Beki Grinter

Writing the Dissertation: One Reason Why it is Difficult

In academia, computer science, discipline, empirical, research on August 15, 2011 at 8:39 am

I have a theory about why writing the dissertation is such a difficult experience for many people. It turns on two assumptions, the genre of the document and the process of research.

The dissertation is a reflective document. It requires its writer to reflect back on not just the results of the research but also the process by which those results were acquired. And it asks the writer to look back over an extended period of time, typically some years.

And what self-critical researcher (which of course is what the process of getting a Ph.D. has turned you into) doesn’t look back at the mistakes. Perhaps it seems very obvious now that taking a particular approach to a study was circuitous. Perhaps it also seems that in retrospect something else should have been done. Not what you proposed, but something different. And there’s this document, feeling a bit like a catelog of horrors.

This is not the writer’s fault. This is the fault of research itself, and of what has really happened during the process, which is that the author has transformed themselves from a novice to an expert in the particular topic. To get the Ph.D. the writer has actually become a world expert as judged by publications in their community of practice. And as an expert the writer sees things about the original formulation that only an expert can see.

My hypothesis is that the dissertation has to feel the way it does. If it doesn’t then one of two things is a potential concern. Either the author has not really become an expert. Or the problem picked was easy enough to predict how to solve without any trial and error that it was probably not research, because anyone could have done without any errors.

There’s nothing to be done except to ride it out. Keep writing. Follow the mantra that it doesn’t have to be perfect it has to be done. The dissertation is an unusual document that comes at a very unique time in the research career.

I’d love to know whether anyone agrees with me.

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