Just to give you some perspective on who I am (and who I was when in the throes of writing)…my name is Erin Vaughn Jones. People that really know me call me EV. I completed my Ph.D. at LSU in 2014. I worked at LSU full time and was in school part time. At the time, I was single, unmarried, and had no children. Currently, I am happily married and have no children, but that’s another blog post for another time.
One of the questions I am most asked from doctoral students and candidates is, “How did you get it done?” “What is your key to writing the dissertation?” Hopefully this post shares some perspective as you complete your dissertation.
The right dissertation chair is key.
Dr. Jennifer Curry, my dissertation chair, was an absolute godsend. I would not have been able to get through this process without her wisdom, guidance, and patience. I would like to say that I chose her to be my chair, but in reality, she chose me. This is a woman who told me the first time she met me that I would do great things and she could not wait to work with me. A year after we met, I enrolled in one of her classes, and the following year, I co-taught the class with her. Because of our connection, I approached her about my dissertation topic and asked if she would be my dissertation chair. She accepted and was excited about my topic. We set up bi-weekly and eventually weekly meetings where she gave me feedback on my writing, challenged me, and just made me delve deeper into my topic. There are not enough words in the English language to describe how much I trust, love, and value Dr. Curry. She could tell when I did not edit my work, she could tell when I was stressed (I remember one time being so frazzled, that during our meeting, she closed my laptop, and told me I needed a break and to come see her next week), and she was consistently pushing me out of my comfort zone. The right dissertation chair is key and when you find her or him, please value and respect her/his time. DO YOUR PART.
Do not write your dissertation in order.
As I was writing my own dissertation, one of the biggest mistake I did was trying to write it in order. Le sigh. Start with the literature review in mind. The lit review was the most difficult and daunting part of the dissertation. I can remember being in Dr. Curry’s office telling her I was ready to write, but frustrated because I did not know where to begin. She told me to begin with the literature review in mind. Truer words have never been spoken. After I came up with a rough outline of chapter 2 and the topics I wanted to cover, I researched those topics, and started reading, highlighting, and writing. And once I finished chapter 2, writing chapters 1, 3, 4, and 5 were a breeze (well, maybe not a breeze, but you get the picture).
Completing your PhD takes discipline and sacrifice.
I owe my disciplined nature to all of those years taking piano lessons; my parents made me practice the piano EVERY day for at least an hour. I used to wrack my brain about how I was going to find time to actually write the dissertation, take classes, work full time, breathe, sleep, and have a personal life. I resigned myself to thinking that my partner was not in Baton Rouge (he was NOT…lol) and I had to be strategic with my time. I am not an early bird. I hate early mornings, but after work I was exhausted, and could never get myself together to write anything. After no progress, I decided that something needed to change and I was the only one who could do it. I decided to wake up between 4:00am and 5:00am at least 3 days a week to read and write. I also committed myself to reading and writing on Sunday evenings. I did that for a few months, but eventually started getting up 4 days a week and started writing on Saturdays and Sundays until I got this done. I also took something academic every time I went out town because I felt guilty about not doing any work.
Academic burnout is real; you still need a break.
My dissertation is on burnout, so yes, I have to bring it up….lol. So I know I just told you how disciplined I was and how I took my books everywhere I went. This is true. I felt guilty when I would go out of town with no academic books. I felt even worse when I actually had a good time. The semester I took stats was bad; my weight was down, my acne was out of control, and sleeping was difficult. At work, I was dealing with a difficult staff member, and I dedicated little time for other things outside of work. I was not eating well or taking care of myself. Even Dr. Curry could see I needed a break. So that day, I came to her stressed and falling apart, and she closed my laptop, and told me to take a break, I took it. I came home, put my laptop away, moved all articles out of my living room, took the longest nap, treated myself to some crawfish, and the next day I slept in, put my phone on silent, and got out of my apartment to go to New Orleans to hang out. If you find drastic changes to your mood, eating and sleeping habits, weight gain or loss, or any pain, know your body is telling you to slow down.
Read and write. In that order. Repeat as necessary.
In order the write the dissertation, you actually have to write the dissertation. Even if you feel like you don’t make sense, and you are not sure you understand what you are writing, write. Some days I could write 2 or 3 pages and feel accomplished. Other days, I could be up for hours and only write 1 sentence. Don’t let the days where you do not write pages and pages defeat you. Academic greatness takes time.
Erin Vaughn Jones is the Director for Instruction and Intervention at Hinds Community College, Utica Campus. She obtained her PhD in Educational Leadership Research and Counseling from LSU in 2014. Erin is passionate about mentoring graduate students.