David E. Steiner

Retired USAF, Teacher, Dad, Grandfather, Curmudgeon

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Writing a Dissertation

Further Tales of Educational Adventures





The principles still work although the hardware makes production much easier. I had to hand-carry my draft pages to my editor and typist. You still need an editor and you may want to have a typist as well unless you’re very good at formatting footnotes and bibliographies with Word. I continue to hope you will enlighten others when you’re done. There are now several of these kinds of notes available. You should at least glance at all of them as part of your research about the best way to approach the production of a dissertation.


David Steiner

Thornton, Colorado, March 2015




Students continue to exhibit an interest in the remarks, even after 40 years, so I feel obliged to update them every now and then. Much of the original still holds up very well. In some areas, however, particularly with regard to typing, and communications, which should now be more properly called word processing, e-mail, Face Book, Twitter, cell phones, etc, new technology has made it necessary to add some material. New material, as well as comments on old, has been placed in [ ] or as footnotes.

I'm very glad I took the time to write this; it has saved me a great deal of time in counseling dissertation writers and trying to remember how it was. I hope you will take the time to do the same.


David E. Steiner

Boulder, Colorado, 2009




In the years since I wrote these remarks I have at various times given copies to friends and acquaintances, and sufficient time has now passed to require a few explanatory remarks.

I stirred up a small storm when I passed out these remarks to my fellow candidates. It was a little like publishing the secret handshake. I never felt that way about it. In many ways my experience was unusual, and I did not then, or have I since minimized the simple hard work involved.


Although I was writing a Theatre dissertation, the principles involved haven't changed, and should be more or less true in any discipline. I continue to feel that having an editor and going to the research source are two of the most valuable lessons I learned, and I continue to urge my friends and students to follow that example.


Costs, of course, have changed. Even though I stayed with a relative, I can't imagine how I managed in New York on $200. Other costs have not risen as fast, and the actual cost of producing the finished copies would now be about $750.

If you are reading this you probably have plans for your own thesis or dissertation. I hope you will complete it, and I hope you will do your own "Remarks" and send me a copy. Good luck!



Vacaville, California, 1980




Introduction March 20th, 1969


Every dissertation, of course, presents a different problem with a different solution. The following comments, though often written in imperatives, do not constitute a "cook-book," but describe my own progress and reflect the many mistakes I made and the lessons I learned. If I were to write a dissertation again, under similar circumstances (a thought so vile as to defy description) I would first read this paper [it’s only 6,606 words] with Great Care. Bear in mind throughout, however, that this is one person’s experience. Your own will be unique.




The adviser is easily the most important part of any dissertation, but I cannot be specific without being either insulting or fawning, so I will stick to generalities. To begin with, you should select an adviser with even more care than you select a wife or husband. In the short run, he or she is more important to you. I had two of them (i.e. advisers) and I was fortunate in both. The important thing to remember is that you must see eye to eye with your adviser. There is a great deal of teamwork involved and you must get along -- you must be able to take orders from him/her without grinding your teeth. He/she is the captain of your ship and you are the deckhand; he/she steers and you do the work. In the same way, if the vehicle sinks, you both go down, so there is plenty at stake. If you can't work with him/her, find someone else. Friction, as they say, will only slow you down.1


By the same token, your committee members should be chosen with care. In my own experience, all but two members of my six-person committee were chosen by circumstance. That will happen to you if you take as long to start as I did. Being able to to have the committee members you know and want provides a convincing argument for getting on the stick and getting it done. One member of my original committee went on leave, one became too ill to serve and another left the department. It happens all the time.

By the time you are through, you will be sure that your adviser is sick of you; you have intruded on his/her time, surfeited him/her on your writing style, not to mention your scholarly capabilities, and you have generally been a pest. If you're really mean, you may even force him/her to attend graduation. Don't regret your guilt feelings; they are well warranted, and your judgment is probably deadly accurate.




The preliminary work was the toughest part of the process for me: selecting a topic and getting it approved, planning the time to write it, making sure the required money was available, and arranging a place to work. The first took me almost three years, and all the rest less than six months. In the beginning, I picked resident repertory theatres for a topic. I spent a year on that one, gathering material, writing letters and generally wasting my time. I found it impossible to pin the people down long enough to talk to them. There was a lot of traveling involved. In the end, as with many others, I left the campus without writing a line, and my Air Force work then occupied me for fourteen months.


