago? The chair was quite vague about the length of time. And it’s impossible not to wonder obsessively whether the lack of subsequent contact means the process of approval for campus visits is still working its way through the institutional morass, or if it means they’ve decided to invite other people and are basically wait-listing me and thus keeping me in an extended period of limbo. With all the gloom and doom of the current economic climate, the generally low level of morale among my peers about career prospects is basically disintegrating into gallows humor at best, which probably isn’t helpful.

It all brings me back to the eternal question: to work on the dissertation, or not to work on the dissertation?

If I wind up getting hired at one of the maybe two places where I might still have any shot, then I need to get it finished and defend in the next, oh, five or six months. That’s doable, except that it really means I need to have everything pretty much written and close to final form by about March, since I’ll need to start lecturing at the end of that month and won’t get much time to write or do more than revise before my defense.

If my remaining prospects fizzle out completely and I’m faced with another year of combing the job market, then there’s really no rush to draft the remaining two pieces, and I could conceivably put that off till after I finish teaching my summer course in July, which would still leave me lots of time to write and revise before a defense in the spring of 2010. That option isn’t really attractive for a variety of reasons, both because knowing my own work ethic, I probably won’t allow myself to leave that little unfinished for so long, but also because I just want to be done. This week I toyed briefly with the thought of finishing in July and trying to find a non-academic job for next year so I could have the Ph.D. in hand and earn a better income. But that presumes I have some obvious non-academic career in mind and that I could actually find a position in this job market, neither of which seems likely.

So, I probably talk myself into doing some work this weekend and trying to wrap things up with the complete first draft over the next month or so. If nothing else, I figure having the dissertation pretty close to finished and sticking around another year might allow me to spend more time enjoying life instead of trying to maintain a grueling schedule of writing. And it would be nice to get a chance to do such things before beginning my career and having all sorts of other responsibilities and obligations that won’t afford me much time for fun.

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Over the past three days I’ve managed to read through 302 pages of my dissertation, making edits along the way. Here’s my rough assessment.

On the whole, it’s pretty good, and I’m generally satisfied. I limited my changes mainly to correcting typos or clarifying some points or sentences that seemed unclear. At this stage it doesn’t make much sense to do extensive revisions since I have four chapters none of my committee members has seen, and I imagine they’ll have their own suggestions for me to incorporate later.

Also, I think my big argument — the idea that a new kind of Slovak nationalism took shape in the mid-1960s and was rooted in the reinterpretation and commemorations of the Slovak National Uprising of 1944 — carries through quite nicely, and I think Chapter 5 in particular does a fine job of using cultural history to show how this idea was propagated.

Still, I’m not wholly content with the shape of things. In particular, I think the Prologue and Chapter 1 could use a little work and will ultimately need a substantial rewrite to turn in into a book. It’s something that will take a few weeks to do, and my sense is that it’s something that doesn’t absolutely have to be done for the final dissertation. That’s especially so because I think I might lump Chapter 2 into that rewrite, since the background to the crux of the dissertation doesn’t finish until the middle of Chapter 2. In all likelihood, I’ll need to figure out a better way to produce a concise introduction (something like the current Prologue, but with the green-vegetable-esque historiography integrated) and consolidate the background into a single chapter.

Of course, I feel like I’m also getting into the part where I have to game the system. I need to produce a dissertation, but at some point I’ll also need to turn that dissertation into a book. But as I understand it, I’ll need to convince a publisher — but especially a tenure committee — that the book manuscript is significantly different from the dissertation. The main way I’d do that is to do more research and incorporate it into a revised version of the original dissertation — there are a couple of angles I’d like to pursue that I didn’t get a chance to research during my year abroad. But I keep thinking that a healthy rewrite of a couple of chapters would help toward that end.

But there’s no denying that the bigger reason for me not wanting to spend the time reworking that part of my dissertation is because I just don’t want to work on it. Certainly not until I write the last chapter and Epilogue, but I keep feeling like I’m approaching the point where I just want to be finished with it all.

