I recently ran a faculty workshop about transforming your dissertation into a book.
It made me reflect on the very long, painful, and isolating process I went through when I was a junior scholar.
This blog post is going to focus on WHY revising your dissertation is such an emotionally fraught process. There’s also an exercise at the end to help you reflect on your journey from graduate student to full-fledged expert.
In essence, I believe that much of the difficulty boils down to the legacies of graduate school. There are two main reasons why, to move forward with confidence, you need to acknowledge and let go of grad school trauma and grow into a new stage of intellectual development.
The first reason it’s so hard to turn your dissertation into a book is that you are no longer the same person you were when you started this project.
You probably started researching your dissertation topic years—or perhaps even a decade—ago. Think back to your younger self and marvel at how much you’ve changed and learned.
Back then, even the idea of doing independent research was exciting and your area of investigation was likely new and novel. In my case, I first began researching the topic that became the focus of my dissertation and then my first book for my undergraduate senior honor’s thesis!
As I continued in my career, this project just kept hanging around when all I wanted to do was pursue other new and exciting projects. So I allowed myself to start working on different research projects at the same time. They gave me inspiration and assurance that I was growing as a scholar even as I continued to work on something that was bound up in my past.
If you are dreading opening up your dissertation because you’re sick and tired of it, try thinking about some other ways to re-connect with your initial sources of inspiration. Exploring other projects that can be done on a part-time basis can help keep the flame alive with your book topic.
The second reason this process is so hard is that the entire experience of grad school and writing the dissertation is traumatizing and harrowing.
The kind of professional hazing that happens to grad students can cause deep and long-lasting wounds that solidify as self-doubt, anxiety, and imposter syndrome even when we are well beyond the PhD.
Most of my coaching clients have said that they used to love writing when they were younger. Unfortunately, their confidence was dashed by critical advisors that they deeply admired as impressionable students.
After enduring years of being torn down, they come to believe these critiques and lose touch with the innate part of themselves that knows their own immense value and what they have to offer.
On top of that, the critiques grad students receive from advisors are often just that—critical—rather than constructive. Many grad students end up feeling like they have to figure things out for themselves rather than rely on the people who should be guiding them but wield too much power and influence over their futures.
Internalizing advisor critiques can make it difficult for many people to just sit down and write. Writing gets intertwined with feelings of desperation and inadequacy, which can lead to unhelpful habits such as perfectionism and procrastination.
Make A New Start
Here’s a few questions that can help you reflect on, and hopefully start to let go of, the traumas of grad school that can negatively impact your book writing.
How has critical feedback you received on your dissertation influenced how you currently think about yourself as a writer?
Think back to the feedback you received about your writing as grad student. What were the comments that have stayed with you? In other words, what are the main negative thoughts you have about yourself as a writer?
And in what ways are these stories not true? Write down all the evidence you have that you are a clear, persuasive, powerful writer. You would not have gotten this far if you weren’t!
Turning your dissertation into a book is an emotional process. Writing a first book is inherently tough in and of itself. Plus, it involves needing to let go of your former self and step into your new identity as a true expert.
Ultimately, talking more openly about your journey and processing difficult emotions from grad school can help you move forward with your book and career with a sense of empowerment.
Leslie K. Wang (she/her/hers) is a writing coach, author and professional speaker who helps women scholars publish books that matter. After spending a decade on the tenure track, she recently transitioned to full-time coaching. Read more about her work at YourWordsUnleashed.com or listen to her podcast.