What did I learn about getting a dissertation done?

By the time this piece is published my dissertation will be sitting in the hands of my examiners and I will be moving on to my PhD. The last two and-a-bit years have been the most intense learning experience of my life, professionally and personally, and in the brief moments of peace between franticly making the last few edits of the final draft there has been much reflection about what this degree meant to me. This is a quick reflection about one (significantly important) aspect of that journey: Writing.

I have always been bookish. My childhood was a stark contrast of feral adventures exploring the natural world, and having my nose buried in one of the thousands of imaginary realms hidden behind yellowing pages and rigid text. Reading is, in my opinion, the basis of all writing because it exposes you to different styles. Finding your own style is crucial if you want your work to come across as authentic. My reading has always had a distinct lean towards the natural sciences with significant influence from the recommendations of my Dramatic Arts and AP English teachers (and in more recent years my friends of jurisprudential flavour). This has led to a somewhat unconventional style, particularly for a career in STEM.

Reading widely also exposes you to new ideas. It allows you to blend disciplines and gives opposing thoughts time to marinate in the mind. This is certainly important for developing ideas, but I think it is also largely because of my obsession with reading widely that writing came easily to me. Essays and assignments at school, and well into my undergrad, flowed from pens without much planning and I tended to edit as I write instead of after. Writing a dissertation is, however, an entirely different beast to wrestle with.

Despite writing coming easily to me, I am incredibly critical of what I write and never enjoy actually reading my own work. A dissertation requires you to go back, re-read, reflect, and correct. I’ve had to learn that sometimes it’s better to just write, get some points on paper, and keep it moving even if you’re not entirely happy with the immediate output. I usually prefer to tackle large chunks of writing in one-go, but this isn’t possible every day. Don’t underestimate how quickly daily additions of even short pieces can add up and help you finish a chapter, particularly when you’ve hit a low patch and aren’t feeling productive. A dissertation is also an ever-evolving piece of writing, but it will also never be perfect. As we’ve reached the final stages I’ve had to learn that a dissertation is, after all, just a submission for a degree. It’s never meant to be a career-defining piece of writing, but a step towards a qualification. As much as there is always a better way to structure and word a paragraph, and I’ve had to learn to leave things as I’ve written them if there’s no real reason to change things.

For those of you thinking of doing, or who are just starting, a Masters I think the only real advice I can give you is to read outside your discipline, and to just write. It’s a fine balance between developing your ideas and getting it down on paper, and your approach will be unique to who you are, your style or writing, and the subject of your research. Write in a way that is reflective of who you are, but see the piece for what it is: a stepping-stone.


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