Dissertation Advice for the Lonely Writer (Or the Perpetual Procrastinator): Part 1

LaToya R Jefferson-James
7 min readSep 5, 2022

As a person of color or a woman, accept that you may be writing your dissertation alone. There may not be a wonderful reading circle to read and discuss your first, second, or third drafts with. You may not have a faculty mentor who is willing to direct your research and point you to fellowships. However, you can do this. At the dissertation stage, YOU are the expert.

Dear Reader, it’s Labor Day. The last time You heard from me, I was ranting about racism and sexism in the academy. Yes, I am claiming that for that last post, I was an angry Black woman. To Hell with the negative connotations of that stereotype. I am a human being who is entitled to my emotions, and when a person has been messed over as much as I have in the academy, I have a right to be angry. I literally know street pharmaceutical merchants (that’s what I call them and that’s what I’m sticking to) who behave better than some of these narcissistic professors. If you want to read my last rant, here it is: https://latoyarjeffersonjames.medium.com/the-polite-sound-of-daily-academic-racism-and-sexism-4a64df0eb444

Now, I waited until Labor Day to post, because most of us are either starting the semester or will be starting it soon. Some of us have gotten through the Ph.D. student phase, and we’re now candidates who must face the most important document that we will produce: the dissertation. Some of us are staring at a blank computer screen, and we do not know what to do! Some of us are receiving no guidance from committee chairs who act like simply meeting with us is like getting a root canal.

Photo by Marcin Skalij on Unsplash

Well, don’t fret. I know that this sounds discouraging, but being left totally alone can be liberating. I will post about that later.

Now, if you are having a hard time even thinking about your dissertation, I have some advice. Some of my advice flies in the face of everything that you have been taught about the nature of academia.

  1. ) Go with your personal passion. Do you have a passion for journalism, but watch baseball relentlessly in your spare time? Do you have a computer file of all of the baseball stats? DINGDINGDINGDING! You have a dissertation topic. Combine your academic work with your personal passion. Now, your dissertation topic should be: The Role of Journalism in the Development of Major League Baseball. In academia, we have been taught to separate the personal from the professional. We have been taught that we need to be objective at all times. I say throw that malarkey out of the window. Going with something that you are passionate produces the best research and the best writing. I mean, why did you sign up for a graduate degree in the first place? I know there was something in what you were doing or seeing that prompted you to devote a decade of your life in pursuit of a graduate degree — and it wasn’t solely money. Were you working in a hospital and noticed that resistant gram negative bacteria runs from lemon juice? Okay, why not continue to research this and show how reproducing an acidic environment safely obliterates the threat of gram negative demons and the diseases that they cause?
Photo by CDC on Unsplash

2.) See what’s out there already. I cannot stress this enough. After you have come up with a topic, it is best to comb the databases and see what’s out there on that topic already. This serves several purposes. a.) You don’t want to research what somebody else has already researched. Honestly, this happens. Great minds think alike and there are times when somebody in Alaska can be seeing and thinking about the same thing that a student in Maine is seeing and thinking about. Don’t believe me? I wanted to write a book on the RAP group, Outkast. I did a quick search on Amazon, and look!

Damn!Damn!Damn!Damnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn! I promise You, Reader, that last sentence is a joke, but you have to be an Outkast fan to get it.

On a personal note, my dissertation topic came from the back of a book.

Downloaded from Amazon.com

There is a chart in the back of this book that links Frantz Fanon, who is from the Caribbean, to the African American Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and those movements are linked to liberation movements in Africa and the Caribbean. A light bulb went off in my head!

b.) Reading what’s already out there familiarizes you with the databases specific to your area and the librarians who have access to it. Now, here’s something I want you to remember at this stage: electronic databases and the librarians who know how to access them are your best friends. There is no person on earth like a good reference librarian. Befriend the reference librarian in your subject area. If you just love Chaucer and would like to talk about the lewd comedy in Chaucer and his contemporaries, for crying out loud, please find the Medievalist on staff at the school’s main library. That person is going to save you time (you won’t be sifting through unnecessary information), money (the reference librarian can point you to free databases and other material), and sanity (the reference librarian may be more knowledgeable in this area than your committee chair). Personally, I owe the Interlibrary Loan staff at my home school a gourmet dinner. c.) Reading what’s out there helps to narrow the scope of your topic. As stated earlier, a light bulb went off in my head when I saw this chart at the back of Glissant’s text.

Photo by Alessandro Bianchi on Unsplash

Given the broad geographical scope of my topic, I could have been writing for several years. However, combing the databases helped me to narrow my writing time limit. I kept all readings and the focus of my topic between the years of 1940 and the falling of the Berlin Wall. These years were important to me and I had to demonstrate to the committee the logic behind choosing this 50-year time swatch.

In some way, Reader, you have to limit your topic. You don’t want to spend a decade writing a dissertation that is as lengthy as the Bible. Combing through the databases is a good way to give you that focus.

3.) Begin at the beginning and keep reading up to date in your topic! I cannot stress this enough. If you have a passion for compulsory school attendance in the United States, begin at the beginning and keep reading. What were schools like before compulsory attendance laws? Why were compulsory attendance laws necessary? When did compulsory attendance laws begin? Were they left to the states or were they federal? How did compulsory attendance laws change the face of education in America? What groups, even with the compulsory attendance laws, lag behind? How were they enforced? Currently, does America need to revisit these laws and update them?

I say begin at the beginning and come up to the contemporary, because you need to look at what has been said and what is still being said. That brings me to my next point.

4.) Understand and clarify how your research will add to the current academic conversation. Okay, what if your topic is Shakespeare? There are no less than a gazillion books and articles written on Shakespeare. But as you read, what people ARE NOT talking or writing about is just as important as what is being said. Whatever people ARE NOT writing about is just what you will write about. If we’re talking Shakespeare, who writes about the importance of his source material? See? I am not sure who has written a book solely on the source material for Shakespeare’s comedies. Here’s a website:


If you are in clinical psychology, who has written anything about Adult Children of Alcoholics, their tendency to over-function in just about everything, and their vulnerabilities to workplace bullying or harassment? Wouldn’t it just be awful and enlightening to learn that ACoA overfunction at work, because they are accustomed to overfunctioning as children, and their near-perfect work behavior earns them nothing but jealousy, harassment, and sometimes termination in their professional lives? That’s awful, but interesting.

Now, reader, since this is part of a series, I’m going to leave you here. And I promise not to take long getting back to you! These are just the preliminaries. There are other things that I need to discuss with you for the dissertation proposal (some of you have to write qualifying chapters), the prospectus defense, and beginning your first draft. So, in the country way of saying, I’ll be back indirectly.

This is from my days as a graduate student and the advice that I give others who are still struggling. If you like it, press the hands (give me a clap) and leave a comment.



LaToya R Jefferson-James

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.