Monday, January 22, 2018

What's a dissertation good for? Practice.

What’s a dissertation good for, anyway? My answer: it's practice that develops valuable skills.

Last Friday, I made a video about practice. It was a sort of follow-up on the previous video, which had talked about a willingness to make mistakes. Practicing involves making mistakes, and working to stop making those mistakes.  My video suggested looking at the dissertation as a practice—to focus on the process, and to take each step as part of a practice in which mistakes are merely part of the process—one makes a mistake and one learns to iron it out.

It’s easy to get focused on the product of a dissertation project: the dissertation itself, or its theoretical or intellectual content.  With that focus, it can be easy to get sucked into negative considerations about the limitations of research. Dissertations are usually written with limited resources. Even those that contain publication-quality research usually require significant revision before they are suitable for publication. Many doctoral candidates get discouraged that their work is so small as to be meaningless.

But the dissertation could be viewed differently.  Maybe the dissertation project is not about creating research, but about creating researchers? You can view the dissertation project through this lens to your benefit.

Approaching the dissertation project as a practice means taking action for the purpose of developing skills that you can use.  The skills needed by a researcher are often skills that are of valuable in many areas: the ability to express oneself clearly in writing and in speech is certainly valuable in many contexts. The ability to plan, organize, manage, execute and complete a project is a valuable skill in many contexts. The ability to use research literature effectively is important for professionals in many or most fields.

Every day that you exert yourself to work on your dissertation, you are exercising some or all of these skills. And the more that you work at practicing these skills, the more your skills develop. And as your skills develop, the scope of your endeavors can increase.

Consider, by analogy, a musician. Each day, the performing musician practices to hone skills and mistakes made in that process are nothing but part of the process of refining and improving the performance. But in the process, the skills necessary to perform improve, and the musician who starts with simple pieces for performance moves on to more complex ones. At each stage of the advance, there are moments when the musician is at the limit of current abilities and struggles. And, with practice, those struggles are often overcome, and skills increase and the complexity of the music that can be formed increases, as does the pleasure that comes with performing well.

If you are a dissertation writer, you are probably working on your first independent research project, and perhaps you are unsure of your steps in that process. That’s perfectly natural. And that’s why you practice. When you view your work as a practice, you can approach each day saying “this present day is only part of the practice; whether today goes well or ill, tomorrow will still just be another day in the practice.”  OK, sure, there may be exceptional days when something really bad happens and makes the next several days more difficult. But on the whole, the dissertation process is one that can be used to support your development of skills that will serve you well.

I support this attitude with respect to writing, in particular. Practice writing: don’t focus on the product, focus on the process of putting words on the page. Putting ideas into words is absolutely a skill that develops with practice. Put a lot of words on the page. And the next day, put a lot of words on the page. Revise a lot, and throw stuff out. Develop your skill as a writer, and then the quality of your writing will increase and you will be able to write necessary pieces more easily—whether that means writing emails, applications for jobs or grants/fellowships, or work for publication.

Practice isn’t glamorous. Practice can be tedious and frustrating. Practice requires coming face-to-face with your mistakes, and requires a willingness to try and try again, despite mistakes. Practice also unlocks the expertise that allows people to excel in their chosen fields.

So, as you work on your dissertation, think about your work as practice, and as a chance to develop skills that are useful in any profession. Oh sure, getting that degree would be nice, and getting published would be, too. But if you develop the skills, you have the ability to create new works of equal or greater value. The famed “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for life” saying is an apt parallel here, which I’ll twist to this context: “Finish a dissertation, and get yourself one reward (a degree); Learn valuable research skills and get yourself rewards for life (a career).” 

Whatever else a dissertation might be good for, it’s good as an opportunity to practice.

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