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It’s silly and arbitrary, not to mention of no consequence.

But I’d really like to hunker down today and tomorrow in the hopes of cracking the 300-page mark and/or finishing Chapter 7.

I began writing my dissertation on 2 July, so it’d provide me a nice sense of accomplishment if I could say I cranked out 300 pages and eight of the ten chapters in just six months — especially since I took off all of August and more than half of September.

Of course, it’d also be good to reach these milestones in the next couple of days so I can report on how close I am to completion when I go for my interview this weekend.

As it currently stands, I’m probably a little more than halfway through Chapter 7, with twenty-five and a half pages down in the chapter, on page 279 of the dissertation. It’s not unrealistic to think I can crank out another twenty-odd pages in two days, since I wrote almost twelve yesterday. I did find it a bit difficult to get back into the swing of things yesterday, since I hadn’t looked at my dissertation since Christmas Eve, which made it hard to pick up my train of thought and follow my incoherent notes for how I wanted to organize the chapter.

As for a resolution for next year? I don’t normally bother with such things, since I know they seldom last.

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Actually, I think I already made that joke. Oh, bother. I can’t be arsed to look it up.

I finished the first, rough draft of Chapter 6 late last night. The final section and conclusion came pretty quickly over a couple of days, in part because I wound up cutting some of the smaller sections, at least from this chapter.

Most of today I goofed off. I spent a good three hours playing NHL 2K9 and Mario Kart on the Wii, and otherwise spent the day sitting on my duff. After dinner I finally brought myself to read through the forty pages of my first draft.

I cut about four pages from the introduction, mainly because I copied wrote them back before I realized this chapter needed to be split in two. Since a good chunk of the introductory section came from an article on the federalization debate, and I decided to make the federalization debate a chapter unto itself, I cut a big swath of the introduction and pasted it into the first draft of Chapter 7. Then I went through the rest of the chapter, made changes as appropriate, corrected a couple of typos, and decided it was suitable for the time being. It wound up being thirty-eight pages with the additions, which included another paragraph or so in the introduction so it makes sense in light of the way I had to rework this chapter and where I split it.

So, that puts me up to 253 pages through Chapter 6, plus the first four pages of Chapter 7.

At some point this weekend, maybe tomorrow, I’ll sit down and figure out how to incorporate the archival and other sources I collected last year into my first article so I can call it Chapter 7. I have no clue how long it’ll take to do that and write the actual draft. The last chapter I thought would be based principally on something I wrote before wound up taking me the better part of two or three weeks, although I wasn’t working straight through that entire period, plus I was cribbing from a seminar paper.

By contrast, at least this next chapter corresponds substantially to an article I actually published, which means it’s been extensively edited and vetted. Still, there’s probably scads of sources I still need to incorporate, and I’m also going to need to figure out a good way to carve out new sections for it. I don’t relish the thought of having to read carefully through my article plus my notes for about 150 sources, then figure out how to organize the sections and where to incorporate new material. It also means I have no clue how long the chapter will run (fifty or sixty pages?), though that’s less of a concern. But, once I get through the requisite pre-writing, I can knock this out relatively quickly, I hope.

Of course, there’s the irresistible pull of the Wii and other diversions …

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The Times biology columnist Olivia Judson has an interesting personal account this week of her experiences trying to manage her research electronically using Zotero (you can see my take on Zotero on the “Tech of Diss” tab), along with a Mac program called Papers intended to organize PDFs of downloaded scientific papers and journal articles sort of like iTunes.

I can’t speak from personal experience about Papers — and, frankly, I don’t find it that difficult to rename PDFs from the meaningless string of letters and numbers that comes up as the default file name to something more meaningful. I’m not inclined to spend forty bucks for a program that remains imperfect, especially since it’s geared toward scientists. Granted, it probably works reasonably well for scholars in non-scientific disciplines, but it might be a bit more of a chore if it was written with scientific researchers in mind, as opposed to historians or scholars in the humanities. Moreover, I think Zotero (or probably its commercial counterpart EndNote) offers a lot of the same features of Pages, if not the specific functionality, since Zotero allows you to tag articles with bibliographical information, abstracts, personal notes, and even links to the actual file (whether the format is PDF, image or document).

