Some Lessons from Dissertation Writing

This week I turned in my dissertation. Now I wait for my defense. In the moment of euphoria before I find out everything that is wrong with the project I’ve been working on for a year, I decided to jot down some of the things that I’ve learned so far about the process.

Some of these lessons are based on advice and counsel that others gave me, but that I’ve since found to be wise. We’ll find out how well I did on the final product in a couple of months. Even if there are flaws (there are, trust me) in my dissertation, here are some things that I have learned through writing the longest academic work I’ve ever attempted.

1.         It’s never going to be perfect. – One of the hardest things to recognize just prior to my submittal of my dissertation was that there were still going to be some imperfections in the manuscript. I’ve read the completed manuscript multiple times. So has my wife. I have no doubt that there are still a few typos, missing words, extra spaces, or the like throughout. At some point you have to let it go.

2.         You can’t read every possible source. – I wrote each of my chapters, referencing those volumes and thinkers that best related to my point in the text. However, as I was doing my final read through of the dissertation before submitting it, I kept on thinking of additional sources that could have bolstered my point or that I could have read. There are new books in the academic catalogs that are begging to be included in my bibliography and dozens of articles that I downloaded that I never got to read. I could have tried to read and cite more, but sooner or later you have to turn the project in.

3.         Having someone else read it is invaluable. – My amazingly patient wife also serves as my editor. She doesn’t do style manual stuff, but she does read for grammar, clarity, and typographical issues. Having her read my chapters to tell me where I made no sense or where I had errors made a huge difference in the end, I think. There were a number of places she called my attention to that were unclear and needed simple rewording to make the project better.

4.         This isn’t the best thing you will ever write. – Looking at the 358 pages of manuscript is pretty impressive. It’s the longest piece of scholarship I’ve ever written. In fact, most of the chapters are longer than any paper I’d previously written. What I had to continually fight back was the goal to make this my magnum opus. I will write something better later on, so I need to make a good effort but not think that this is the pinnacle of my scholarship. My scholarship and writing should get better in the future. That’s not a ding against my dissertation, it’s a reflection of academic maturation.

5.         Doing a read-through at the end is important. – Before I had the final proofreading done by my wife, I read through the dissertation from cover to cover in about two days. Since some of my chapters had been written about a year before, this was an important step in the editing process. By the end of the writing process I had developed some key phrases and learned to avoid others. I was able to edit the earlier chapters to reflect the language of the later chapters (chronologically) by the end. This step helps the project read more like a cohesive work of scholarship, instead of a collection of essays. I was also able to find some places where I could clarify my own explanations, which, I think, made the end product more readable for someone else.

6.         Creating a project plan with deadlines is vital. – The internet is flooded with “dissertation writing as project planning” sites. There is value in the approach. I only met a couple of my deadlines, so I had to keep revising and extending the project plan. However, by delineating the steps and what it would take to get there, I could focus on the next thing instead of getting overwhelmed by the size of the project. By having an internal deadline (with plenty of margin built in to the institutional deadline) I had something to keep me moving. Because I had looked at the institutional deadline and built my project plan based on that, I knew what I had to do to get the project in on time. This made it easier to prioritize so that I could know when I needed to lock myself away to write or when I could play another game of Monopoly with the kids.

7.         Stay on topic. – There were about a million times in the process of writing that I found interesting rabbit trails to go down. I even ventured down a few of them. I’ve got extensive notes and footnotes to prove it. However, when I was polishing my dissertation, most of the work of those rabbit trails ended up deleted from the final product. I may use some of the material for essays later on, but I sometimes spent a week on research that was interesting, but did little to support my final dissertation. A bit more discipline would have benefited me significantly.

8.         Keep notes on the side ideas. – I wasted some time along the way exploring rabbit trails. However, one of the things that I think will bear some fruit in the future is using some of that material and the ideas that I got while writing my dissertation to produce journal articles at a later date. I’ve got a list of potential topics with some sources that I can chase down now that I’ve finished my dissertation. These don’t all relate directly to my dissertation topic, but there is room for further research. I now have more ideas for the future than my life and schedule can possibly support.

There are probably more things that I’ve learned. Perhaps after my defense I’ll pick up the topic again. Or, I may discover that some of my lessons learned aren’t as helpful as I thought. I’ll let you know what the readers think.

