Dissertation Advice: Writing Starts with Reading

About three months have passed since I completed my dissertation at Princeton University in August 2013, and with some of my current and former students applying to graduate schools, I thought this would be a good time to put down my thoughts about the writing process. Along the way, I’ll try to provide links to people and other resources that Ph.D. students might find useful.

The timeline above that I devised on May 19, 2007, shortly after I accepted the offer from Princeton, was pretty unrealistic (it took more than two years longer than I ambitiously planned). Obviously, my advice in this blog post probably won’t get you finished any more quickly than you would have otherwise. However, it might make the road ahead a little less bumpy.

Read Dissertations Written by Previous Graduates

During the summer before I began classes at Princeton in 2007, I went to the ProQuest Dissertation and Theses database (hopefully, your institution has a subscription), downloaded, and printed out dissertations written by previous Princeton students.

One of my adviser’s recent students, Matthew Stavros, had graduated two years before, and his dissertation titled “Reading Ashikaga History in the Urban Landscape: Kyoto in the Early Muromachi Period, 1336–1467,” appears to have been the first one that I downloaded at Princeton on August 5, 2007.

Pay Attention to the Acknowledgments

The acknowledgments section alone was a tremendous resource. In those short five pages it informed me about grants and fellowships to which I could apply for funding; it let me know about his experiences with my future advisers (Martin Collcutt and David Howell); and it introduced me to staff and faculty at various institutions who had helped him over the years (Yasuko Makino, Gönül Yurdakul, Hue Kim Su, Haruko Wakabayashi, Suzanne Gay, Thomas Hare, Morgan Pitelka, and others).

Eight years after Matthew published his dissertation, the acknowledgments section in mine contains some of the same names. In part, this is because everyone has continued to be incredibly generous with their time and insights, but it is also because I knew to seek them out for assistance. Whatever your field, I highly recommend taking a look at the acknowledgments, introduction, and footnotes of dissertations to get a sense of the people and institutional support that will make your project possible. Finally, don’t forget about your family and friends, because it is a rare dissertation that gets written without their tremendous support and sacrifice.