As experts or becoming-experts in our fields of study, we will continue to encounter new writing forms and challenges as we build our careers. What new modes of scholarly communication do we, and will we, learn or create? To address the ever-fluid and changing realms of what we writers do not yet know, have not yet experienced, or take for granted, CSU Writes is introducing a newsletter series called “Demystifying,” wherein we will pick up topics about the often hidden and mysterious whats, the hows, and the whys of research and academic writing. The first in this series is shares one graduate student’s experience with demystifying the dissertation for family and friends.

While the structure and content of a dissertation will reflect the specialties and expertise of a doctoral student’s discipline, committee, research findings and/or scholarly analyses so that each writer’s dissertation will be unique, dissertations also have some shared general characteristics: extensive (large) document, formatted according to the degree-granting institutions requirements, and make a significant contribution to a field of study.

The dissertation is broadly an expression of scholarly work that summarizes a graduate student’s research and expertise on a certain topic. It can take years of writing and editing, recommended by dissertation committee members, often made up of department members and topic-area experts who serve as guides, readers, and reviewers. The dissertation process is both one of writing and relationship-building over many years of doctoral study.

The dissertation writing process can sound daunting, and that’s because it is. Not only is the dissertation a uniquely academic undertaking, the time and attention required by the task at hand is highly unusual. In the United States, less than 5% of the adult population (or around 2% of total population) has a Ph.D. (

Recent graduate Dr. Teri Gadd struggled explaining it to her family and friends outside of the academy. She notes, “there’s not a great understanding of the dissertation. They think it’s a book report, and it’s not.” And, because dissertations are large, complex, book-length documents, they can take years to complete.

Even the most well-meaning and supportive family and friends may become impatient with a dissertator, assuming like a class paper, the dissertation should be done within a semester or two.

Because dissertation writing itself is a process, writers must balance research, writing, and editing with all the other things life demands. This is why a specific type of self-care is necessary. “…as someone once told me, just like a car needs to go get check-ups and maintenance and oil changes, so do you need those maintenance things. The most important thing is sleep. Set a schedule where you treat that sleep and self-care time as not optional,” offered Teri.

This might seem like basic survival advice, but in reality, the amount of effort required to complete the PhD can infringe upon those day-to-day necessities like getting enough rest and eating nutritious food.

CSU Writes Director Kristina Quynn offers the following advice to writers who seek better understand the nature and process of dissertating: “While it may seem counterintuitive or of little consolation, but a graduate student writer will best understand their dissertation by writing the dissertation, which almost always takes longer than we want it to take.”

If you become impatient with your own dissertation writing process, it may help to contextualize the dissertation as a book-length manuscript–like your favorite novel, biography, or self-help paperback.

And, if your family and friends want to know when your dissertation will be “done.” Remind yourself that they have your interests at heart, Thank them for their interest in your process and success. Then you can gently share that it took J.R.R. Tolkien twelve years to write The Lord of the Rings. In comparison, your plan to complete your dissertation well ahead of Tolkien’s schedule!

So, let’s get to it! You do not have to do it alone.


CSU Writes offers programming to work on dissertation writing and editing. Those events include:


DATA: Dissertation and Thesis Accountability 

show up & write. M-F 8a-5p

Write to Publish (W2P-II) I: a 13-week course

W2P-II: Article Writing Accountability

Find more of our Spring 2022 events here.