Tag Archives: research

Chiseling out a dissertation topic

John Fea poses a question well worth considering: “Must an applicant to a Ph.D program have a fully-formed dissertation idea in mind when they apply for admission?  I am not referring to a general field of study or even a particular topic within that field of study, I am referring to an actual dissertation topic.”

Never having served on any graduate admission committees, I can’t say whether a locked-in dissertation idea is a credit or a debit on an application.  But in terms of going through the process once you’ve been admitted to a program, I can share my experience, for whatever it’s worth.

As I’ve said before, I think the hiatus I took between finishing my master’s and starting a doctoral program has made my Ph.D. experience a lot more enjoyable.  Now that I’m in the dissertation stage, I’m even more glad to have had the benefit of that extra time reading and sharpening my research interests.

But I also think a certain malleability is necessary.  Your graduate coursework is all about initiation into a guild.  You’re learning what historians do, and how other historians have framed questions and figured out ways to answer them.  If that doesn’t have an impact on how you frame and answer your questions, then what’s the point of doing coursework?

When I started my doctoral work, I knew I wanted to study Appalachian settlers’ involvement in the American Revolution.  I was interested in the centripetal forces that pulled them into the Revolution and the centrifugal forces that pushed them to its margins.  I had a topic, and I had some questions I wanted to answer.  But I wasn’t yet framing those questions precisely, and I didn’t have a clear plan of attack for finding answers to them.  That came later, with a lot of guidance from my adviser, conversations with other professors, and engaging with a lot of historiography in seminars.

You know that movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, where Charlton Heston plays Michelangelo?  There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where these guys are dragging a massive block of marble into Rome.  When Michelangelo sees it, he says, “Look!  Moses…here in the marble.  Moses down from Sinai.  God’s anger in his eyes.”

I think one of the things that makes a good doctoral adviser is the ability to look at a student’s interests the way Michelangelo looked at that block of marble.  Somewhere in there is a viable research project that can contribute something to the field.  You might not be able to see it yet.  But a good adviser (and the other members of your committee) will be able to discern its outlines, and will help you figure out where to apply the chisel.

By Jörg Bittner Unna [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons


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Two lessons I’ve learned about writing a dissertation

In the past few days I’ve learned two things about writing a dissertation.  The first lesson is something I had to stumble across on my own; the second I got from somebody else.

By Marco Verch (Notizblock mit Stiften) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I always had this notion that research and writing were two distinct stages in any project like this, with the writing coming after most of the research was finished.  I’d spend a long time accumulating evidence, and then I’d sit down, sort it all out, and turn it into finished prose.  I’d still have some material to consult while working on early drafts, of course, but I thought I’d have the bulk of it done by the time I started stringing words together.

It hasn’t played out that way.  Writing itself—at least when you’re dealing with a project of this sort—is a process of discovery.  You can’t finish your research before starting to write, because your sense of what material you need will develop as you write.

Right now, for instance, I’m writing a foundational chapter on the meanings of eighteenth-century manhood, both in the English colonies in general and on the Appalachian frontier in particular.  Manhood was closely bound up with ownership of land.  I knew this when I started writing, and I’d acquired some good material on the links between land and manliness.  But once the writing commenced, it became apparent that I needed to explore these ties in more depth, and to do more digging into the historiography of land ownership.

Being OCD, I don’t like the idea of trying to compose text around ideas I haven’t fully fleshed out yet.  It feels a bit like trying to put a puzzle together while looking through a keyhole.  But finding out that I have no choice in the matter—that I can’t have the ideas fully fleshed out until I start assembling them—has been liberating.  It’s eased some of my anxieties about doing historical research and writing.  Since I can’t plan out the whole route ahead of time, I might as well go ahead and start putting one foot in front of the other.

The other lesson is something Christina Snyder told a group of us grad students yesterday during her visit to campus: “A page a day is a dissertation in a year.”  That came as a revelation.  Another assumption I had about a substantial writing project is that you should do it in big chunks.  When I sit down at the keyboard and can’t produce anything more than a couple hundred words, it’s discouraging.  But sometimes productivity means something less like an avalanche and more like the steady drip-drip-drip of mineral-rich water that creates stalagmites.

One step at a time, and if you can’t see the whole route, you can at least see where to plant your foot next.  That’s what it boils down to.

