What is it Like to Write a Dissertation? // Interview with David Young

David finished his Ph.D. at Texas Tech University at the same time that I was working on my master’s. In his interview, he shares some classic advice as well as a surprising Starbucks habit. 

How did you set up your time and space to write? In other words, when and where did you write best?

I’m not a coffee drinker, but for some reason I got in the habit of writing at Starbucks. I’m not sure why that happened, but I realized that I needed a space that was wholly separate from my living space and regular workspace. I couldn’t ever make it feel just write in my office, probably because other people were around and that’s where I did administrative work. I guess my brain made it hard to get into a writing mindset in a place where I did other things like live, grade, or schedule. Starbucks just worked because it was completely separate from everything else I did.

After I found my new space, I just made being at Starbucks part of my routine. I was there every weekday morning for 2-3 hours. Often, I wouldn’t run into other people that I knew, so I had zero distractions. I could just write. No one there to judge you for not writing enough. No one there to ask about your weekend. No one there to talk about their writing. For me, this drastically improved the efficiency of my writing.

Before I knew it, even the smell of coffee would put me in the mood for writing. The problem was that I could only really get in the zone at this specific Starbucks. I tried other coffee shops, but it just never felt right. I probably wrote 95% of my dissertation in the same Starbucks while rotating between two different seats.

What advice would you give to other dissertation writers?

Make writing part of your day. Make it your routine. Writing is kind of like working out. It’s something that just has to get done. You don’t necessarily want to do it, but you just have to make the time and make it a priority.

Choose the part of your day that you feel most productive and devote an hour or two of that time to just writing. Don’t worry about the thinking part. Just write. Use other times to review and revise, but create time in your day to just write. I found that the biggest hurdle I had was just writing. I could think through what I wanted to say and I loved doing that, but the writing was not something I looked forward to.

For me, the mornings worked best because it’s where I put everything else I’m not really trying to do. Eventually, it just became normal to wake up, clean myself up, then start writing. You just have to do it and operate under the assumption that any first draft is going to be rough. Don’t worry about the revision and the review when you’re writing. Just write. Get that first crappy draft out of the way and then you can spend more of your time with the real work of making that writing comprehensible to someone else.

How did you motivate yourself to finish?

I had a job lined up after graduation, so I HAD to finish. Knowing that tangible consequences would materialize if I didn’t finish made everything more real. A good piece of advice I heard once was that your dissertation is going to take about three months of solid writing time to finish. You can either spend three months of real time writing your dissertation or you can spread that three months over a year. I spread that three months over the course of six months, so the pressure wasn’t too high to finish, but I still felt it.

That’s another piece of advice too. Spread that writing time over a year. The future version of yourself will thank you for it.

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