During that time it became clear to me that good old dead books, articles and newspapers would be easier to handle. They wouldn't talk back, look at me as though I were nuts or refuse to answer my questions. I asked the Air Force for six months in which to write a dissertation. It was a round figure. I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that if I had nothing else to do and was reasonably free from financial worries I could do it from start to finish in six months. They agreed, and I was given an almost ideal set of circumstances. I grant that the situation was unusual, but I would urge anyone who writes a dissertation to approximate those conditions as closely as possible. Even if heavy borrowing is necessary, the telescoping of the task beats dragging it out for a year or more, especially if you are working in addition.


When I began those six months, the first thing I had to do was settle on a title. I leaned heavily on Dr. DeChaine's [my adviser] advice. He employed a little non-directional counseling and we were on our way. I still had to write a proposal, though, and here I made one of my big mistakes, largely because nobody can tell you how to write a proposal. There is no set form. I have seen Education Department proposals that ran to 20 pages or more.  My proposal was one page long. My committee criticized it for being "too specific" about the proposed organization. They were afraid I'd tie myself to it and regret it. (They were right; the original organization lasted about three days before I junked it as unworkable.) They were more interested in a precisely worded title and some assurance that I had surveyed the material that pertained. My title, unfortunately, was vague. Compare the title on my proposal: An Analysis of the Characterization of the American Military in New York, 1919 -- 1941, with the title as I defended it: The American Military: Theme and Figure in New York Stage Plays, 1919 to 1941. As for having surveyed the material, to say the least, I missed a few things. (See Research, below) So, as to the proposal, there is only one real dictum: be sure both you and your adviser can live with it. Mine was a mess, but fortunately my committee was willing to accept a number of substantial changes along the way.





I have never known anyone in theatre who didn't have to go to New York [Or wherever the headwaters of your discipline lie] to do some research, and you will probably have to do that, too. [The Internet is certainly useful, but there’s no substitute for getting as close as you can to primary material.] But don't count on taking in any plays. I was there a week and never saw anything except the inside of the New York Public Library, the Lincoln Center Library and Grand Central Station. I was lucky in that the Air Force provided me with a "hop" to New Jersey and return via San Francisco. Still, it cost a bundle. The department [and most departments or schools] has money for such ventures, including the airfare, if you justify it well, but not for subsistence while you're there, and New York is expensive. After I returned I applied for $162.50 to cover Xeroxing of about 1,000 play reviews. I had the receipts. Unfortunately, I can't add. The actual total was $163.50, and I had to wait about a week extra to be reimbursed because of the stupid error.


You can apply by letter to Mr. Robinson I didn't do that, and I advise against it. It rules out any flexibility. Better you should spend your own -- you will be forced to to keep track of it, and should you need to go elsewhere, you can. If you get a grant, you should record every dime of transportation expenses, or whatever your grant covers.


I cannot recommend any living accommodations to you, because my circumstances were again unusual: I have a cousin who lives in Rye. The New Haven was awful every morning, but the room and board were free, and there was a pleasant opportunity for visiting in the evenings, even though I was too tired to be more than barely civil. You must know someone who lives near Manhattan [or wherever your research takes you]. Impose on them; you have a marvelous excuse.


Let's face it, the New York Public Library is depressing. The Main Branch, at 42nd and 5th Avenue contains all the scripts, novels from which plays have been taken, and so forth. It has a central catalogue room which is imposing to say the least. You look up a work, take the call numbers and /or letters to the central desk and are then directed to one of the reading rooms. When your book arrives from the stacks, your number flashes on a big board and you go and claim your prize. [The catalogue is now entirely computerized and works, I am told, much faster.] Unfortunately, I found that most of the books I wanted were either so rare they'd been lost or so popular they weren't in the library. I gave up and went to Lincoln Center. As a result, I advise you bypass the Main Branch entirely unless you really can't avoid using it.


To reach Lincoln Center you take a bus which goes past the Main Branch, heads west on 42nd St., turn up Broadway to about 64th, at which point you get off. You bear to the right of the fountain and go all the way back in the plaza to the library, which is a part of the NYPL system. You take an elevator to the third floor and when the door opens a guard asks you for a pass. I was there for a week and never got a pass, so I can't tell you what he wanted. I said, "I'm working on a dissertation in there," and waved in the general direction of the bookshelves I could see through the glass walls. He let me go, came to recognize me and never asked me for a pass again, though other guards did. I gave them all the same answer. Since it worked, I commend it to you.


