Saturday, March 10, 2007

It's your life

Writing a dissertation can be a disorienting process. What people lose sight of is that they’re not just writing a dissertation, they’re living a life.
The writing of the dissertation should not just be compartmentalized.
And in a way it cannot.

So one has to ask: “how does this project fit in with my goals for my life?”
By understanding what those larger goals are, one can more easily see the purpose of finishing the dissertation (or other project).

One of the greatest struggles that I see people having is that their dissertation has become disconnected with the rest of their life—they lose desire and interest, they become apathetic because they begin to view the project as nothing more than a meaningless academic exercise.

Once, they started pursuing an idea that they thought was important, but for various reasons got led down some other track, and suddenly find the inertia of months or years of research pushing them and dominating their ideas.

First off, it should be noted that people change—sometimes what seemed important no longer seems important—values change—desires change—one who starts out thinking of a career as a professor may decide that something different would be better. It’s always a realistic question to consider whether one should finish the degree.

If one has a reason for finishing the degree, but no longer cares about the subject, then the project has become an academic exercise in completing a formalism. But if viewed in that light, one can see direction. For instance, one can eschew perfection and seek the most direct and, perhaps crass, route to completion: finding out exactly what the committee desires and making a paper satisfy that. In other words, if you’re completing the project just for the degree, then one should, logically, do the minimum necessary to obtain the degree in the most efficient manner possible. Since many people get stuck trying to make the project good enough, recognizing your goals in this way may help remove some blockages. If you’re writing a dissertation on integrated circuits or on electronic music and you’re planning to go live off the grid and raise sheep, why lose time trying to make your dissertation a great work? Get it done and go do what you want.

But if you really do care about what you’re saying, if you think it’s important and needs to be said right, then refocus on why you think that it is important and begin to build the project with respect to those aims—give the project meaning again.

I worked with someone who had become apathetic about the subject of his/her dissertation. It was a sadly ironic situation, as the topic was “Hope”. But what had happened was that the academic exercise of writing about the topic had become disconnected from the motivations that had given the project its initial drive.

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