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).

Papendorf Checklist.jpg

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.

A Year in the Life: Requirements, Sanity, and Being ABD

by Gillian Macdonald

While knowing what I was signing up for when I applied for the PhD program at CMU back in 2015, the scary parts (by scary parts I mean comprehensive exams mostly) seemed far off in the distance to be tackled by a more mature version of myself when the time came. After spending a glorious summer in Mount Pleasant in 2018, the third year was suddenly upon me. Just like that two years of preparation had vanished. As many of you know, the third year is usually about the time when grad students start to freak out because of comprehensive exams, prospectus writing, AND completing all of our language requirements to continue in the program. On top of that there is the graduate assistantship for the year. Sounds daunting, right?

I had heard enough stories from former grad students and those who were ABD already about exams to not only give you nightmares but also to know that there were mixed reviews.

*Piece of advice: don’t ask too much about it beforehand, it’s never going to be as bad as you make it out to be in your head.*

What studying didn’t prepare me for was the ever-looming dread that starts to hit you as the date approaches. However, your advisors will not let you sit the exams unless they think you are ready for it. Chiara Ziletti’s earlier blog post about exams (Spooked By Comps?) covers this better than I ever could.

Something I learned from this year, it’s okay to ask for help and TAKE A BREAK once in a while. Comprehensive Exams are one thing but your sanity is another, and arguably more important. I certainly spent a lot of my summer studying, and it paid off, but I am not sure I could have endured the tour de force that is third year without a few trips across Michigan or to the local watering hole to let off some steam. Thankfully, I have a wonderful cohort of friends—more like a graduate student family—that tell you when it’s time to step away from the notes and take a breather. More often than not they’re invariably right and sometimes you need some outside perspective. Or just a walk outside of the office that you will habitually be cooped up in furiously studying notes and mind maps to boot.

Looking back, I think the most stressful part of my third year was in the Spring semester. In hindsight I probably should have started writing my prospectus earlier (but that’s why hindsight is 20/20). However, having said that I might not have had my lightbulb moment about what I wanted my dissertation project to be. While this year was challenging—exams, deciding on a concrete dissertation project, passing two language requirements—it was also very rewarding. Not entirely academically so but being published for the first time is a nice bonus (even if it is a little book review).

Now onto the hard part, actually writing the dissertation. And so, I am off on my archival travels across the great Atlantic Ocean to a little bit bleary and rainy United Kingdom to scour the documents for my project. In parting, your grad school comrades are there to help. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and lean on them when you get tired. If your friends are anything like mine, they won’t let you fall.