Lessons Learned from my Dissertation Defense

I still have that feeling of contentment in light of last Tuesday. Not because of the results of the election, but because I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation. I’ll leave the politics to others; frankly, I’m just glad this election cycle is over.

Photo: The Leeds Library. Public Domain:  http://ow.ly/QmT0306bLEN

Photo: The Leeds Library. Public Domain: http://ow.ly/QmT0306bLEN

Seminary has been the best decade of my life. I started on my Master of Divinity in the Fall of 2005. It’s now the Fall of 2016 and I’ve finally completed the final step of the process. All that remains are a few typographical revisions and graduation. I’ve invested the arm and a leg that it costs to get regalia, so that’s out of the way.

For the handful of folks that read my blog and are interested, I’ve been summarizing some lessons learned from each stage of the game. Today I’m going to do the same for my dissertation defense.

Readers should recognize that some of this depends on your topic, discipline, and committee composition. However, in general, here are the lessons I learned:

1.         You really do know more about the topic than your committee. Most of my life, the person giving the examination knew the answer before asking the question. However, at my defense, there were multiple occasions that my examiners asked questions out of legitimate curiosity or simply because they weren’t aware that the literature pointed a different direction. Being able to cite specific examples and argue cogently why I wrote one thing and not another was important, and my argument was accepted because I was more current and more deeply read on my topic than the examiners.

2.         Sometimes the committee is asking questions just to see how you’ll answer. After spending years looking up to the professor, now the professors are asking you for your judgment. There were a few questions that they asked that seemed to be more concerned with the manner that I answered them than what I said. Confidence is important, but so is humility. I admitted my knowledge, but it was important to admit when we went beyond what I had researched.

3.         Part of the defense, at least at Southeastern, is an assessment of character. This was more than just a test of knowledge. The committee wanted to see what I had learned about myself from the process. For me, one of the most important lessons was to have a greater degree of compassion for the authors whose imperfect books I read. There were points in my dissertation that I knew were not as strong as others, but at some point I had to accept that was the best I could do right now and move on. Other authors are doing the same.

4.         The extra time I spent making the dissertation readable paid off. There is little doubt from the comments of my committee that working to make the prose as clear as possible encouraged them to give me grace in other areas. Readability does not replace good content, but it was worth the effort. I think that the work on the front end helped contributed to the positive outcome that includes no mandatory revisions. I have some typos to fix, but only a few hours of work.

5.         The best dissertation is still the done dissertation. Even with changing jobs and moving halfway across the country last year, the dissertation still took me only about a year and a half to write. It was much better to push through than to drag it out for two or three years. (This assumes that you aren’t waiting on research, etc.) It was worth it to write nearly every day, give up some family fun and push to completion even when taking a week off would have felt really good.

6.         I benefited greatly from choosing my general topic (environmental ethics) at the beginning of my program. That allowed me to read broadly, explore various tangential topics in seminars along the way, and finally find a good working thesis.

7.         The best way to prepare is to re-read your dissertation and review your bibliography and footnotes to refresh who the conversation partners are. I also made sure I checked the committee’s publication lists to see if there was something they were thinking about that I should be prepared to discuss.

All in all, I’m glad to be done. It was a long process; I learned a lot about my topic and about myself. Now I need to set out a research agenda for the next few years. There is a stack of books on my shelves and another set in my Amazon wish list that I have been putting off and want to catch up with. I have some kids to play with and a laundry list of small projects around the house to do. Oh, the places we can go.

Preparing my Defense

Today I defend my dissertation. I imagine it will be something like this video. I'll let you know when I'm done.

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.