"Write Through" is a series of articles highlighting the processes of writers who found their way through the dissertation process in a timely fashion. While everyone's process is unique, we hope you'll carry away some productive ideas and feel a little less isolated as you hear the voices of individuals who've been where you are and emerged triumphant in their dissertation journey.
Dieuveut Gaity recently finished writing his dissertation in social work and will defend in March 2018. Gaity’s dissertation is titled “An Ontology of Hope” and focuses upon street children in Port Au Prince, Haiti, Gaity’s home country. Gaity was in Haiti during the earthquake. He recalls, “I felt my soul run out of my body.” He recognized, in retrospect, that “hope was one of the protective factors” which allowed him to collect himself and move forward into the future. Gaity is determined to focus on the strengths and potential of the people of Haiti, preferring to call his young subjects “resource-seeking children” rather than “street kids.” For his study, Gaity interviewed these children to better understand “the characteristics, elements and conditions” that come together to form the protective state of hopefulness, so crucial for survival.
Gaity wrote his dissertation within an admirably tight time frame. He submitted his proposal in the spring of 2016, and put the final touches on his manuscript in January 2018. This pace is even more impressive when one considers the obstacles that he encountered along the way. Sadly, his mother passed away while he was in the midst of his comprehensive exams. While it was very hard not to be able to share the joy of his dissertation completion with his mother, Gaity notes that her desire to see him complete his degree was a powerful motivator for him to pull himself out of his grief and keep working.
Of course it was challenging to write in English while thinking in French and Creole, but Gaity also experienced challenges relating to focusing his research in his home country. For example, there was a general lack of research and literature on his subject. His biggest struggle occurred when he returned to Haiti in 2016 for his data collection. Though he came armed with letters giving him introduction and permission to interview children at a particular agency, he found he was met with an attitude of suspicion and resistance, which was not only deflating, but also made the logistics of his project more daunting. Many people did not understand his purpose and did not cooperate. Ironically, Gaity found, in order to move ahead with his research in such conditions, he had to adopt the “resource caravan passageways” model of the children he interviewed. He did not take on the role of the arrogant, entitled researcher, but instead scrambled to build necessary social connections and find ways around roadblocks to interview the children for his study, to uncover important meaning about the children’s construction of hope. On top of that, as an international student, Gaity was under a heightened time pressure for this process of building rapport and trust with his organizations and subjects. He had to return to the U.S. before his Visa expired or risk not being able to return at all.
Considering the rocky road Gaity had to travel, we were especially curious about the strategies that he employed to keep up his momentum and avoid getting blown off course or losing hope. The first and perhaps most impactful strategy that Gaity communicated to us was to “set goals and set them well.” What he meant by this is that you have to be very clear about what you want to accomplish and not to allow your project to expand, drift off course or get out of control. Vibrant interaction with peers and advisors can be great for sparking ideas and sharpening analysis, but when other people get excited about your work, they may suggest lenses that tempt you to stray from the original focus of your research. Dialogue may lead you to a more expanded sense of the potential of your data, which is wonderful, but can result in an increase in the original scope of your research question. Gaity found it crucial to keep his eye on the specific purpose of his study. He knew that he wanted to focus on seeds of flourishing and resilience of the children of Haiti, and he kept standing his ground on that intention.
Gaity also emphasizes that along the way, it was important to remind himself to relax – to listen to music, eat and sleep well, and watch comedies – his favorite entertainment genre. He also tried to take short weekend trips, like to Lewiston or Gowanda, even just to look at the trees to refresh his spirits.
One of Gaity’s dissertation strategies is particularly creative and ingenious, and it was discovered by accident. He relates that during his master’s coursework, he tried to turn in a paper, but discovered it was not due until the following week. He experienced a feeling of relief and lightheartedness. “I have time to relax and play some basketball,” he remembers thinking with delight. Since then, he developed a habit of creating this space for himself by routinely completing work before a deadline, even if he makes that deadline himself! For example, he might tell his reviewers, “I’ll get you chapter two by next Friday,” even though he already has completed that chapter. Then he will get started on chapter three. So, when he sends chapter two off, he is well into completion of chapter three! It creates for him a feeling of always being ahead of the game and never having that feeling of working with his back up against a deadline. Not only does it positively affect his mental state, but it also improves the quality of his work, as he feels he doesn’t have to rush something when he is already ahead of where he wants to be!
It wasn’t an easy journey, but his dissertation process is complete and we can learn a lot from his experience. What is next for Gaity? He wants to build a career that balances academic and field work. This scholar never wants to abandon his work helping children find healthy and legal pathways toward their goals.