You will feel a bit lost, and awed, perhaps, as I was. For most of the week I sat next to Tony Perkins, who was researching something as well. But take heart! I had no sooner walked in the door than I recognized, sitting at the desk, Rod Bladel, a young man with whom I had taken my Masters at Michigan in 1963. Soon we were talking of old times and I recognized him as a source of considerable help. The catalogue system was complex and unusual and I’m sure it’s much altered by now and much more accessible.


In addition to the many scripts I needed, I came upon what I deemed a major find: the Freedley collection of newspaper criticism. We have often assumed that collected criticism goes only as far back as 1941, but Mr. Freedley started his own collection in 1930 and it contains entries dated before 1910. Although the years prior to 1930 are incomplete, using the collection is a great deal easier than looking up reviews in every paper. Unfortunately the collection had no pagination and the reviews weren’t listed by page number.


Lincoln Center has a room set off for people who are working on doctorates [and people like Tony Perkins], so you can pile things up and leave them overnight. The working day is short; open at 10:00 and close about 5:00.   Since I had to catch a 4:15 train every afternoon, I generally skipped lunch and had about five hours a day to work.


Xerox work at the NYPL is expensive: 25¢ a page. [Probably much more now, but I expect a lot of it has been digitized and is available to be printed out.]  You will find that you have more work to do than you have time to do it, and you will also find, after your return to the campus, that you have forgotten some matters. At Rod Bladel's suggestion, I made arrangements with one of the library's staff, Mr. Maxwell Silverman, to pick up any loose ends I might discover later. It was good advice. I needed a couple of items, the charge was only $6 an hour, and it was well worth it because I couldn't get the information anywhere else. Chances are good you won't run up a very large bill, and I highly recommend that you make similar arrangements.


A word about collecting your reimbursable funds when you return: after I turned in my Xerox receipts and they were approved by the staff, I took them to Mrs. Briscoe [the department head secretary, in charge of budget] who asked if I wanted to carry the voucher to the business office. I said a check would be fine. Neither of us knew that such a check would have to come from Salem. So instead of being paid that day, I was paid about a month later (plus a week for my rotten arithmetic).The remainder of my research was done in the U. of O. library, with which you are already familiar. You should know (although I didn't) that an "F" or doctoral class, candidate has the same library privileges as the faculty whether he/she's a TA or not. [This is true of most institutions, I have since found] So I removed about 40 books and kept most of them. At least ten of those forty came from spots on shelves where they shouldn't have been. So if you look for a book and can't find it, search the surrounding shelves before you give up or ask for help.


I also found that it paid to put in my interlibrary loan requests early. Sometimes it took six weeks to get a book. The number of obscure scripts obtainable from Oregon State surprised me. Were I to do it over, I think I would make a trip to Corvallis for a look around -- it would probably have saved me a lot of time.


The newspaper room of our library is admittedly inadequate, which is one of the reasons I needed to go to New York. Still, the staff is helpful and there is, conveniently, a microfilm copier available [Now commonplace, of course, and replaced by printers]. I used it primarily to copy a dissertation which I couldn't get from University Microfilms. As you may know, if you need a copy of a dissertation, you can usually get it in reduced Xerox form from Ann Arbor. [Now available as PDFs from http://disexpress.umi.com/dxweb#search] This service took about a month. [The Internet to the rescue!] Eventually I wrote directly to Mrs. Clara Heth, who is in charge of manuscript publications, and I got very good service. If they don't have a copy of a manuscript you want, you'll have to rely on interlibrary loan. I did that with an important dissertation and got a microfilm. The manuscript warned against duplication without permission of the U. of Pennsylvania, so I wrote them and they told me I'd have to get the permission of the author. I wrote him, and he gave me permission. If I were doing it again, I'd just copy it -- it cost me about two weeks.


For the next few weeks I was occupied about 18 hours a day, taking notes and accumulating mounds of material which soon threatened to squeeze me out of my cubbyhole (see below) so, in self defense, I set November 1st (I had gone to New York early in September) as an arbitrary date to start writing. It is as important to set such a date and hold to it as it is to determine an arbitrary point at which to stop writing. (see below)





On November 1st I closeted myself, and I literally did my writing in a closet, which I had converted into a desk with minimal shelf space. [Since we were there only temporarily we had not brought any furniture; we still had our house in Tacoma.] I gathered my materials, closed the door and plunged in. Composing at the typewriter, I did the first draft on 20 lb. 50% rag paper, a procedure I recommend because the first draft will take an awful beating. [With a printer none of this is true today] Whatever paper you choose, be sure you can erase over it without smearing the typing. I set a goal of five pages a day, and although it varied from two and a half to ten over a three month period, the average was very close to five. After five pages in one day the quality dropped substantially.I sympathize with those who cannot compose at the typewriter [or computer]. Some people dictate the first draft and others do it in longhand [although that now seems awfully primitive]. However it's done, eventually you must come up with a typed draft and I think it's easier to do it yourself. Cheaper, too.





