I often reflect on my dissertation with a sense of existential exhaustion, as well as dread. I can easily recall the potent suffering of trying to write, as if pulling blood from stone. Agony had become something that was seemingly necessary, not only for the completion of a dissertation, but for a scholarly career and in the life of a writer. Certainly, as with all things, there are ups and downs, struggles and victories, in a scholar’s life. However, suffering need not—indeed, should not—be perceived as a writer’s bedfellow. In preparing the workshop “Not Missing the Forest for the Trees: A Workshop on Writing and Finishing the Dissertation,” I considered such deeper existential aspects of struggling to finish a doctoral degree. The result of this reflection was a provisional list that I call “The Five Pillars of Writing a Dissertation.” I share these suggestions with the hope that they not only help you in your own struggle to finish the dissertation, but also and as important, that they encourage you to build your own pillars of wisdom that can be passed on down the line. 

  1. Become comfortable with the quiet. Meditate, exercise outdoors away from city streets, silently reflect on a beautiful photograph; do anything you can to engage the quiet as a collaborator, not an antagonist. 
  2. Process over results, means over ends: The great Muslim sage Ja’far al-Sadiq once said: “Verily, knowledge is the lock and its key is the question.” The anticipation of the finished product and the next phase in one’s academic career often deflects necessary attention from the actual craft of writing. When sitting, frustratingly, in front of a flashing cursor and a seemingly blank page, try to remember that the ability to pass through this temporary stage is foundational to a lifelong commitment to the craft of writing. Emphasize craft over the career, means over ends.
  3. Procrastination is not laziness: Procrastination is a form of alienated intellectual labor and should not be confused with laziness and thus used as a tool of self-flagellation or shaming. Rather than bemoaning the ills of procrastination, positively engage it with writing. Keep notebooks all around your house so that while you are “procrastinating” (cleaning dishes, snacking, reading a book of poetry unrelated to your dissertation, watching Netflix, etc.) and thoughts relevant to your research arise, you can take note of them.
  4. Movement: Prolonged sitting in front of a screen will not only exhaust your mind but deplete your soul. Prolonged sitting in silence, however—especially outdoors or with a view of the outdoors—will do the opposite, as will intentional movement. Yoga, pilates, whatever it is: move. Circulation is the key to all life cycles, stagnancy is not. Keep the blood flowing in your arteries and the air in your lungs.
  5. Reach out to others ESPECIALLY when it is uncomfortable and scary to do so. Building community and intimacy can be the most rewarding aspect of writing a dissertation, indeed of being in a PhD program. Lifelong bonds can be built through shared struggle and so I encourage anyone struggling with their writing who feels all alone to seek out support. With this in mind, for anyone who reads this and wants to talk, please email me at afardis@fas.harvard.edu.

Notes from a Writer's Desk: Five Pillars of Writing a Dissertation (A Humble and Provisional List)