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The lessons I've learned by writing a dissertation

The lessons I've learned by writing a dissertation

Last week, I made the final edits to my dissertation draft and got it printed. This week, I handed it in. All I have to do in the two months I have left at my current university is prepare for my defense. It’s a good time to look back at the four years I spent here. I will start with the last thing I did—writing my dissertation—and come to the rest of my experience in a later post.

I’ve been slowly writing bits and pieces of my dissertation for well over a year. While that might seem like a long time, it was mostly half an hour every morning before going to work. The actual amount of writing I got done wasn’t that large. Writing a dissertation, a half-hour at a time, is a long process (way longer than a year).

All this changed in May. First of all, my latest research project had been nearing its end for some time, and it was the last one I would need before defending my dissertation. I also got an offer for a postdoc position; we agreed on a starting date during the beginning of September, and it became clear that I’d have my defense before that. Practically overnight, my dissertation moved up in my list of priorities from (almost) the bottom to the very top.

In the following six weeks, I managed to finish drafting, incorporate feedback from my supervisor, proofread the whole text, and prepare it for print. The schedule was tight (in the last week, I didn’t have time for anything but writing) but not terribly so. I didn’t have to continue working late into the night. It would have been impossible to plan everything better.

Why am I telling you all this? Because the whole process (and the last few weeks in particular) helped me realize three things: I enjoy writing (I actually knew that already), I am good at it, and I know I’m good at it.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out one enjoys writing. But finding out that one is a good writer is more difficult. For me, the final proof was that my supervisor gave me a single round of feedback on my dissertation.

As I said before, the schedule was tight. My supervisor didn’t have time to read my dissertation twice; he barely had the time to read it once (I don’t blame him, though; I didn’t give him much time). He had some feedback on what I’d written, of course, but requested no substantial changes. I should better delineate what my own contributions are, I should better explain my motivation behind why I did what I did – That sort of thing; Easy to fix!

Granted, my dissertation didn’t require that much writing in the first place. It is based on the papers I wrote with my supervisor (and two of our postdocs). So it was a question of joining them into one story arc, providing a more detailed background, and writing a joint introduction and conclusion. But there is still a lot that could go wrong with all these things; and it didn’t. I had an idea for all this, wrote it down, and it didn’t need much reworking. To me, that’s a sign that I’m a decent writer.

It’s one thing to be a good writer but it doesn’t help much if one is constantly doubting oneself. I also had my worries when I sent the draft to my supervisor – What if he finds a huge error in my calculations? What if he thinks I should add half a chapter more? What if I’ll have to restructure the whole text? But I didn’t let that stop me. And once I got the revisions back, I was confident enough to believe that one round of feedback is enough to ensure I’ve written a good dissertation (My supervisor actually read the most critical parts once more after my revision so it was more like one and a half rounds, but my point still stands).

I know I’m lucky that everything went so smoothly. Many people struggle with their writing (I do too, at times). But I’m not writing this post to gloat – because figuring this out is just the beginning.

Now that I’m aware of my writing skills, I have to make sure I use them well.

I have to write great research papers.

I have to write great blog posts (And I have to believe they are great. My blogging confidence isn’t nearly as high as my dissertating confidence, which is weird because I’ve written more blog posts than dissertations).

I have to write great books, if the opportunity ever comes.

And if I find out that academia isn’t for me, I’ll know I have to find a job that involves a lot of writing.

In the coming weeks and months, my goal is clear: write a lot. I’m starting a new job and I’ll have to figure out what exactly I’ll work on. I also want to start blogging regularly again (for the zillionth time) and I’m not yet sure what path I want to take. I’ll be surrounded by ideas day in and day out and have to find the ones worth following.

And the best way to sort through myriad ideas is writing, writing, writing.

Ondrej Cernotik (@cernotik) is a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light in Erlangen, Germany. This story was published on July 7, 2017, on Ondrej's blog, (available here) and has been republished here with his permission.

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