Dieuveut Gaity was born and raised in Haiti. He had worked for several organizations, such as United Nations Development Program/CNDDR, CREFEC, FOHO, Doctors Without Borders and International Organization for Migration. He is currently a PhD candidate at the School of Social Work at the University at Buffalo and expects to graduate in spring 2018. His research focuses on services and support for street children in Haiti.
“Before you are a scientist, you are a person first.”
You may be familiar with the work of Randolph Singh, PhD, a recent UB graduate from the department of chemistry. Part of his dissertation research with his advisor, Dr. Diana Aga, was recently featured on the UB website homepage. The article highlighted fascinating research findings about anti-depressants found in the brains of fish in the Niagara River. That was only a part of Singh’s dissertation research into water pollutants. Singh has made quite an impact in his field already, so we wanted to know about his process and the habits and strategies that led him to successful dissertation completion. Behind the common stereotype of the serious scientist, we were pleased to interview a friendly, relatable person, who has a lot to say about how to get through a dissertation process with a smile.
Singh indicated that he has been fueled by several different sources of motivation during his time at UB. His first piece of advice? Love what you do. With this orientation, Singh found himself able to move through his graduate work with a spirit of authentic interest and enjoyment. He encourages prospective graduate students not to choose a school based solely on its reputation or prestige, but instead to make sure that there is a research group there that you would like to join. To add further zoom to your engine, he suggests cultivating a little ambition. “Don’t just settle for a so-so, PhD,” he advises. Be moved by your intention to really make an impact. Singh emphasizes the importance of being able to communicate scientific concepts beyond small circles of specialization toward wider communities. He enjoys gathering with friends from different disciplines and discussing each other’s work. Only through communicating research more broadly will it motivate positive change, he points out.
In this spirit, Singh creates a process that allows for quality work and wellbeing. He said, “I do not get high on deadlines and I don’t understand how others like to cram.” Instead, he is very thoughtful about creating reasonable steps in his process and managing his energy carefully. This allows him to work very hard without burning out. Singh notes that his advisor, Dr. Aga, encourages graduate students to start thinking about writing when the research process is about 50 percent complete. Singh took this advice to heart and integrated writing and research during his laboratory work. For example, during downtime while an experiment is running, he would download an article related to his research. Since he is interested in his topic, he found himself enjoying this reading, so it actually could feel like a refreshing break. He kept a clipboard and scratch paper with him during these times. He would note the title of the article, authors and date and then write a quick narrative take-away from the article. He uses Endnote to organize his research. Thus, during the experimentation process, Singh was chipping away at his literature review. As he collected research, he began creating an outline with short write ups of his references and as he progressed, text grew out of that outline. Thus, by the time the experiment was concluded, he had a substantial draft started.
Singh emphasizes that it is a waste of time to try to write with an overstressed brain, so, even though he spends long hours in the lab and works intensively, he takes care to integrate rejuvenation into his process. He has a policy to try, when possible, to avoid working on weekends. “The mind needs to rest. Before you are a scientist, you are a person first,” he notes. On weekends, he took the time to enjoy life: going to concerts, visiting Toronto or going camping with friends. Even just a coffee on a Saturday morning and a nice breakfast can revive the spirits, he adds.
For Singh, perhaps the most important element of maintaining wellbeing during graduate work was the creation of a supportive community. As an international student from the Philippines, leaving friends and family behind, he realized that he was vulnerable to isolation. Therefore, he made a concerted effort to make American friends who could introduce him to signature experiences of the region such as apple picking and skiing. He has made such good friends that he feels he has had a family in the U.S. For example, he spends Thanksgiving and Christmas with his friend’s family and he even cooks the Christmas dinner!
Community also has played a significant role in Singh’s work. In addition to having a supportive advisor in Dr. Aga, the lab is an inherently communal space as different researchers share methods in service of their various research projects. Mentoring relationships naturally develop as researchers gain experience and new researchers enter. The more senior researchers mentor their junior peers and initiate peer sharing of their work. The team makes the most of these relationships with group meetings each week. The research community creates a spirit of support and friendship by taking breaks to go for a walk or to play volleyball.
Graduate students in all disciplines might take away significant insight from Singh’s experience. Love what you do, guard your wellbeing, build a community and be a person first. The dissertation will flow from that! We will eagerly follow Dr. Singh’s research and thank him for sharing his wisdom with us!
Randolph Singh, PhD is currently an ORISE postdoctoral fellow at the US Environmental Protection Agency (Research Triangle Park, NC).
