Is Anyone Really Writing? Everyone is Writing, and No one is Writing.

By Dave Papendorf

There is a strange phenomenon that exists in academia and within the Humanities in particular.  Apparently, every PhD student is writing their dissertation. How industrious of them! They retreat to an airy salon and knock away at their typewriters while feeling the thrill of progress. These students are consistently fueled by the swelling approval of their ever-vigilant supervisors and the pleasant typewriter ding of every line completed on their ground-breaking project.

However, upon closer examination, this proves to be false. In fact, as it turns out, no one is writing their dissertation. Instead they write emails, book reviews, journal submissions, funding proposals, fellowship applications, course syllabi, comment on students’ work, teaching philosophies, job applications, letters of recommendation, conference papers, bibliographies, and exam prompts. After all of this, they are left dejected, despaired, and despondent. To get a job, PhD students need to be doing all of these things. “A dissertation is not enough” the market tells us. Good thing too, after keeping so many plates spinning, who has time for a dissertation anyways!

Perhaps this is too melancholiac of an assessment. After all, people are constantly finishing and defending their dissertations. But surely the sentiments shared above resonate with my colleagues. At least I hope they do, because in my experience pressures mount not only to finish the dissertation but also develop professionally with some ontological crises along the way. In the remainder of this post, I will share a little of my experience as a dissertation-writing, plate-spinning, job-hunting ABD student. Hopefully, we can commiserate together, and my honest reflections can help spur on my current and future colleagues to keep writing. Friends, please receive my unsolicited advice kindly. Most importantly, I hope this post gives non-students a view into the psyche of a late-stage PhD student.

Some of you might recognize me as a previous editor when I had just started “writing” my dissertation. While I have made progress since editing the blog, it has not been as swift as I hoped. C’est la vie. Nevertheless, I have noticed three things about myself as a “writer” that are worth sharing.

An Airy Salon for the Industrious PhD Student

An Airy Salon for the Industrious PhD Student

Despaired, Despondent, and Dejected (ish)

Despaired, Despondent, and Dejected (ish)

1. I am what you might call a “long runway” type of writer. In other words, it takes me a long time to get “off the ground” writing productively (please indulge my aerial metaphor). I need a plan, an outline, a developed structure, and goals to check off and mark my daily progress. This helps me feel as if I am doing something and forces me to come to grips with the reality of my current situation to complete my dissertation tasks (see checklist below). If you cannot simply sit down and write, this might help you. However, it is not a failsafe for all students. I find that when I do get to writing, I write in chunks. Recently, I wrote 13,000 words in nine days, but keep in mind this took two weeks of “runway” time. Alternatives would be short bursts of writing (write all you can over a weekend) or slow-and-steady (write for 50 minutes a day, regardless of quality).

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2. I am always more successful when I measure my progress in terms of word count rather than number of pages. I write using Scrivener software which measures word count and not page numbers and stores footnotes outside of the text. I find these elements helpful because I think less about overall length and more about paragraphs. Doing so helps me focus on the cohesiveness and effectiveness of my writing rather than numerical values. Overall, this benefits my argumentation and writing quality. On a more metaphysical level, focusing on word count helps me think less about “space” on a page and more about argument.

3. I have developed a schedule-oriented plan to finish my dissertation all the way to my dissertation defense date. I have two plans: one labeled “ambitious” and the other labeled “realistic.” This two-pronged schedule gives me the impetus to be ambitious while not condemning me for being realistic. Ideally, I would finish somewhere between the two. I find that having a large-scale idea of where I am headed in advance to be consoling. Such a plan also helps give me the right “push” when I need it and comforts me when I feel like I should be doing more. Finally, sharing this with my supervisor has been helpful so that we are on the same page and the ever-frightening gap between actual progress and supervisor-expected progress is mitigated.

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I titled this post sardonically. However, cynicism is often revealing even if just revealing to its source. I suspect that many feel the same way as I do. The industry seems to be heaping more pressures on students so that our focus is diverted from dissertation writing even while, at the same time, doing more tasks overall. So, to restate the titular question, who is writing after all? Answer: everyone is writing, and no one is writing. PhD students, soldier on. Non-PhD students give a dissertation writer a hug. All of us need one.


Dave Papendorf is a late-stage History PhD Student at Central Michigan University and a Special Instructor of Historical Theology at Moody Bible Institute. His research examines the early Reformation in France (1520s-1540s) and the connections between the French and German Reformations during this period.

For more information or to contact him visit his graduate profile.