What Is It Like to Write a Dissertation? // Interview with Michael McCarthy

headshot of Michael McCarthy

Michael earned his Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University at the same time that I was working on my master’s degree there, and he was in the same English department cohort as my husband. During our time in Lubbock, we became close friends. He agreed to let me pester him with some questions about his experience writing a dissertation.  

How long was your dissertation?

My dissertation was 100 pages long. It was relatively short compared to other PhD students I know who were writing at the same time. However, I received good feedback and direction that allowed me to “trim the fat” so to speak out of my dissertation and laser focus on my topic and research. The topic that I wrote on was also relatively understudied at the time and has since grown in interest and other authors publishing along the same lines my dissertation was following.

How did you motivate yourself to finish?

I had a good feedback loop and chair throughout the process. I had two chairs during my writing, both of which were fit to my style of research and writing. Sending chapters in for revision and getting them back in a short time (I’d estimate a week was the most I waited) helped to keep the material fresh and keep my process moving along. In addition to having quick turnarounds for revision, I was also on the clock funding wise as well as job wise. My fiance had a job lined up and was graduating and I wanted to finish on time as well as not take up any more funding than I needed to. I was ready to start my life outside of graduate school. It was a fantastic motivator.

What was your biggest struggle while you were writing?

Honestly, after coursework the biggest struggle was finding blocks of time to write. My writing process is very much a “sit down and write it out” process where I spend a few hours (4 to 8 hours) writing, editing, and revising. Finding that time is difficult, but doable. I worked chapter by chapter, so I would try to sit down and write a chapter or finish writing a chapter, edit it, and send it off for feedback and revision. Ultimately, it kept me moving forward, but there were long stretches where I wouldn’t be able to find time or motivation to write. When I found the time or motivation a lot was finished at once, but the lead up to that time was a bit difficult to get through at times.

What advice would you give to other dissertation writers?

I want to echo something that was relayed to me when I was shopping around for a dissertation committee: “Make your committee work for you, not against you.” The biggest boon in my entire process was having a committee that worked with my writing style and process. In addition to that, I got along with my committee members and turned to both of my chairs whenever I needed help or direction. The most horror stories I heard when I was writing was when a committee member or chair was not working well with other members or with the writer. I tried to avoid that at all costs because it eats up the limited time I had in graduate school. So, the key takeaway is: Don’t rush into putting a committee together. Take your time in picking who you want to work with and who will work well with you.

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