The Dissertation Process, Part 1

Last year, I wrote a Facebook note outlining the process that I went through to write my dissertation in 2001-02. I thought it might be useful to post it here for readers who might be graduate students who are pre-comps or who are just beginning the process. I’ve edited my original note to remove some personal anecdotes, and I’ve also divided it into two posts to make a shorter read.


One of my former students posted a note recently about the topic of his master’s thesis. His post reminded me that I had wanted to write a note outlining the process I went through when writing my dissertation. This note, then, serves two purposes: to help my former students who are pursuing graduate work understand the process and to preserve some record of the year between my comps defense and the completion of the dissertation.

Where someone writes is very important. I can write almost anywhere as long as it is quiet or I can tune out the noise with my music. The key is to create a space in which you feel comfortable and that allows you access to your writing materials.

Given the logistics of moving my research and the impossibility of writing in an office shared by other teaching assistants, I never wrote anywhere but at home.

Before writing, one needs to be organized as much as possible. Trying to research and write at the same time can be a nightmare, as I found out when trying to organize my research on Donelson’s time as minister plenipotentiary to Prussia and the provisional government at Frankfurt, as well as the editorials that he wrote while editor of the Washington Union, a national Democratic newspaper in Washington, D.C. I had some preliminary research on both of these topics, but I did not have them organized by the time I started writing and, in the case of the Germany research, I actually added new sources right before I began writing that part of the dissertation. Not the greatest planning on my part.

With the exception of the Germany sources and the Washington Union research noted above, I was organized enough to begin writing by May 2001. My primary sources were placed in folders, with the quotes that I wanted to use marked. My secondary sources were not quite as organized. I had marked the parts of books and articles that I wanted to use, but I had not pulled those parts out in any organized fashion. Luckily, I had written enough on Donelson in seminar papers and had written enough historiographical essays on the Jacksonian period that I knew where to go for information. In that area, I was still learning how to arrange my sources efficiently.

The organizational lesson that I learned, particularly with the secondary sources, was that I needed to take notes on sources and organize them as I went along in my research. In particular, I took a lesson from how I grappled with the Germany and Washington Union research, which was voluminous. In Microsoft Word, I made a keyword list for each primary document in those two subject areas. That helped me find information and specific documents quickly via a keyword search.

I typically wrote from 8:00 A.M. until approx. 4:00 P.M. I had a dissertation fellowship that provided me with funding for the year, so that relieved me from teaching responsibilities at Mississippi State.

My writing schedule was complicated, however, by my teaching an evening course at the “W” (Mississippi University for Women) in the fall semester and my making five research trips: three (two short, one long) to the Library of Congress and the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and two (short) to the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville.

The long trip to D.C. was because of a research fellowship that I was awarded by the White House Historical Association. I had not expected to win it, but I did, so I used it to go through Donelson’s papers at the Library of Congress to identify additional sources on his work for Jackson in the White House. (I didn’t find much that I didn’t already know.) I also used one day to travel to the National Archives to copy the Germany sources mentioned above. Unfortunately, this trip took place in early February, so I had to go into overdrive when I returned to organize these new sources. The short trips were 36-hour trips provided by Mississippi State in the fall semester; I used them to flesh out Donelson’s time at the Washington Union.

The short trips to Nashville in the fall semester were to fill in holes in research that I had already completed. The research holes were largely related to Donelson’s time in Tennessee between 1837 and 1844.

My dissertation supervisor was John Marszalek, who was the Jacksonian/Civil War professor in the department at Mississippi State. Marszalek had written a book on the Eaton affair, which was a major event in the Jackson presidency and a pivotal event in shaping the relationship between Jackson and Donelson. With the exception of my first four chapters, Marszalek asked me to turn in one chapter at a time and move on to the next chapter while he evaluated my work. His comments were extensive, focusing mostly on writing style and chapter structure, and timely; often, he had the chapter back to me within three days.

My second reader was Connie Lester, who was the Gilded Age/Progressive Era/agricultural historian in the department. Lester had extensive experience in Tennessee history, having worked on the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture and the Correspondence of James K. Polk series while at the University of Tennessee. Lester’s comments were probing and incisive, forcing me to consider aspects of Donelson’s private life that I had never considered relevant to his public career.

After finishing my chapters on Texas annexation, I was exhausted. I met with Marszalek and Lester (this was in late January, I think) and asked them if I could just stop at that point and finish the rest of Donelson’s life when I had my Ph.D. and was ready to publish. They told me “no.” I am thankful that they did, because, given the history job market, not having a complete biography ready to revise for publication would have severely hampered any chance I had of getting a full-time job.

Part 2 will follow next week.


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