Demystifying the Dissertation Chapter (Hidden Curriculum #4)

The hidden curriculum series is back! For those of you who are new here, the hidden curriculum includes a set of things we’re expected to know how to do, from attending a conference for the first time to applying for funding to going on the job market, without actually being taught them. Since I signed up for a Dissertation ECoach last term, I thought I’d share a few tips that I found most helpful from it.

Actually footage of me pretending to work on my dissertation

Dissertation ECoach – What is it?

The Dissertation ECoach is an interactive digital messaging tool that draws on dissertation writing strategies to affect graduate students’ writing practice. It was developed by several teaching and writing centers at the University of Michigan, and ran weekly for the duration of the Winter term (Jan-Apr). 

Through the ECoach portal, graduate students who are starting to write their dissertation receive personalized messages that influence a positive writing process. The personalized feedback that students receive helps them engage with more effective writing practices.

Top 5 Best Tips from the ECoach

Although there was a wide range of advice and resources offered by the ECoach over the course of the semester, I felt that some advice was more helpful and effective than others. 

Here are my top five takeaways from the ECoach portal.

1. Outlining the dissertation

Something that blew my mind in just the first few weeks of the ECoach was the idea that the dissertation is just several questions that you want to answer. Each question roughly correlates to a chapter within your dissertation, but there may be additional questions for each section of your chapter.

In terms of outlining, the ECoach offered this suggestion for structure:

  • Introduction 
  • Background
  • Working thesis
  • Main arguments
  • Counter arguments
  • Conclusion

Of course, every dissertation chapter is different. I tried to follow this outlining suggestion and my own chapter ended up looking very different. 

Structuring your chapters is definitely a lot of trial and error, writing and revising. Don’t be afraid to try something out and then edit, rearrange, or even delete things later. It won’t ever be perfect the first time around.

A final note: the outlining suggestions from the ECoach made me realize, three semesters into candidacy, that I didn’t have an overall outline for my dissertation. Make sure you have one, even if it’s really rough. 

Once you have the big picture of your dissertation laid out, create separate documents for each part of your dissertation and link them to the master outline

This way you can more easily focus on just one section or chapter at a time, without being overwhelmed.

2. Time management

This section was pretty straightforward, but still helpful to be reminded of: set specific and achievable goals for each writing session.

Know what you need to do, understand how much time each task will take, and set aside productive time each day. It may be helpful to keep a writing log so that you can visualize your daily goals and ideas, the time you put into the work you do, and what the next steps will be.

3. Crafting arguments in your dissertation

When attempting to craft solid arguments in our dissertations, it is important to continually reflect on our work. Some questions to consider:

  • What is the problem?
  • What have others done to solve this problem?
  • What is missing?
  • What are the objectives of this project?

These questions can be applied to the dissertation overall, as well as to specific sections of the dissertation (i.e. chapters and sections within chapters). The same is true of the structure of your argument. The ECoach offered several options in this respect:

  • General-Specific: usually begin with either a short or extended definition; a generalization or purpose statement; or some interesting statistics 
  • Specific-General: helps keep track of the big picture; begins with a specific focus (i.e. an event, a piece of art, or an individual or organization) and then progressively get more general
  • Toulmin Model: begin with claims which are statements you hope to prove; begin to develop your claim by drawing up a list of reasons to support it or finding evidence that backs up the point (‘the data tells me X, so Y’)
  • Listing and Ordering Counterarguments: present most salient counterarguments and then refute them; start general then move to particular arguments

4. Go back to your evidence

This is probably the one piece of advice that helped me most when I couldn’t figure out where to start in crafting a solid argument.

I’ve always had trouble with finding my own voice in my writing. In particular, I would always focus too much on mastering and then summarizing the secondary sources before turning to the primary sources. However, this past semester, I decided to re-prioritize.

If you’re stuck with your writing or don’t know where to begin, re-identify and reassess what evidence is most critical for your work. Then write down your observations, no matter how small, unimportant, or irrelevant you initially think they might be. You can always go back and revise later. 

What matters at this point is getting words – your own words – on the page.

5. Style and voice in academic writing

Although the jury is still out about whether “I” statements belong in academic writing, I found it really refreshing to be encouraged to use them in my drafting. 

Using “I” statements in your drafts allows you to hear yourself thinking, and see your own ideas emerge from the sea of competing experts, studies, theories, and arguments.

I also found the recommendations to draw from model texts and build your own specialized academic glossary helpful in thinking about writing style. Both of these pieces of advice help you identify disciplinary conventions that you should follow as you write and revise. 

When building your academic glossary, making it specific to your research topic is key. In my case, I chose studies (articles, books, published dissertations) focused on archaeology, commensality, and ceramic analysis as model texts.

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