He is passionate about the ocean and actively supports protection of marine wildlife and bridging the gap between scientists and citizens. His research at UB involved understanding the fate and transformation of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the environment. This includes work on antimicrobial pollution from wastewater treatment plants.
"I don't need time. What I need is a deadline."
-- Duke Ellington
As a mother of two children, ages three and six, who commutes from Rochester to participate in UB’s PhD program in social welfare, Jackie McGinley has had to get serious and creative about keeping her dissertation on track. McGinley is deep into data collection and analysis for her retrospective study of the last year of life for people with intellectual disabilities, a multi-case study that will inform end-of-life care for individuals in this demographic. She anticipates that she will defend her dissertation in the spring of 2018.
McGinley appreciates how the School of Social Work’s
curricular structure has supported her timely progress. She came
into the program with a clear sense of the type of project she
would do and she was able to refine that topic throughout her
coursework. Her department structures the process so that the
dissertation proposal ends up being your first three chapters.
Thus, after the proposal stage, half of the dissertation process is
already done. McGinley also attributes her efficient pacing to her
approach to the IRB process. Working with her advisor, she designed
her study and selected her subjects in a manner that would allow
her to do important work, while avoiding roadblocks and delays
through the IRB process. Her advisor gave her plentiful advice on
her IRB protocol prior to submission, avoiding time consuming
back-and-forth interaction during the approval process.
McGinley’s PhD program director encourages students to
create a five-year plan early in their course of studies. McGinley
was able to identify her desired end-point and then created a
backward timeline with specific milestones along the way. She
communicated these milestones with her committee and gained their
support and guidance toward achieving those goals.
As a mother and partner, McGinley has realized that she
can’t just take for granted that her priorities will
naturally accommodate her graduate work. The needs of family can
often seem to be of higher priority than a distant, individual
goal. In order to keep her research near the forefront, she makes a
habit of scheduling meetings with her committee members and giving
presentations of her ongoing research. She also applied for grants
that forced her to leap forward to synthesize and articulate her
ideas during the research process. “If I use deadlines that
I’m only accountable to myself to, I will not adhere to them.
If it’s a committee member or a group of respected scholars,
or if it’s a grant, I will stick more closely to my
deadlines,” McGinley notes. She also creates accountability
through peer support. Once a month her cohort meets to share their
progress. Members text each other weekly to share their goals and
whether they have accomplished them. All of these strategies
provide this busy mom with a steady stream of accountability and
With all she is juggling, McGinley must be thoughtful and
strategic about every unit of time in her day. She rises between 4
and 5 a.m., to get two hours of uninterrupted work time before her
children wake up. Sometimes she works in the evening after her
children are asleep, but she tries to preserve this time to rest
and be with her partner as often as she can. An exhausted and
isolated dissertator is not a productive one. She finds
communication to be key to harmony during this challenging period,
negotiating childcare responsibilities with her husband explicitly.
Lots of communication is required! With her eye continually upon
her timeline, McGinley emphasizes anticipating deadlines and
planning ahead, whether it be arranging an extra shift of childcare
or even a period of intensive work, thanks to a willing and helpful
mother-in-law. To negotiate work time with her children, McGinley
sometimes employs a timer. “Mom has to work for twenty
minutes,” she will say as she points to the timer. She also
uses a timer to keep herself from jumping up to attend to some
beckoning household task. She will set the timer for an hour and
tell herself she cannot get up until it dings. She even makes her
commute between Rochester and Buffalo productive by recording ideas
for projects or practicing presentations as she rolls down the
When asked if she could keep up this intensity as she builds her career after the dissertation process was complete, McGinley was thoughtful. In the long term, balancing the demands of work, family and self will continue to be a challenge and inform her choices as she embarks upon a career of making a compassionate difference. The strategies that have helped McGinley to achieve her goals will surely be useful to dissertators in a wide variety of circumstances. Thank you for sharing, Jackie!
Jackie McGinley, LMSW is a PhD candidate at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work. Jackie has been supporting and advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for over 15 years. As a researcher, Jackie has drawn upon her experiences in practice and focused on improving care for aging adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are nearing life’s end. She is the author of several articles on this subject including “From Nonissue to Healthcare Crisis: A Historical Review of Aging and Dying with an Intellectual and Developmental Disability”, which was published in the journal Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
Jordan Besek, assistant professor of sociology at UB, recently
completed his doctorate at University of Oregon. He describes how
students can improve the writing process via significant
preliminary organization. “Dedication to preliminary
organization can reduce writing time, leading to a completed
dissertation,” he reveals, “because, ideally, more time
will go toward organization than the writing itself.” This
organization can begin once a student identifies a dissertation
topic/research question. Students can tailor coursework papers and
projects towards the dissertation proposal and even the
Furthermore, “Identifying the scholarly literatures you will be responding to, where and how they intersect, and what your significant contribution to them might be,” he notes, “creates a scaffolding that holds the project together throughout the writing process.” After collecting data, analyzing documents, and understanding the dissertation’s argument/narrative, Besek recommends to outline chapters to break the writing process into smaller, more manageable portions; additionally, also outline each chapter into portions (introduction, literature review, methods section, analysis, etc.).
