How I Wrote My Dissertation (Part 1)

How I Wrote My Dissertation (Part 1)

This is the first installment in what will be multiple posts about how I wrote my dissertation. I sent my full dissertation to my committee for their review about a year ago, so now seems like a good time to put some reflections about the process down in writing. I’m writing to share my experiences with the hope that this helps someone out there — someone who is trying to write. My way is not the way, but may serve as inspiration for others. Here goes.

Writing in Marble Notebooks

It took me about two years to write my dissertation. I began to write as soon as I finished my fieldwork in August 2014. I had been writing field notes throughout my almost three years of fieldwork, mostly in black and write marble notebooks. I prefer writing on paper to typing, and marble notebooks are cheap and durable. I also have an emotional connection to marble notebooks — just by happenstance I began writing in one when I was in high school and working for the summer at a hospital. My school had helped me to set up the position because I had expressed interest in medicine, and wanted to learn what it was like to be a doctor. Although I found the surgical procedures I witnessed fascinating, over the course of that summer, I became more interested in the relationships and power dynamics I saw at work between physicians, patients, nurses, and other staff. I lingered in the lunch room to listen in on conversations and observed how behaviors changed when certain people entered and exited the room. I learned the language of the hospital, and the slight differences between expressions used by different members of the clinical staff. I noted all of this down in a purple marble notebook on my long commutes home. It was only retrospectively that I realized that this had been my first step in anthropology — I had been doing participant observation and writing field notes. A marble notebook was my first fieldwork notebook, and though I hadn’t used them in the intervening years, I took to writing in them again, almost twenty years later, when I did fieldwork for my dissertation.

The First Seventy Pages

So when my field work done, I had three marble notebooks of notes. I also had a running list in my head of the important moments and scenes from my field work that stood out. My first task was to take my notes and those moments and write them up as narratives, meaning I thought and wrote about them with a beginning, middle, and end, in order to arrive at what the stories meant. I knew that these moments had struck me as important for a reason, and writing them up in a descriptive way helped to draw out those meanings. It took me about three months to write up these important scenes, and by then I had about seventy pages. I sent these pages to my advisor and committee chair for her feedback. I wanted to see if these moments were striking for her too, and to see if she interpreted the meanings of these scenes in the same way I did.

When I met with her, she told me that she enjoyed reading the descriptions, but that the writing was just that — descriptive. It wasn’t making an argument, and these stories together did not give her a sense of what my dissertation was really about. It was good writing and pleasant reading, but she did not know what I wanted to say. This feedback was hard to take at first, because I felt that I had begun to distill some meaning and analyze my notes. But I realized that those first seventy pages were a collection, and together did not yet add up to a larger story. I also realized that this level of analysis was just a first step, or as another advisor said,part of“cleaning up the mess of fieldwork.” This is how inductive research works, especially research in cultural anthropology. You have an idea of what you want to study, but then you spend time in the field and are involved and meet people and have relationships with them and things change. There may still be a kernel of what you wanted to study in the beginning, but a lot of that has fallen away. What’s next is to make your way through the mess, and for me, this involved writing, and writing again. I had a lump in my gut when I was told that those first seventy pages were okay, but not what dissertation writing looks like. Writing is a form of thinking, and I had to write and write to develop my thinking.

In the next installment, I’ll write about how I moved on from those seventy pages.