Carolyn Thomas de la Pena

(Ph.D. American Studies, 2001; Jeffrey Meikle, Supervisor)
Assistant Professor, American Studies
University of California, Davis

Carolyn Thomas de la PenaHere are some tips for completing your degree:

  • Make time to research and write the dissertation. Find outside funding to buy the time you need to travel for research, to think, to write. Do not TA and AI your way through your degree. The space between teaching and writing is necessary, and you'll make contacts through those fellowships that will help you on the job market.

  • Give yourself a deadline for research after which you will begin writing. Research has no real end point--there's always more to know. After a year of research I began writing, warts and all. What I wrote wasn't always good; at times I had to stop and go research more. But switching from "researcher" to "writer" hat was essential in getting the project finished.

  • Find a writing partner. I wrote two chapters with a friend over mornings of "laptop battleship" at a local coffee house. Just hearing the sound of someone else writing is enough to get over a minor case of writer's block. And accountability is key to getting the dissertation finished.

  • Begin writing. Rick Cherwitz once said at a dissertation workshop that "a good dissertation is a done dissertation." Excellent advice that I'd tweak slightly to say "a good dissertation is a solidly researched if imperfectly articulated, done dissertation." You'll have time to turn the dissertation into a book in your first couple of years post PhD, especially if you do a post-doc. Remember, it's good to be critical and want your work to be the best, but writing the dissertation is a learning process. No one finishes a dissertation and has the "book" done.

  • Find something to write about that will sell. Think actively about marketing yourself in a tight job market with what you write about. Pursue something you'll want to walk up to editors and tell them about, something that you think matters beyond academia. A finished dissertation, in itself, is not enough to land you a job. You have to write something that people want to hear, something that makes people want you around for the long haul. And if you think your project matters, you'll want to finish it.