By Emanuela Yeung
After finishing my major and minor candidacy exams (which took several years of research), the prospect of writing the Dissertation Proposal (DP) seemed like a daunting and mammoth task. Like many other graduate students, I had a number of different avenues I wanted to explore and had difficulty narrowing down an area of interest, let alone a specific research question. When I began “seriously” working on my DP, months seemed to go by without much progress, yet in the end (after about 6-7 months of reading and note-taking), I was able to write a complete draft in about two weeks. Admittedly, this was surprising to me, as I was used to “big papers” taking months and months of writing; however, looking back I can identify 2 points about writing that helped me better understanding the process.
- “Writing” isn’t “typing,” but rather a process that includes reading and note-taking
It did not feel like it at the time, but most of the work that went into my DP was completed during my research visit to the University of Copenhagen. After teaching for two semesters, I was fortunate to have four whole months to focus on my own research and luxuriated (as one of my dissertation committee members put it) in reading whatever I wanted day in and day out. I had gone to Copenhagen with the intention of working on my proposal, but in practice I became interested in the work that was happening at the research centre and read many papers and books that were outside of my own discipline. I filled several notebooks with a seemingly disparate assortment of notes and ideas, and when I returned to Victoria I had to admit to my supervisor that I not made much progress in my “writing.” However, the bulk of my DP ended up being comprised of these notes with just a few transitional and connecting paragraphs and sentences added in. It was in weekly progress meetings with my supervisor that I was able to articulate the common themes the ran through much of what I had been reading, as well as the open questions that had yet to be addressed. These open questions became the starting point for my dissertation project and the background/introduction of the proposal itself.
- Reframing the task at hand might be the impetus you need to start
My DP began as a ten-page grant proposal that I decided to apply for five days before the deadline. Given that I had written several funding applications in the past, I was familiar with the structure (background, literature review, objectives, method, implications) and could break the task of writing down into smaller, more specific steps. After submitting this application, I was able to use the proposal as a detailed outline for my DP. What had seemed like an overwhelming task (writing a dissertation proposal from scratch) became much more manageable and I was able to turn the grant application into my proposal in about ten days by expanding on, and adding detail to, the structure that was already there.
I often find the biggest hurdle to writing is getting the first sentence on the blank page, however, it’s important to keep in mind that writing is (long) process that involves reading, doing research, and note-taking. By recognizing this, I find there is less pressure to write so many words or pages a day, and much of my “writing” involves integrating or restructuring notes that I have already written. Moreover, reframing a large project (such as a dissertation proposal) into a series of smaller papers or into a format that I’m already familiar with (e.g., grant proposal) has helped to motivate me to keep moving forward.
Emanuela Yeung is a PhD candidate and sessional lecturer in the Department of Psychology. She received her MSc. from UVic in Lifespan Development and BSc. from the University of Toronto in Psychology and Human Biology.