Monday, November 12, 2012

Dissertation diaries

I wonder why nobody tells you about all the preparatory work that goes on before you actually start writing the dissertation. I sometimes wonder if this is my way of procrastinating but then I realize that figuring things out in advance really saves you time down the road so I think it is a good investment. Finding the right place to write, organizing your data, organizing your sources, finding the best way to annotate your sources, finding the right sources, and this list goes on and on and on. Unfortunately I have to figure things out myself for the most part so I will share my experience with you, maybe this will save you some time. Perhaps you already know these tricks I learned the hard way but I did not know them when I began my graduate study so I'm gonna share them. I hope these help some grad students out there.

Lesson 1 If the couch is driving you crazy and you cannot write when it is around, get rid of the couch. All writers have fixations and sometimes it is pointless to resist. Have you seen the movie Paperman? It's a pretty good movie and the struggle between the writer and the couch is from the movie.

Lesson 2 Endnote sucks period. I cannot believe I actually paid for this. I attended a graduate student workshop at Purdue and the presenter praised Endnote so much that I decided to buy the software. I do not think I have ever used a less user friendly software since the 1990s. The only good thing about Endnote is the capturing feature, which allows you to capture the citation information of a source from your library website or Amazon to your library. The rest of the tasks you have to do with it feels like a torture. The website sucks, the cite as you write feature or whatever it is called freezes my Word every time so it's useless, organizing the sources takes longer because you have to click again and again and again unnecessarily and it does everything wrong. I can go on and on. My advice is do NOT buy it. I spent so much time and I have hundreds of references in there but I will try to find a different way to do this even if it means creating my library from scratch. I think I will go back to Mendeley or try Zotero. I will let you know if I find something that works.

Lesson 3  Try Evernote. I'm loving it! My husband showed this to me. Unfortunately it is not for citations but I keep my favorite academic quotations from articles there. Evernote web clipper is a dream come true. Anyway, hope you like it too.

Lesson 4 Save save save. I encourage you to save your drafts and my preferred way is Dropbox and Google Drive. Much safer than flash drives (Uhm, I tend to damage or lose flash drives :-).

Lesson 5 Always read and annotate your sources electronically. I use Preview software for this and annotate button allows me to do what I want to do. I like using paper and pen for this but for practical reasons I cannot do that any more and I work with electronic copies only. Annotating electronic copies still takes me a little longer and does not quite feel right but in time I think I'm going to get used to it.

To be continued...


  1. re2: well the geeky-minded among us did actually put up with learning LaTeX just to write their dissertation in it because BibTeX actually really ends each and of all your citation worries...

    re4: no seriously, SAVE. Backup everything at least twice, and frequently so. When my laptop was stolen in Amsterdam, I had only just saved a backup of the 500p translation that I was working on then. On the very last day of my research stay in Ghent, my laptop's harddisk crashed irretrievably. Lots of things got irretrievably lost, but I still had the CDs that I had used to copy all the data, analyses and whatever else from the first experiment that was meant to go into The Thesis. When, half year later, through an entirely obscure glitch, the office network back at base was unable to access my account any more and just overwrote it with a new and entirely blank one, I wasn't even shocked anymore. Backup NOW!
    (And just the other day I read the story of Donna Leon's aborted thesis - while writing up, she was teaching English in Iran but had to leave the country in 79. So she made three copies of what she had and put them into three different boxes... none of which she ever saw again.)
    Lesson: start to make backup copies as early as you can; store them in at least three vastly different locations (the office doesn't count); keep updating them whenever possible; always try to keep at last one copy as close to your person as is reasonable.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions, Robert. I wish I could use LaTeX but I'm afraid it is too late for me. And Auch! Stolen or crashed laptop that sucks bad. I did not know about Donna Leon's story. Whatever the reason might be a return to square one's got to hurt. But good to know these stories so that we can avoid the same pitfalls.

  2. After completing the dissertation, we (want to) forget about dissertation writing process, I guess :)

    1. Ha ha ha. That's got to be the reason. It makes perfect sense. I guess everyone gets sick and tired of their dissertation by the time they get to the end of the process, so no one wants to talk about it.