Dr. McBrien or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dissertation*

Well, hey there! It’s been a hot minute since my last post, hasn’t it? The past few months have been quite the whirlwind of activity. The biggest news is that I recently graduated with my PhD in musicology from UC Santa Barbara. (Woohoo!! *Cue smattering of confetti*) As exciting as this achievement was, the first half of this year was insanely busy. One can correctly assume that keeping this blog active (at least marginally) was near the bottom of my “to-do” list as I put the finishing touches on my dissertation. Though I am still in “recovery” mode and not quite ready to launch back into blogging just yet, I wanted to take a bit of time to write some thoughts on the dissertation process while it is still relatively fresh in my mind.

My pride and joy. And by that, I mean the “PHinisheD” novelty mug.

The project was a ton of work, but honestly, I enjoyed it overall. My topic—the relationship between European émigrés and three Los Angeles orchestras in the 1930s and 40s—was fascinating and provided some great material to work with. The research process was smooth, and writing it was fairly manageable as a whole. Would I want to do it a second time? No, probably not, but I don’t regret it.

Below are five big “lessons” I learned during the twenty-two-month journey, with a few miscellaneous items thrown in for good measure. Whether you are prepping for or are in the midst of writing a dissertation, hopefully these will be of some help. And if you are not “dissertating,” some of these things could apply to other big projects or, hey, just life in general!

Before we begin, though, I should also mention that these past two years, I was privileged enough to be in a living situation where I wasn’t required to pay rent or work full-time to make ends meet. This is a huge part of why I was able to focus on the project, finish in a decent amount of time, and encounter relatively few obstacles along the way. I acknowledge that privilege and am well aware that not everyone may be in the same situation.

Without further ado, here are five things that helped me to “stop worrying and love the dissertation”:

(Oh, and if you’d like to read the thing, it will be open access on ProQuest in the coming months. You are also welcome to contact me; I am more than happy to send along a PDF.)

1. Don’t stress out about the proposal—it’s a roadmap, not a final product

One thing I initially struggled to come to terms with was the proposal. This 20-or-so-page document is something one writes at the beginning of the dissertation process that outlines your project’s thesis, methodologies, chapters, early bibliography, and other fun stuff (such as how long you think it’ll take to actually finish the thing). Typically, you’re supposed to complete the proposal before you begin the project in earnest. This means that everything in the document is hypothetical; details will more than likely change along the way.

Same goes for your proposal

At first, this seemed like an annoying task. I felt like I knew very little about where the project would end up, let alone where to start. (Any other Enneagram type Sixes out there who take comfort in plans and schedules?) However, once I began to write down what I did know—and the possible findings and conclusions that might arise from that—to my surprise, the document materialized fairly quickly. Obviously, certain aspects of the project absolutely did change along the way. In fact, my entire thesis and approach shifted barely two months later once I dove into the actual research, but the proposal was still a useful starting point and helped me gather my thoughts early on. So, don’t worry about this aspect too much. It’s a roadmap, not a final product.

2. Historical newspapers are a fantastic resource

An actual article from the actual Los Angeles Times

A large portion of my research came from what are called primary sources, that is, firsthand documents from a specific historical time period (newspapers, concert programs, reviews, letters, telegrams, and receipts, to name a few). I quickly discovered that newspapers, in particular, are an absolute trove of information. Not only were Los Angeles-area papers from the 1930s and 40s fantastic at reporting the various musical happenings in the city, but they would often note any logistical changes (i.e., artist or program adjustments) and even, on occasion, who was in the audience (composers, patrons, or Hollywood stars, for instance).

Of course, like any news source, opinions and biases were present, but these frequently provided a great launching point for arguments and analysis. Plus, searching through these papers was often just plain fun. On May 18, 1935, an article in the Los Angeles Times proclaimed: “Tiny Trumpet to Be Used During Concert Tonight.” This was in reference to an upcoming performance of Ravel’s Boléro, which makes use of a piccolo trumpet. This did not end up being useful for my project (sadly), but I was still tickled by the fact that this was considered newsworthy in the 1930s. All this said, if you’re dealing with any sort of historical topic, look through contemporary newspapers if you can—they’re awesome.

3. Set small, achievable writing goals (“Bird by bird”)

When I entered grad school in 2016, the idea of actually writing a dissertation seemed impossible and perhaps even a bit miserable. I imagined myself staring at a laptop for 5+ hours a day, dark bags under my eyes, surrounded by piles of books and empty Starbucks cups. Not really my idea of “fun.” Well, that’s not quite how things turned out. Before I began writing, a dear friend shared with me this quote from American author Anne Lamott:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table, close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (17–18)

The realization hit like a brick wall. I didn’t have to become a dissertation “zombie” to get this done—there was a much simpler way to approach it. After my advisor reminded me that a dissertation is a series of smaller projects stitched together, we decided it would be best to break down the task into smaller chunks. During times of writing, I would aim to write 250–300 words per day. That’s it. If I felt like writing more, great—I would write more. If not, as long as I got at least 250 words down on the Word document, then I was good for the day. Once I began to do this, I was amazed at how quickly the project grew. If I wrote 250 words for five straight days, by the end of the work week, I had 1250 words, or around 5 double-spaced pages total. This kept adding up until I had a chapter, multiple chapters, and, eventually, a 237-page document. Yes, it was still a long and challenging process (with the inevitable writing roadblocks that made me want to tear my hair out), but this approach made it quite manageable and even—dare I say—enjoyable overall. Setting small, achievable goals helped make it possible in the end.

