• Michele Mills

Graduate School or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dissertation

Updated: Dec 5, 2019

During the course of my journey as a doctoral candidate, my relationship with academic writing became decidedly rocky. I was disenchanted with the academic writing process. The desire to walk away completely was becoming ever more appealing.

Writing a dissertation tastes like eating plain dry crackers.

In the midst of this disillusionment. I attended a seminar given by a Caribbean colleague about her research - a narrative, historical study. Her research was fascinating and she drew us so easily into the story of her research work, I found myself reflecting on what I perceived to be my deteriorating relationship with academic writing. I was losing interest in what I now considered the dry and sterile style of writing required at this level of academic study. It was new and exciting to me when I first began postgraduate studies some years before, but the glow had begun to fade and academic writing now seemed arid and to put it plainly, dull. However, as my colleague continued with her presentation, I began to realise that it did not have to be this way. After all, my passion for my area of research had not waned since I set out on this path. I had undertaken a qualitative study since that methodology connected with my own view of the world and how we understand it. So why had writing about my research begun to feel so empty? There must be some way to inject new life into this ever declining relationship with writing, I thought.

All writing is a creative process, including writing for academic purposes since it requires creative decisions about structure, language, clarity and, presentation.

I was intrigued by my colleague’s approach to her own research. Here she was weaving the 'story' of her research study and her audience was captivated. Of course since she was undertaking research in the narrative tradition this was to be expected. But her excitement about her project and her writing was proving to be infectious. The notion of the “story”, in fact the word itself was inviting and seemed to offer a way out of my ennui with writing the chapters of my dissertation. I needed to return to my roots in the Arts and Humanities specifically, Literature. Beyond my undergraduate years, I had moved away to studies in Education, a field more often located, strangely enough, in the faculties of Social Sciences. However, I never gave up my passion for well-written Literature and thankfully, remained a constant reader.

My colleague’s seminar became a defining moment for me. It was obvious that I had to recapture the joy of writing, including writing for academic purposes.All writing is a creative process, including writing for academic purposes since it requires creative decisions about structure, language, clarity and, presentation. So my first thought was to return to writing creatively again. This began simply.

I set myself a seemingly simple writing task, one that I had given to young students to help stimulate ideas, at least that was the hope. Students’ complaints of: “But I don’t know what to write about…” are all too familiar to English teachers. The activity invited them to use their five senses combined with similes to describe a completely inanimate object or a task, such as homework. So, for example: "Doing homework tastes like…; smells like… “ etc. The students usually came up with some, let’s say, interesting similes. But many showed a true effort to be imaginative. And more importantly it opened the door to writing as an enjoyable activity. I cannot take credit for this activity; I picked it up during professional training.

The joy of writing returned. I became inspired and actually excited about writing my dissertation.

So I began. I wrote the first ideas that occurred to me without over-thinking it. My first line read: “Writing a dissertation tastes like eating plain dry crackers”. The other lines were in a similar vein. As I read what I had written, the problem I was having with my academic writing became all too apparent - I was not enjoying the process. It was necessary therefore that I return to my literary sanctuary in order to be able to write about my research.

At the heart of literary writing, be it verse, plays, short stories or novels is the story. And, a key element of most stories is a source of conflict - characters in conflict with each other; with themselves; with society; with nature. Importantly, the audience joins the characters as they seek answers to these problems and, ways of understanding or explaining themselves, other people, their societies, their world. Good writing has universal appeal. It invites the audience to reflect on themselves or their societies through the character’s experiences and the truths at which they arrive. The stories are not always pretty; in fact they are quite often messy. Nor are they necessarily linear. More often than not they take unforeseen turns and often become surprisingly circular.

The process of research and writing about research studies is not so very different. Particularly in the qualitative tradition, it is the story of an inquiry into a particular problem, issue or paradox that is of concern or interest, or requires explanation or simply understanding. Research aims to arrive at answers or explanations that can be applied more universally. And there is an audience to

consider. The process can be messy and certainly the research story can take unexpected, but often interesting and fruitful turns. Ultimately, it is an iterative process.

My perception of the dissertation underwent a shift. I began to see it as the story of the research in all its stages, its early tentative efforts, its untidiness, its periods of frustration and, its moments of amazing clarity. Above all, I needed to understand that it was the narrative of my research journey and since I knew it better than anyone, I must do justice to that story. And that, required creativity. It became important to think imaginatively about the dynamics of the data and materials from the fieldwork, the analysis and presentation of the data, the discussion of the findings, and of course, the overall structure of the dissertation. For example, once I had deconstructed and analysed the data, metaphors served as important tools in the development of emergent themes. Metaphors also helped me build bridges between the findings and the theoretical framework that supported the study.

Creativity and attentiveness occupy the same space and enhance each other.

The joy of writing returned. I became inspired and actually excited about writing my dissertation. Academic writing demands a certain rigour and can become repetitive. The latter problem equally demands a creative approach to writing such as, the use of language, sentence structure, length of sentences, links between sentences and paragraphs, clarity. Drawing from a wider pool of vocabulary for example, offers one solution to the problem of repetition and enhances the quality of academic writing. Synonyms become helpful creative partners in this process. Gradually, I began to enjoy finding new ways to express similar ideas once more.

During the writing process inspiration merges with attentiveness to ideas and, better ways to express those ideas. There should be no conflict between the two. Creativity and attentiveness occupy the same space and enhance each other. Academic writing, like all writing, is and should be, above all a creative process that asks for a deeper level of thought about how the story is told. Academic writing does not have to taste like plain dry crackers when it can be improved with a range of toppings that make it more palatable and can enhance its presentation.