Then, when the writing stage begins, Besek advises to take copious notes. Whether on the scholarly sources creating the intellectual foundation for the dissertation, the data being collected, or the texts being analyzed, notes can be refined into professional prose. This, combined with a strong proposal, gives students a base from which to start the actual dissertation document. Besek also advises to consider note-taking, as opposed to just writing, as a way to generate ideas into words on a page: students should take notes on paper, on screen or on a voice recorder when a great thought pops into their head unexpectedly. This generates momentum during the writing process, particularly during stalled periods.
These informal notes can then be fit into the organizational scaffold already constructed and then refined over time, both argumentatively and organizationally, as the overall dissertation structure takes further shape. As students delve deeper into the writing process, Besek also has advice for not getting lost. He says students should reflect: “What story am I trying to tell?” This allows students to remain cognizant of what their significant scholarly contribution might be. Writing can also be stimulated, Besek recollects, through continually “reading the best work in your field/subfields to create a model in your mind of what you want your work to look like and read good prose in other outlets like The New Yorker.” As a lasting note, Besek counsels to “write whenever time allows, even to just generate ideas: students may have other jobs, teaching duties, academic job applications and children running rampant.”
Jordan Fox Besek is an assistant professor of sociology in the sociology department at the University at Buffalo, whose research focuses on the interplay between social, ecological and historical processes. Jordan has published articles in journals such as Environmental Sociology, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, and the International Journal of Sociology, and has taught courses on sociological theory, animals and society, organizational sociology and American society."
It's an open question as to whether there exists a truly
well-balanced dissertation writer, but each successful writer has
discovered a process that works for their own unique style. Shayani
Bhattacharya, who received her PhD in English from the University
at Buffalo in 2017, tried a few different strategies before she
came upon a process that worked for her.
“For my very first chapter of the dissertation, I literally read everything ever written on the novel,” Bhattacharya says. Going through all of that scholarship was exhausting, however, so on the advice of her dissertation advisor for the second chapter, she tacked in the opposite direction, trying to focus on reading and writing about the primary text itself. Only then, the worry kept creeping up on her that she might be treading the same ground as other scholars. It wasn’t long before she was diving back into the secondary literature, but it was no longer the first thing she did.
Going back and forth between the primary text and secondary scholarship, Bhattacharya would create an elaborate system of annotations: first a pass through the novel trying to get a handle on the relevant themes, then a second pass to solidify the points she would address in her writing. These annotations were aided by a color-coded sticky-note system. The process left Bhattacharya’s books looking like the victims of some bright, floral explosion and even caught the awed attention of one of the authors she was reading. After this, Bhattacharya would type her annotations into a 80 to 90 page document.
"Efficient?” Bhattacharya asks. “No.”
As for the writing itself, Bhattacharya says, her method is binge writing. After compiling her notes, she’d take the massive document and, in about two weeks, transform it through editing, revision and elaboration, into clean, thoughtful prose.
“I work best under intense pressure,” Bhattacharya says. For Bhattacharya the exciting part of the dissertation was the research. With so much of her process devoted to pre-writing, she was able to keep research at the forefront of her work. When it came time to sit in front of the computer and write, she could almost trick herself into thinking that she was just presenting her findings. Her process was a way to help build up and sustain that pressure until the prospect of an imminent deadline meant that some writing needed to happen. “Nothing is peaceful in my life,” she says, “Nothing is calm. It is not a peaceful process.”
All things being equal, perhaps it is not the method one would choose to write a dissertation (“It is a terrible, terrible, terrible process,” Bhattacharya says). But she found what worked for her.
Shayani Bhattacharya’s dissertation, “Memory in Absentia: The (Im)Possibility of Representing Memory in Post-1945 Anglophone Fiction,” examines the relationship between the function of memory and narrative structure, arguing that reconceptualizations of memory after 1945 required fiction that would tell stories in different ways. Bhattacharya is now an assistant professor at Lebanon Valley College in global anglophone literature and English.