Of course, I think Judson’s recollections of the “old” ways of doing research (before journals and other repositories of knowledge went largely digital) suggests one of the advantages of being relatively young, since the internet and electronic databases have always been a part of my academic career. Consequently, I don’t think I really get the sense of feeling “lost” that Judson describes for her and her colleagues. I just take it for granted, for the most part, that I can get the information (and often the actual sources) from my laptop, no matter where in the world I happen to be. It really is empowering, since it made it possible for me to get a lot of dissertation work done while I was abroad, and having my dissertation research almost entirely digitized (save for a few photocopies but also all those pesky books that still aren’t, for the most part, available electronically in a full-text format). Indeed, I’ve managed to write probably close to eighty pages away from home in the past month, since I have (almost) everything on my laptop, and this is in addition to the first seventy-three pages of dissertation I wrote holed up in our flat in Prague over the summer.

The upshot is that I also know well how important it is to organize new sources and downloaded articles are I obtain them, so I know to rename PDFs with a more descriptive file name, to create hierarchies of folders with PDFs on my hard drive, and to make notes on my computer of what’s important for each source. It’s unavoidable that I have to read through my notes every time I come back to my sources cold, but I don’t have to go to the trouble of “re-researching” and downloading the same articles all over again the way Judson does.

(An aside: Many times I’ve wondered what it must have been like for academic types like myself to have searched for books, articles and other materials in the days before that information was catalogued electronically. The concept of the card catalog isn’t completely foreign to me, since we had card catalogs in our elementary and junior high school libraries. But I was never very skilled at using those to find sources, and it was still moot because I could always go to the public library and use its electronic catalog to find sources. Of course, I also have a fair sense of the experience of having to go to a bricks-and-mortar library to get information from all the hours I’ve spent reading forty-year-old newspapers on crappy microfilm readers, or thumbing through the yellowing, brittle pages of the actual newspapers, and having to spend hours sifting through finding aids in foreign archives because they haven’t digitized their complete catalogs.)

On the other hand, I definitely agree with Judson’s characterization of Zotero as “a bit buggy.” While Zotero is a powerful tool and has made my life a lot easier in terms of trying to organize and manage 1,200 or so sources with all my notes on them, it’s not quite all it could be. For one thing, I still have to input bibliographic information manually, save for the occasional book or article I can find in a library catalog (and since relatively few of my sources fit that description, I usually just add the citation info for those manually as well, since it takes less time than it would to fire up the library catalog, find the material, and extract and import the data into Zotero). Then there’s the problem of it lacking customizable reference fields. There’s the single field for “Location in archive,” which takes a sort of “one size fits all” approach to archival materials. It’d be a lot easier on me if I could just create fields for “fond,” “carton,” “bundle,” “folder,” “folio” and so forth. The various archival collections I used don’t used a standardized format for locating individual documents, or even the same system, which makes the approach of one size fits all used in Zotero less than optimal for my purposes. Consequently, I’ve opted not to use Zotero to create my actual footnotes, even though in theory it’s fully compatible with Word and should make my citations a lot easier. That might be the case in theory, but it practice I have to tailor my citations to the organization system used for that particular archival collection, and since Zotero can’t do that for me (at least not in an easy, obvious manner), I find, yet again, it’s easier just to do it my hand.

Really, there’s still a lot of ground out there for reference management software to cover. I suppose any program is going to have its shortcomings, unless you have the chops as a programmer to create your own software customized for your needs (or can tailor an open-source application like Zotero to fit those needs). Since I don’t, and don’t think it’s a productive use of my time to learn how to write my own software, I remain at the mercy of others.

Then again, plenty of scholars wrote dissertations, articles and books without benefit of a computer, let alone electronic reference management software and online catalogs. So, we’re still ahead of the game, living in this modern era.

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