My Week in Dissertation Heaven

Behind Nmachika is the beautiful Lake Mendota

Behind Nmachika is the beautiful Lake Mendota

By Nmachika Nwakaego Nwokeabia.When I found out that the UW-Madison’s Writing Center was offering a dissertation writing camp (or, as I fondly call it, a dissertation boot camp) during this past summer, I knew I had to apply for it. I was obsessed with my dissertation, and this was yet another way for me to shower my dissertation with love.

To prove my dedication to my dissertation I wrote every single day (often waking up at 4:00 AM and racing straight to the computer to put down my crispest, freshest thoughts), joined every virtual and real-life writing group I came across, pestered colleagues with my groundbreaking ruminations, and religiously practiced the BIC method during periods of writer’s block; yet all I had to show for my hard work was a directionless, unwieldy, unmanageable, intimidating  100-page monstrosity of a chapter that only seemed to grow by the day. I was in deep trouble, and if anything could help me, it was the Writing Center.

I was no stranger to the Writing Center. I had worked as a Writing Center tutor for several years and knew what a wonderful place it was for beginning, intermediate, and advanced writers. I had witnessed firsthand the magic that could happen during Writing Center conferences, when a sudden bolt— or sometimes a gradual wave—of clarity would come upon a student’s face as they suddenly realized how to take their paper to the next level.

Yet I seldom went to the Writing Center with my own dissertation. I wasn’t worried that Writing Center tutors would not understand my literary analysis of 21st century Nigerian writing (though what I had written was hardly comprehensible even to me); I was afraid to show anybody my disaster of a chapter and even less inclined to talk about how isolating, confusing, and difficult the dissertation writing process was for me. I was convinced that my difficulty with my dissertation was a case of unrequited love, and if only I showered my dissertation with love it would love me back. Until then, I vowed to keep the lopsided relationship to myself, at least until things got better.

When I told my sister in Virginia of my early summer dissertation boot camp plans, she thought it meant that I would be hunched over a computer while a camp sergeant (perhaps my advisor?) stood behind me, drilling nonstop instructions into my ears. “Oh, wow,” she exclaimed, not realizing that my dissertation writing crisis warranted such drastic intervention. After I explained that boot camp was just a structured, supportive environment for dissertators from across the campus she sort of relaxed. “What a brilliant idea,” she said.

I found out a few weeks later that I had gotten into the week-long boot camp (one of three camps offered during the summer of 2012, including a six-week camp), and I was ecstatic.

tan_suitecaseA week before camp, I began preparing the same way I would for a long-awaited international trip: I graded all my students’ papers and turned in their final grades, read my primary texts for the chapters I intended to work on, prepared my food for a week, informed my friends that I would be unavailable, ran all my important errands and postponed all others, and announced excitedly to everybody I met (who looked at me quizzically and no doubt assumed I had gone mad) that I would be going to boot camp to work on my dissertation.

The week of boot camp was like every other week except that I could dedicate myself completely, wholly, unconditionally, and lovingly to my dissertation. Our coordinators, John Bradley and Nancy Linh Karls, who were experienced with managing dissertation boot camps and who wrote about a past one here, had already prepped us on the schedule and expectations beforehand, and every morning and afternoon their warm smiles, encouraging words, and tireless work made dissertation writing a joy.

Dissertation campers, summer 2011

Dissertation campers, summer 2011

In my boot camp class were social scientists just returned from international fieldwork; philosophers working on existential, mindboggling questions; political scientists waging war on the page; newly minted dissertators yet to pen a word; and a few fellow English literature graduate students and Writing Center tutors who, perhaps, struggled with undiagnosed verbosity. It seemed like virtually every discipline and writing style in the social sciences and humanities was represented.

We all came to boot camp with different concerns and expectations. All of us wanted to make progress on our dissertations. Some, like me, did not struggle with motivation but wanted to improve their productivity and efficiency. Others had been writing their dissertations remotely and were eager to join a supportive community of writers. Others, still, wanted to know how to reignite the passion that they once had for their dissertations.

At 8:00 AM every single day we began with a short check-in session when we set goals for the day and discussed them in small groups. Then, we moved to our individual work stations: some overlooking the beautifully serene Lake Mendota; others, like mine, confined to the austere, quiet Writing Center Computer classroom (I really took the boot camp theme to heart). At lunchtime we could attend optional 30 minute workshops—where  John and Nancy and even Brad, our Writing Center director, offered stimulating topics on using technology, managing time effectively, and improving style—or we could have lunch elsewhere on campus so long as we returned in time for the afternoon writing session.  After lunch we reconvened again to check-in and would finally end at 3:45pm and meet again to wrap up the day.

Throughout the day we could move about as we needed to, and boy did I move. I spent most of my time writing in short bursts of about 10 to 15 minutes after which I would walk around nervously, find other boot camp participants to chat with, stop by the break room to refill on coffee and snacks, take a short bathroom break or a prolonged 15-minute break to chat with one of the Writing Center tutors. I never realized how much I could accomplish if I focused intensely for only 15 minutes at a time and I didn’t realize how much walking helped me break the monotony of writing. Instead of the long, stationary yet discursive internet breaks I took while writing pre-boot camp, I learned to take short, managed walking breaks of about three to five minutes.

