The Dissertation Process, Part 2

(Part 1 of this series can be found here)

My dissertation was 16 chapters long, or, to put it in perspective, 488 pages, sans bibliography. It could have been much longer; I eliminated over 100 pages of text during the drafting stage. (Yes, I tend to overwrite. People who know me as a man of few words will likely be surprised.) For all but one chapter, I wrote a minimum of four drafts; for most chapters, I wrote five or six drafts.

I’ve reconstructed the writing timeline below from my computer files and my hard copy drafts. I began writing on 16 May 2001. (Dissertations are required to number the intro and conclusion, so that is why they are chapters 1 and 16, respectively. Those two chapters were written long after I had begun the process.)


Ch. 1 (Introduction)–Jan. 24
Ch. 2–Sept. 28
Ch. 3–Sept. 28
Ch.4–Sept. 28
Ch. 5–Sept. 28
Ch. 6–Oct. 29
Ch. 7–Nov. 16
Ch. 8–Dec. 11
Ch. 9–Dec. 19
Ch. 10–Jan. 3
Ch. 11–Feb. 18
Ch. 12–Mar. 20
Ch. 13–Ap. 10
Ch. 14–Ap. 22
Ch. 15–Ap. 29
Ch. 16 (Concl.)–June 11

Some comments:
INTRODUCTION—I stopped and started on the introduction from December on. I had a lengthy intro that I dumped after my father-in-law, an electrical engineer, told me that it was too confusing and “theoretical” for him to read. I took his advice and revised it to be more readable. (Note: I turned in preliminary drafts of Chapters 2-5, but didn’t record when.)

CHAPTERS 2-3—These were two of the hardest chapters that I wrote. I kept trying to provide historical context of the times instead of focusing on Donelson’s early life. Marszalek forced me to prune all of the extraneous contextual information to make sure that Donelson stood out. To give you some perspective, I wrote 8 drafts of chapter 2.

CHAPTERS 4-6—I had written my master’s thesis on this period of Donelson’s public career during Jackson’s presidency, so much of these chapters was already on paper.

CHAPTERS 7-8—I hated these chapters. They covered the 1837-44 period in Donelson’s life, which saw him try to do a number of different things to advance the Democratic party, only to leave them unfinished. I came away from these chapters not liking Donelson very much.

CHAPTERS 9-10—I had written a lengthy seminar paper on Donelson’s role in Texas annexation for Bill Parrish during my first semester at Mississippi State, so these two chapters were largely fleshed out when I reached the dissertation stage.

CHAPTER 11—This chapter examined Donelson’s time as minister in Germany. It was originally three chapters totaling 106 pages. I edited them down to one chapter of 44 pages. I probably could write an article on the information that I left out, but, frankly, I am a little tired of Donelson at the moment, and I want to be known as a Jackson scholar, not just the guy who wrote the Donelson biography. Maybe one day I’ll go back to the Germany research.

CHAPTER 12—This chapter covered Donelson’s role in the Nashville Convention.

Chapter 13—This chapter was one of the more interesting chapters for me to research. It covered Donelson’s 14-month tenure as editor of the Washington Union.

Chapter 14—This chapter, which addressed Donelson’s prominent role in the Know-Nothing party, later served as the basis of an article that I wrote for the Tennessee Historical Quarterly. It originally was two chapters, but I condensed it to one.

Chapter 15—This chapter looked at Donelson during the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. It was also originally two chapters that I condensed to one.

My dissertation defense took place on Friday, 28 June 2002. In addition to Marszalek and Lester, my other committee members included Bill Parrish, a noted Missouri and Civil War historian who was (and is) professor emeritus at Mississippi State, and Dick Latner, a Jacksonian historian at Tulane.

The defense was actually easier than I thought it was going to be. The questions were mostly about points of emphasis and clarification. Latner noted that he thought that I needed to focus more on how Donelson’s relationship with Jackson shaped his public and private lives. This point dovetailed with a comment that Lester had made early on about my treatment of the Eaton affair. Their comments would convince me to spend time revising the dissertation to emphasize the two men’s relationship before sending it off to publishers.

That evening, I went to Marszalek’s house to revise the dissertation in accordance with the suggestions of the committee. Most of the revisions were minor grammatical errors that had slipped through; there were several points of clarification that I had to research, but those took very little time.

Writing a dissertation is an incredibly difficult process; finishing takes discipline and time management. The best piece of wisdom that Marszalek gave me at the dissertation stage was (and I’m paraphrasing), “Anyone can do the research; the writing phase is when the scholar emerges.” Unforeseen circumstances sidetrack or end many Ph.D. candidates’ careers,  however, and simply choosing not to finish is sometimes the best decision.

For me, not finishing was not an option. I’m glad I stuck it out, and I’m thankful for the support that my committee members gave me.


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