Hacking the Dissertation Process

At my first American Historical Association Annual Meeting in January 2008, I attended a session about writing the dissertation. As a grad student about to defend a dissertation prospectus and anticipating a lot of time in the archives to research that project, I was anxious to hear what the panelists had to offer about the dissertation process. In particular, I wanted to know how they organized their sources – how they handled the behind-the-scenes logistics of archival research coupled with the actual writing.

I was more than a little disappointed by the end of the session.

It wasn’t that the panelists didn’t offer tips for organizing research materials. It was that none of the panelists seemed to have a clue about the many technological resources available to dissertating graduate students – nor did they seem to think such resources were worth evaluating. Instead, we heard about file cabinet draws filled with folders and papers, handwritten notes, and scribbled ideas.

I do not mean to suggest that these non-digital processes are useless. As a PhD candidate about to defend a dissertation in the coming year, I understand that these are exactly the processes that my advisors and the other faculty in my department relied on for years. File cabinets and legal pads full of scrawled ideas, transcriptions, and neatly-ordered index cards about sources are exactly how our mentors prepared, wrote, and revised their dissertations.

But it would be foolish for any faculty member today to suggest the same processes to their graduate students. Do such “hard copy” methods work? Is there a place for file cabinets of resources and ideas in our home offices? Yes – to both questions. But at the very least, such tried-and-true methods should be used in tandem with newer, more effective digital processes.

All graduate students, regardless of discipline, need hands-on exposure to and training on tools and processes most relevant to their field.While some departments give their grad students primers on how to conduct research at archives and how to organize and execute large projects, these skills are not taught widely enough. As digital tools and processes continue to offer larger benefits for such projects, it is increasingly important to make sure grad students understand what’s out there and how these resources and ideas can help them with their own research.

To do this, the first step is to make grad students – and faculty – aware of the ways in which technology already mediates their research and writing processes. Acknowledging this fact can make the prospect of learning new tools less daunting. For example, it’s difficult to find a grad student these days who hasn’t emailed a professor or expert in their field. Calls for conference proposals and articles typically want e-mailed responses, while more and more granting organizations have moved to online submission processes as well. At our home institutions, we use online library catalogs and databases to find sources and request interlibrary loans almost everyday.

In short: we all have the basic technological literacy we need to hack the dissertation process, whether you’re the writer or the faculty advisor. Here are just a few of the next steps and tools every grad student should know to use technology effectively in their dissertation process.

1. Hacking the Archives.
Many of our first encounters with archives are digital: online finding aids, the organization’s website with its contact information, and resources like ArchivesWiki. Once inside the archive, however, tools like digital cameras and scanners can help researchers capture information in much more effective and cheaper ways. Instead of photocopying reams of pages or trying to transcribe text as quickly as possible, a digital camera allows researchers to capture these pages more quickly and at no cost (aside from purchasing a basic camera – nothing fancy needed).  While some researchers protest that they’d rather sit and read the sources, rather than photographing everything in sight, the reality is that a digital camera can make it possible to make better use of limited archival time. Graduate students need to learn how to use digital cameras and scanners effectively in the archives to maximize their productivity and their access to vital sources that will inform their project.

2. Hacking the Logistics
Index cards are so 1985. Software programs like Adobe allows you to convert your archive photos to PDFs, easily combining multiple photos into a single document, for example. But then there’s still no need to print all that info: instead, programs like Zotero make it easy to catalog your sources and tag them with identifiers that will help you retrieve them easily (for example: I tag all my sources by decade and topic, and will soon add tags based on the chapter for which I want to use the source). Searchable notes also help you find things you may remember seeing, but can’t place exactly. Such organizational programs tend to be user-friendly, but many grad students continue to tell me they have difficulty with their first encounters with these programs. There’s no reason why such software programs could not be taught in any basic methodologies classroom as part of the foundation of our graduate education.

3. Hacking the Writing and Editing Process
The processes and tools in the research and organization stages continue to play an important part as graduate students write and edit their dissertations. Zotero – and many other similar programs – make it easy to insert bibliographies into a document. Websites like 750 Words offer a way to get you writing on a daily basis so you can create long-term, productive habits. Online groups and forums offer support (and humor) for the dissertating student. Google Docs makes collaboration and commenting on written work easy and can offer an excellent way for advisors and writing groups to give feedback. Faculty need to be aware of these resources and make their students aware of them early on: establishing good habits and solid support networks, plus forums for feedback, can help students remain both motivated and moving forward.

Not every tool or process will work for every grad student. Some archives will prohibit digital cameras or scanners, and scholars working in non-Roman scripts may find that Zotero and other tools still don’t offer what they need all the time. Learning to navigate these technical resources and processes will still require a learning curve. Hacking the dissertation process will also probably require many students to move outside of their comfort zones to try new options until they find what they need. Faculty can help their grad students in these efforts just as they help grad students evaluate research topics and ideas.

There’s no reason why teaching graduate students about digital tools and processes should be separate from learning more “traditional” topics in grad school, such as writing a historiographical essay or an article. All of this works together.

It’s time to teach grad students at all levels – and undergrads – about the numerous digital tools and processes that offer very real benefits to anyone preparing or writing a large project such as a thesis or dissertation. While the benefits will vary from person to person and discipline to discipline, digital tools and processes can enhance productivity, optimize information retrieval efforts, contribute to effective time management, and reduce stress.

…not to mention the physical mess that comes from piles of papers in your workspace.

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