Efficient Dissertation Writing; or, How to Negotiate the A+ Mentality

by | June 25, 2012

Many learners who reach the dissertation stage struggle with the pursuit of perfection, or what I call the “A+ mentality.” They have a number of personal and professional accomplishments under their belts, including high GPAs. They have received praise from instructors, they are role models in their communities, and they have keen insight into how their academic scholarship will benefit practitioners in their field. In short, they’ve worked hard to reach the dissertation stage, and they are ready to continue that hard work. But when learners reach the dissertation, many are surprised by how the hard work required for a dissertation is very different from the hard work that has brought them to the point.

Know that the dissertation is an entirely different creature than coursework and that you therefore must adopt a new way of writing in order to most efficiently succeed.

A number of variables factor into this difference, including the scope and depth of a dissertation project, the high bar of writing and critical thinking required for the dissertation, the communal nature of academic knowledge production, and the personal transformation undergone by any academic-in-training. (On this last variable, see my colleague Jonathan Gerhz’s recent post.) Even as these variables draw from the skills, practices, and knowledge that learners cultivate throughout coursework, the fact stands that a dissertation is a different creature than a course.

Therefore, why continue to write as if you are writing to get an A+ in a course? Learners who write for an A+ all too often delay submitting work to their mentor for fear that it’s not good enough yet. They recognize all of its faults and shortcomings. They feel anxious at the thought of sharing less-than-ready work with their mentor. They want it to be near perfect before their mentor sees it. And there is no hard and final deadline upon which a grade hinges. They can (and many do) continue to postpone the deadline to give themselves more time, and more time, and more time, and more time, etc.

Learners should leaven their pursuit of perfection with the recognition that mentor feedback is a vital part of dissertation writing. Submitting your work to scrutiny is a hallmark of academic knowledge production. Embracing this fact earlier and setting submission goals for yourself will help you overcome the urge to brood on your dissertation for unnecessarily long stretches of time.

To best negotiate the “A+ mentality,” set regular submission goals for yourself each quarter. Ask yourself what you must accomplish on a daily and weekly basis to meet those goals. And don’t be afraid to submit something that may be rough despite your efforts!