Dissertation campers, summer 2011

Dissertation campers, summer 2011

I also developed a healthier attitude about my writing process. No longer did I think that I had betrayed my dissertation if I could not make my morning writing time because I overslept or chose to read instead: I discovered I was not necessarily a morning writer as much as I was a writer who needed a little “warm up” time before I could begin writing. Boot camp taught me that I could write at any time of the day.

The most important lesson I learned from boot camp, however, was how to set goals. I had previously relied on word count goals to measure my dissertation writing progress. After boot camp, I learned to combine word count with process goals. That is, I had to write purposefully, and not aimlessly, when trying to fulfill my daily word count quota. I also learned a wonderful system for setting achievable, as opposed to impossible, goals.

At the end of boot camp week I produced another 100 pages for two separate chapters and felt much better about revisiting and revising that unwieldy 100-page chapter. It’s now down to about 80 pages.
Many people talk about dissertation boot camps as providing dissertators with the structure, environment, and community to help them work on their dissertations, but for me, the boot camp experience was nothing short of heavenly.

18 thoughts on “My Week in Dissertation Heaven

  1. Great post, Nmachi! And just what I needed this morning to get motivated. I’ll admit I’ve still had ups and downs with my writing since that “week in dissertation heaven,” but this morning I will do my best to recreate my own little writing camp again!

  2. Nmachi, I loved reading this post! Not only do you write gorgeously, but your words are so inspiring to a new dissertator like me. I was starting with the word count thing yesterday and getting nervous that I’d just end up with a bunch of dribble. I like the process goals idea instead. And the idea of loving my dissertation–that’s one I need to remember. Yay, Writing Center Dissertation Boot Camp.

  3. Megan, thanks so much for your comment. It really was a splendid week and I will admit that readjusting to normal working conditions after camp was difficult but I think little reminders about that “week in dissertation heaven” certainly help. I’m glad the post inspired you.

    Stephanie, thanks for your wonderful comment. I’m glad my loving idea resonated with you. Sometimes the only thing that keeps me going is that I firmly believe in the work that I am doing and I think it’s important and useful. I also feel lucky to have the means to work on a topic of my choosing for an extended period. I find that the process goals are sometimes more important than the word count goals. Sometimes I do a lot of conceptual remapping, and move my argument forward, without having the words on the page to show for it.

    Thanks for stopping by, Renee. I think it can be extremely challenging sometimes but overall I’d say it’s more fun than not.

  4. Hey, this inspired me. I’m sort of going thru a dissertation like phase with my work and I like the idea of little spurts of energy, instead of long hours hunched over. You should write more, this was engaging and welll written. I’m a slow and reluctant reader and you kept my attention!

  5. Nmachi, I love this post. I remember how awesome it was hearing about your project that week and how energized you were. It’s great to remember that there are ways to get re-excited about writing, and that talking to others about it makes a huge difference!

  6. What a great post! Previous comments on your gorgeous writing resonate with me. Looking forward to seeing the culmination of all your hard work.

  7. Thanks Nmachi for a very informative post about the dissertation boot camp. I have a friend who attended the first UW Madison dissertation boot camp that was held two summers ago and similarly gave it rave reviews. I tried to sign up for the summer bootcamps, but, sadly, I didn’t make the cut. So, I say, we need more bootcamps!!

  8. This is a great read, Nmachi! Although I am not writing a dissertation at the moment, I now know that there is something as a boot camp rescue when you need it!!!
    Thanks and keep up the great work!

  9. “and a few fellow English literature graduate students and Writing Center tutors who, perhaps, struggled with undiagnosed verbosity…” Hey! I resemble that remark!
    I have very positive feelings about our boot camp experience, too, though I learned the exact opposite about my working style: I am most productive from 9 to 12 in the morning, and if I can settle in with as few interruptions as possible in that time, I can really get some work done. I also discovered that having a very spare work area (and a cup of tea or hot chocolate nearby to sip) was actually very inspiring (and inspired me to clean up some clutter at my home work area). Most of all, I learned I was not alone!

  10. This is the silver bullet I have been looking for. What oxygen is to the lungs of a climber is what this piece is to my remaining drafts.

  11. Congratulations on this post, Nmachi. It brings so many happy memories of that intense week at the end of May when I rounded off a monstrous chapter of mine and my “undiagnosed verbosity” finally met its diagnosis. Just to reiterate Lisa’s point: grad students need more initiatives like the Dissertation Boot Camp! It is an amazing way to frame your dissertation-work in realistic terms and to make effective, daily progress.

  12. Nmachi! I love this post, especially as a young PhD student. It is full of relevant points for me to take on my journey. I especially like the bootcamp opportunity and the idea of spending a little bit of time writing each day. I feel that research can sometimes be a drag and the idea of doing a little bit every day would move me towards finding excitement in doing such work.

  13. Nmachi, it is nice to read that you are motivated and that the camp aided your writing. I like your post and the graphic description of some activities in the camp. We are humans and interactions with like minds is always helpful. I had a motto those days, “He who must succeed must wake by 5, he who has succeeded may sleep till 7, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”. It worked for me. You will continue to discover what works for you.

  14. I love this post, Nmachi! I remember seeing you strut around Helen C. White this summer in boot camp mode and I was always inspired by your determination and love for your dissertation. Good luck as you keep on moving forward with your dissertation!!

  15. Thanks, Nmachi. I think I need to take a page out of your book. Productive? What’s that? Regular writing? I’m too much of a fits and spurts writer. How to be more consistent?

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