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How to Jumpstart Your Dissertation

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By Michelle Bryant
Posted: Sept. 5, 2013

Like most graduate students, the hardest part of Kathleen Shafer’s dissertation was getting started.

Shafer, a graduate student in the Department of Geography and the Environment, was among 11 graduate students from The University of Texas at Austin to attend Dissertation Boot Camp this summer, a two-week pilot program hosted by the College of Liberal Arts’ Office of Research and Graduate Studies. The boot camp assembled some of UT Austin’s premier faculty and staff to offer guidance on writing and the importance of maintaining mental and physical fitness throughout the process.

“The task of writing a dissertation is one of many challenges that our doctoral students face as they grow into their scholarly profile, and the work habits and confidence that they develop during the dissertation stage remain with them for the duration of their professional lives,” says Esther Raizen, associate dean for research. “In addition to providing the framework for actual progress in writing, the boot camp was also a statement on the extent to which we in the College of Liberal Arts value students’ scholarship and the long-term promise of their career trajectories, as well as their well-being.”

Getting Started

Staring at a blank computer screen can be a daunting task for any writer. Graduate students face the added pressure of representing a culmination of years of study and research, while knowing they will eventually have to defend their work.

“The boot camp literally jump started me writing my dissertation,” Shafer says. “Two things were huge for me: Just start writing, because you can’t edit nothing. Also, working in small time blocks is okay.”

“It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of a book-length project, so it’s essential to break it down into manageable parts,” says Randy Lewis, a professor in the Department of American Studies. “This is key to developing a mindset that allows you to endure and even enjoy a multiyear writing process.”

Lewis, who served as a boot camp mentor, says he often imagines a large-scale writing assignment as a huge pile of sand that needs to be moved, but you only have a spoon.

“All you can do is move one spoonful at a time,” he says. “Yet if you do this consistently, you’ll actually make progress faster than you expect.”

The boot camp incorporated plenty of time for writing and visiting one-on-one with faculty mentors, as well as the opportunity to exchange work with a partner for feedback and advice. A chalkboard was used to keep tally of their writing progress each day. By the end of the boot camp, the participants had collectively written 241 pages and 67,579 words.

“My advice to people starting work on their dissertation is just start,” encourages Sandra Black, professor of economics and a boot camp mentor. “I found that was the hardest part of graduate school. I kept waiting for a brilliant idea to pop in my head and it doesn’t really work this way. You just need to start working on some project and the right project generally evolves from there.”

Shafer stumbled onto her dissertation topic in Marfa, Texas during a summer spent photographing abandoned airfields in the Southwest. One of her dissertation chapters is on visual methodologies, and she will be incorporating some of her own visual arts work into her dissertation.

“It is a town that combines both my interests of art and airfields,” she says. “I also knew that there was little qualitative writing on it so that was exciting.”

After boot camp, Shafer began keeping a daily writing log of her activity. She says that keeping track of her progress and working patterns helped her realize it is okay to take a day off, since about every sixth day she was producing little to no writing.

“Seriously, boot camp was essential,” Shafer says. “I would be in a very different place right now if I had not done it. First draft is done!”

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