4. Footnotes are your best friend

Want to share something that is relevant to your project but doesn’t really fit in your main text? Put it in a footnote! Throughout the dissertation process, I was reminded why footnotes are one of my favorite things. Not only do they allow you to cite your sources (which is 100% essential in any scholarship), but they can serve other functions too. If you want to direct readers to other related sources, expound on a minor point made in a body paragraph, or include an interesting anecdote, footnotes are the perfect place to do so.

Me footnoting every cool little somewhat-relevant anecdote I came across

One example from my project: in the first case study, I examined a 1936 benefit concert presented by Otto Klemperer and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. One of the chapter’s main “characters” was the Austro-German historian, politician, and author Prince Hubertus zu Loewenstein. A staunch anti-fascist and sharp critic of Hitler, Loewenstein helped organize the concert as a means to raise money and awareness for the American Guild for German Cultural Freedom, whose goal was to provide financial support to Germany’s émigré “intellectuals” (scientists, authors, and artists) who began fleeing to America in the 1930s. While piecing together the story of this event, I stumbled across an amusing little side story. In July 1936—about two months before the LA concert—Loewenstein, his wife (Helga), and a friend were driving back to Los Angeles from the East Coast. The Los Angeles Times reported that, on the way, the party’s car broke down and had to be towed into the town of Blythe, California (which is not the most idyllic place to be stuck, tbh).

While not quite worthy of the main text, this event was too good not to include, so I slapped it in a footnote. Similar occurrences popped up many times throughout my project, and I had a blast adding short biographies and anecdotes in the footnotes (alongside more “scholarly” things, of course). So, have fun with this! Footnotes are a great tool and a perfect way to include some running side “commentary” in your project. One more footnote for the road: Charles Strickfaden—oboist of the Werner Janssen Symphony (the focus of my third chapter)—was the younger brother of Kenneth Strickfaden, an electrician and special effects technician who became well-known for his work on Hollywood films such as Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz, The War of the Worlds, and Young Frankenstein. Go figure.

5. Learn to let things go (a.k.a., it’s not going to be perfect and that’s OK!)

I am a perfectionist by nature and revel in “dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.” With a project as big as a dissertation, though, there are many (perhaps TOO many) “I’s and T’s” to keep track of—paragraphs, chapters, people, places, dates, printed sources, digital sources, footnotes, figures, small arguments, and larger arguments, not to mention spelling, grammar, and punctuation… the list goes on and on. As such, things will get missed along the way. And honestly, that’s OK! Early on, I had to let go of any notion that the final product would be perfect. Even though several sets of eyes—including yourself—closely read multiple drafts of the project at one point or another, a dissertation doesn’t go through the same critical review process as a published book or article. (At least, for dissertations in the humanities; the sciences might be a different story.) On a somewhat different level, most of my project was conceived and written during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Flexibility was even more pertinent than usual, and several initial ideas and directions had to be adapted for the sake of simplicity and feasibility. Of course, I wanted to make the project the best it could possibly be, but I had to make peace with the fact that it would not be 100% perfect in the end.

At one point, my advisor told me, “Your dissertation will be the worst original piece of research you write, because everything after it will be better.” This is much blunter than the oft-heard—though still excellent—saying, “A good dissertation is a done dissertation,” but the idea is similar. A dissertation is simply a benchmark and a measure of what you’ve learned over 2+ years of research, writing, and editing. You will finish it and then move on to bigger and (hopefully) better things. Now, I am still immensely proud of my final product, but having these words at the back of my mind throughout the process kept me grounded and helped keep my perfectionist side at bay. And that lesson continues. Upon glancing through the final, post-submission PDF a few weeks ago, I already noticed a typo in the appendix. Oh well, life goes on!

Miscellany

  • Try to find a topic that will keep you invested, interested, and sustained throughout the entire process. This will make things so much better in the long run.
  • Archivists are amazing and deserve so much kudos for what they do, especially for navigating these past two years.
  • Scrivener is a great word processing program for managing large-scale writing projects. It had a tad more bells and whistles than I personally needed, but it was awesome to have everything in one place (research notes, chapter drafts, edits, etc.).
  • Mix up your writing space every so often. I tended to work best at the desk in my room but headed to the local Starbucks on occasion for a change of scenery. Find what works for you and what keeps you motivated.
  • Back up your project religiously… and be careful with liquids around your workspace. I was reminded of this the hard way when I spilled half a glass of water on my laptop a mere two weeks before submitting the final document. Thankfully, I was able to continue working from a previous save, but still, not fun. (My laptop was fine in the end, so all’s well that ends well!)
  • Set frequent accountability goals with your advisor and/or a writing buddy. Whether sharing research notes or a section of a chapter, having accountability helped keep me focused and on track during periods of more intensive work.
  • I didn’t end up consulting this source, but some of my colleagues found Joan Bolker’s 1998 book Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day to be helpful. Check it out if you’d like more practical advice (à la point #3 above). There are also plenty of other dissertation “self-help” books out there.
  • Set aside one dissertation-free day each week. Seriously, if you’re able, do it. Your mental, emotional, and physical health will thank you.
  • Don’t worry if you don’t have it all “together” when you discuss your project with others. Talking (or “rambling”) through it can often help you clarify your thoughts and perhaps make connections you weren’t aware of before.
  • The final push to the end is honestly one of the most difficult parts. By this point, you will be sick of reading through your work AGAIN for the umpteenth time. Be sure to give yourself some grace and just power through it, keeping in mind that you are almost “PHinisheD” (sorry not sorry for the pun).
  • A little humor for your defense (if you have one)—this McSweeney’s article is hilariously excellent.

*With apologies to Stanley Kubrick

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