The Professor's Puzzle - A Review

There are very few jobs where someone recently from their training does not feel inadequate and somewhat unprepared. This occurs even in training nuclear operators, where we spent thousands of hours practicing in a simulator, studying the facts behind systems, and performing tasks under the supervision of qualified operators. Despite all of the practice, operators consistently reported that on the first day on the job on their own they felt nervous.

In the case of college professors, unlike many other professionals, the complaint is much more valid. This is because PhD programs focus on expertise in the field instead of pedagogy. In other words, the prospective professor learns the subject matter and not the means to explain it well. This is a benefit when it comes to doing scholarly research and writing, but it does not prepare PhD candidates for one of the most important tasks in their academic careers: teaching students.

Michael Lawson’s recent book from B&H Academic aims to fix that problem, specifically for professors teaching in a Christian context. The book he’s written, The Professor’s Puzzle, is a gift to the church because it fills in significant gaps that PhD programs leave out. He’s written a book that will help recent graduates, whether they come from a seminary or a university.


In ten chapters, Lawson manages to at on the major skills that are neglected by most doctoral programs. In Chapter One he builds a philosophy of education, which is frequently skipped. Then, in the next chapter he outlines the basics of the integration of faith and learning. Lawson’s version of faith and learning integration goes well beyond slapping a Bible verse onto the syllabus but shining the light of the gospel on the whole educational experience.

Chapter Three gives an overview of several significant learning theories. Given the diversity of opinions on this topic, Lawson’s chapter is obviously not the final word, but he is balanced and informative. In the fourth chapter, Lawson outlines a method for outlining a syllabus, which is a skill that many new faculty lack. Lawson lays out the basics of course design in a single chapter; I’ve taken and witnessed many professors late in their careers who could benefit from reading and applying that chapter.

The fifth chapter continues the pedagogical theme, discussing degrees of mastery of content and introducing Bloom’s taxonomy. In Chapter Six Lawson discusses managing a classroom, which includes the layout of the classroom, the volume of content in the course, and the flow of the class time. This chapter is, perhaps, a concentration of the most important aspects of teaching that many new professors may have never encountered before receiving their hood and guild card. In the seventh chapter, the assessment process is discussed. This includes assessment of the students, assignment of grades, and assessment of the course.

Chapter Eight touches on basic instructional techniques. Lawson does not call for killing the lecture, but he does recommend doing something besides merely lecturing. The ninth chapter deals with the relational skills that are particularly important for the Christian professor. As fellow believers or as witnesses to unbelieving students, Christian professors have the responsibility to engage their students on a personal and spiritual level. In the final chapter, Lawson presents some of the realities of university life to the young professor. These include budget concerns, enrollment, advising, tenure, etc. All of the things that keep the administrators up and sometimes bleed into faculty life more than they’d like. The book then closes with three appendices with examples and additional information to augment the earlier discussions.


I have been a professional instructor (in commercial nuclear power, not academia), a longtime student, and an administrator in higher education. This book is a condensation of much that I wish all faculty knew. It does not provide the definitive word on any topic, but it does touch on most of the major topics.

The two weaknesses of the volume are that it has limited advice for online instruction and it does not cover academic assessment of student learning. Lawson does address online some, but it feels like the discussions of online are tacked on the end of the chapters. There is room for more development here. Additionally, Lawson talks some about assessing learning, but given the pervasiveness of assessing Student Learning Outcomes, it would have been beneficial to discuss that more in detail here. In this regard, however, I may be overly biased as I am a Director of Assessment.

These weaknesses are minor in comparison to the extraordinary breadth of information that Lawson covers. This is a one-stop shop for the new Christian professor. It should become part of PhD curricula across the country, particularly at seminaries. Lawson’s vision for teaching the whole student and integrating knowledge with a distinctly Christian worldview are more important today than they ever have been.

This is the sort of book that should be included in courses at Christian seminaries and universities that deal with pedagogy. I am recommending it for my university’s new faculty orientation next year. Faculty who are early in their career should pick it up and read it this summer; it may provide the solution to various problems both inside and outside the classroom. The Professor’s Puzzle is not a volume that will lead to high volume sales to the general Christian population, but it should be a keystone in the library of most young Christian academics.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was granted by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.