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Touch the work every day

A week ago I came down with a horrible respiratory infection that left me bedridden for several days and caused me to miss nearly an entire week of TA duty.  It also left me unable to make much progress on my dissertation research.  The problem wasn’t just the fact that I didn’t accomplish as much as I’d planned; the problem was that days passed without me doing anything to move my project along.

By Tom Stefanac (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Tom Stefanac (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of my mom’s friends who are involved in creative writing used to say, “You’ve got to touch it every day.”  I didn’t know how right they were before I started in on my dissertation in earnest.  If you’re working on a substantial project, don’t let a twenty-four-hour period pass without doing something—no matter how small—to keep it moving along.  It’s not so much a time issue as a quality-of-work issue.  I find that if I let a day pass without engaging the project, I end up losing more than just the hours.  I lose my bearings and my momentum, too.  When I get back to it, it’s like walking into a room that’s been sealed off for weeks; the air is stale, the furnishings are unfamiliar, and there’s a fine layer of dust everywhere.  You’ve got to keep everything in motion or a kind of general funk settles in, and you won’t be at your best until it dissipates.

I should add that you don’t necessarily have to be writing every day.  The resolution to do a little something every day doesn’t necessarily mean you should always be churning out prose.  (Most of what I’m doing at this point doesn’t involve putting words together.)  But you should be getting your hands dirty somehow, whether that means locating and poring over sources, reading through notes, juggling bibliographic entries, or knocking out grant proposals.  Even if you’re just putting in twenty or thirty minutes a day, do it.  The point isn’t those twenty or thirty minutes, but making sure you’ve engaged with your project before hitting the hay.

The only exception to this rule comes when you’ve completed a draft, at which point it’s best to let it sit for a while before you start revising.  But if you’re still in the research or rough draft phase, a day off will ultimately do more harm than good.

And on that note, I’ve lost too many days to recovery already.  Time to pop a cough drop and get back at it.

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A matter of some note–er, notes

In the past, when doing research for some specific project, I’ve taken notes by hand on old-fashioned notebook paper, index cards, or some combination of the two.  This system has its advantages and disadvantages.  Pen and paper are always handy; I can just fold a few sheets into whatever book I’m consulting and carry it with me and get a little work done whenever I have a free minute or two. 

I don’t write as quickly as I can type, though, so if I’m doing research in an archive and I need to record a lot of information, handwritten notes can be very problematic.  Photocopying is always an option, but it’s also expensive, so I try to do it sparingly.

Not too long ago, my mom decided to get a new computer, so she gave me her miniature Dell laptop.  It’s about two-thirds the size of a standard laptop and very lightweight, perfect for stuffing into your bag.  Here, I thought, was the answer to a dilemma.  From now on, if I planned on going to an archive or library where I needed to take lots of notes efficiently, I could bring my wee little computer along and type them into a word processing program, saving me the laborious effort of writing them out by hand.  Handwritten notes, I figured, would still work fine when gleaning from my own books or on other occasions when I didn’t have the pressure one is under when going through an archival collection.

Then I got another idea.  If I’m going to be taking and storing some of my notes on a computer anyway, maybe I should try a program designed specifically for research and note-taking, such as Scribe.  It’s free, and designed with historians in mind.  (Given my Luddite proclivities, though, I doubt I’ll use such an approach.)

Judging by these notes he jotted down on the history of the slave trade, Abraham Lincoln was a pen-and-paper kind of guy. Maybe the fact that laptops weren't around had something to do with it. From the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress

Of course, it’s possible that juggling handwritten notes from some sources and digital notes from others could turn out to be a real headache, so maybe I should be relying principally on computer-composed notes for research projects, and save the written ones for general reading.

Normally, I’d have the luxury of experimenting a little to see what works best.  It just so happens, however, that I’m starting a fairly large research project, one that will require lots of data from a wide range of both archival and published material.  I want to ensure that I can record and organize my notes for this as efficiently and sensibly as possible, since this will differ in scope and intensity from all my previous research endeavors.

I know that some of you who read this blog have quite a bit of experience in conducting large-scale historical research projects in both archival and published sources.  I thought that I might be able to benefit from your collective advice. 

What’s the best way some of you researchers/writers/blog readers have found to take notes for your research projects?  Do you find paper or index cards more workable?  Do you ever use a computer, and if so, how?  Do you mix and match different note-taking approaches depending on the source, the location, or some other factor?  I’d appreciate whatever recommendations or success/horror stories you can offer.


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