Most Ph.D. students enter a fog as they wrap up seminars or comps. Recently I spoke with such a student–I could feel his frustration. He had gone from a structured schedule to the life of an independent researcher. He had left behind mates in a cohort for the solitary desk of reading and writing. Let me pass along a few ideas I shared with him. May these kindle afresh the curious spirit within you as well.
WRITING AND RESEARCH
Hit ‘Refresh’ on Your Research Issue
I recall one of my Professors once telling students in a Ph.D. seminar that what first prompted us is likely the area of study we should continue in for the long haul. So it may be helpful to find the latest book or article on your issue and see if reading it will reignite the excitement that first drove you to that area of study.
Ask More or New Questions
I suggest writing your issue in the center of a large whiteboard and then begin to cover the whiteboard with questions, using lines to connect each question to the issue at the center of the board. Writing these questions in a visible frame will likely prompt further questions. Perhaps reading a new book or article will stimulate this process of interrogation. Then take a step back and organize those questions under various headings. This process may give you some structure for progress, suggesting a need for more research and new annotated bibliographies of those resources. Run with this a bit. It may be worth the effort to submit a book review or a paper to be read at ETS or SBL. In short, force yourself to ask and answer.
Organize or Re-Organize Your Research
Take a look through your bibliographies and organize them both by genre (Commentaries, Dissertations, etc) and by major contribution to the question-headings noted above. Begin to develop a problem-to-Solution frame of thinking with these recourses. That is, ask yourself two questions: (1) in light of my research, regarding my particular issue, what problems remain or have not been addressed clearly in recent days, and (2) what solutions might I propose for those issues?
Ancient rhetoricians developed a system of prompters to help them have something to say about any given issue. They called this system the Topics. I suggest getting hold of Corbett and Connors Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (New York: Oxford, 1999) for the full perspective, but in short the Topics include: Comparison (Similarity, Difference, Degree), Relationship (Cause and Effect, Antecedent and Consequence) and Circumstance (Past Fact and Future Fact). You will notice that various critical theories of Biblical studies find points of contact with these. And herein lies a point of departure: many dissertations are attempts to understand a text in view of competing spheres of Biblical criticism and the Topics can help organize your understanding of the issue under investigation, and your presentation of a solution/clarification. And this brings to mind Phillips and Pugh’s How to get a PhD (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005). If you have not read their guide to organizing and writing your dissertation according to the type of dissertation you are writing, your goals, get hold of it ASAP.
Develop a General Thesis Statement
The next step is crucial step: organize your thesis statement. I suggest the following rubric: “_________ (author/idea/text) is best understood in reference to ___________ (idea/interpretive framework/historical event/critical theory, etc).” This is just a rubric, but you will want to work toward being able to state your thesis in some kind of a problem-to-solution format that is succinct and memorable for you and the reader.
Organize Research According to your Thesis
Now it is time to go back through your research and get it organized according to the thesis. Along the way a natural outline should begin to develop. This is long process and will require refinement of the thesis. The best dissertations are those marked by coherence, one idea seamlessly leading to the next, and all ideas organized around a lucid thesis statement.
TIMELINE AND MOTIVATION
Personal and Family Interests
Continue to take these into account and once you settle on a schedule, do all you can to stick to it. I would suggest devoting the first two hours of each day to research and writing. Keep it simple in your schedule, but do-able and direct.
If you are needing to get the reading habits going again, give yourself to research and some good books in general. Read Julius Caesar by Shakespeare or some Dickens. See how words are used. Ben Franklin comes to mind as well. And yess–he had a practice called imitation (also covered in Corbett and Conners noted supra) in which he would copy or re-write ideas he found in print. This is a great practice! I remember reading a few paragraphs of dissertations that so impacted me, were so clear, that I copied them by hand word for word. This would be a good practice to keep you thinking about how to best express your ideas. I know the heading here is “Reading,” but reading good books will likely lead to writing your ideas more clearly.
Get out of Your Chair
For the last several years I have used a standing desk (or placed boxes on a traditional desk and set my computer and books on them). At first I did this because a physician told me it would help my back. In recent years I have heard that the medical community has adopted the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” to encourage office workers of all types to complete their work from a standing position as often as possible. I am not aware of all of the medical benefits, but for me standing keeps me alert and forces me to keep working. Tiredness in my legs drives my mind and hands so that by the end of the day my whole body has been engaged in the research and writing process.
JUST DO IT
More could be said, but the burden you alone can bear. Some students need more organizational help, like the ideas noted here. Others need some camaraderie in the research process; if that is you, then get some fellow ABD’s together and schedule times to report and read your research. Speak with your advisor about scheduling regular meetings for reading chapters of the dissertation. Whatever it takes…just do it. On graduation day you will walk across the stage alone having accomplished a feat to be proud of the rest of your life.