So, What’s a Dissertation?

Rachel Winter; Ph.D. Student; University of California Santa Barbara

Grad school is hard, but when you’re a first-generation college student, it can be even
more mysterious. When you arrive, you’ll learn that you need to produce a thesis or a
dissertation to complete your degree. While you might have a vague idea about what a
dissertation is, and what your colleagues have written, there’s still one important issue – how does one actually WRITE a dissertation?

As a first-generation graduate student, I’ve learned what a dissertation is, and I have a rough idea of a good topic. However, no one tells you how to write a dissertation. People assume that you know how to do it because you must do it to finish your degree.

What makes a dissertation so difficult? Is it knowing how to pick an appropriate topic?
Finding your archive(s)? Choosing a methodology? Wording your argument? Writing your dissertation is a delicate balance of all of the above, while also using several smaller sub-arguments to prove one larger argument.

While I don’t have all the answers about how to write a dissertation, I do know this:
you’re not alone. As graduate students, we often feel the need to put on a happy face. We don’t want to admit our struggles because we don’t want to disappoint our advisers or feel inadequate in comparison to our peers. However, this behavior is not healthy. By pretending that we know it all, by masking our questions and concerns, we only disadvantage ourselves, and prevent our own success.

When we can be honest with each other, we quickly realize that none of us know what
we’re doing, but we’re doing the best we can. To create a safe and healthy academic culture, we need to be open and honest about our struggles; we need to admit the things we don’t know, and we need to not be afraid of asking questions, like how do I write a dissertation?

So, where do we start? Most importantly, we need to be open and transparent. It’s okay
to admit to your peers and your advisers that you have questions or concerns. This is the only way we can grow as scholars, and as people.

If you don’t know where to start, social media is a great way to meet new colleagues and get advice about problems you may face in academia from several new perspectives. Across the world, grad students everywhere are struggling with similar issues. We should use the power of social networking to create a support system that allows us to succeed. It is by through being open about our questions and concerns, like how to write a dissertation, whether those conversations happen physically or digitally, that we are actually able to obtain the knowledge that we need to overcome our challenges.

More importantly, if your anxiety and concerns go beyond your dissertation, don’t be afraid to reach out to your local student health office. You, your mind, your body, and your health are more important than your dissertation. You’re not alone.