Any first draft, of course, calls for a second, but rewriting calls for a ruthless blue pencil. One of the most interesting aspects of writing a dissertation is the relationship between your ego and your work. No matter how dull their topics, writers become stubborn about their writing. This tendency was particularly pronounced in my case, since I've always fallen in love with my own prose. In this case, I became positively entranced with the beauty of my composition and the brilliance of my wit, style and scholarship.


Fortunately, (in the first draft of these remarks I wrote "unfortunately," but my editor changed it) I had an editor who was not quite so thrilled.


Since editing is an essential part of a work this size, I urge you to hire an editor. [This is still good advice no matter the length of the paper.] Mine was Mrs. A. Robert Thomas of Eugene. I found her through another candidate from this department, Stan Elberson. [Stan is now retired in Ft. Collins, Colorado, after teaching Theatre at Evergreen Community College, and spending a few years in Coos Bay.] She turned out to be a family friend, a circumstance which had the initial disadvantage of her not being nearly tough enough on my writing. She got much tougher as time went on. Her fee [like all the costs mentioned it now seems ridiculously low] for my 200 page work was about $100. I estimate she saved me about two months time and $70 in typing costs, so she was well worth the fee.


When I finished the first chapter I took it to Mrs. Thomas for editing. I looked over the corrections she made and then took it to my typist (see below) to have a new draft made. This second draft went to my adviser. After his comments, I took the second draft to my editor. who worked on style while I handled substance. Then the same second draft, much modified, went to the typist for final typing.


I enjoyed the writing. It was pleasant not to have to stop and search for words or phrases that didn't come readily to mind. When I got stuck, I would simply type the symbol "$" (the symbol reminded me not to do it too often, since Ruey got paid by the hour) and Ruey would then know that she was to do something about it.


I realized too late that I should have triple spaced the first draft. This would have made editing easier and would also have provided a very close approximation of the length of the finished work. My first draft was about 130 pages of text, but that became 179 in the final copies. Triple spacing would have resulted in a figure very close to the final one.


During the writing process I was, of course, still involved in research, to some extent. Books kept coming in through interlibrary loan, and every time I went to the library I came home with at least two more books. That could have gone on more or less indefinitely, but I ran out of shelf space. (My wife's patience ran out at the same time.) So I stopped. I urge you to do the same. Set a date, after which you vow to do no more research. Don't even look. Don't follow any leads; they will only tend to make you ill. If you are lucky enough to have the time to separate the process of research from writing, do so. Try not to research while writing, as it will only frustrate you and convince you that you have been remiss, lazy and slipshod. You probably have, but you can't let it interfere with the writing.


Once you have hired a typist and an editor you have only one real job left: get it done. About this time, I became convinced the whole thing was a piece of trash and not even worth typing, particularly at the going prices. (See below, Typing) I have been told that's a typical response.

In January I stopped writing. One never really "finishes." During the final month I became obsessed with the idea of acknowledgments. I must have written and rewritten that page a hundred times before I went to sleep. When I finally got to it it turned out to be very lackluster, I forgot to mention an important person and I misspelled a word. I can't offer a reasonable explanation for the obsession. A lot of odd things stick in your mind while you're writing.





Long before you stop writing, however, you must plan for the final typing of your work.  In order to hire a typist who is any good you must make arrangements about three to six months ahead. Other people do, which is why you must, too. For example, if you plan to need a typist in May of 1969 [this was written on March 20th] you are too late. All the good ones have been booked. [Probably still true with good computer operators] Again, Stan Elberson gave me the clue on that, and hiring a typist was the first thing I did in September, telling her that the bulk of the work would be in January. Fortunately winter is the off season, so Mrs. Tom Brady was able to do it by my schedule. She charged (and this is typical) 40¢ a page for rough copy and 50¢ a page for the final copy. The first price is too high and the second too low, so it works out about even.


I learned a couple of lessons about typists [since confirmed in years of working with secretaries] which I pass along here. First, although she is a "hired hand," you are actually at her mercy. Unless she gets the work done when you need it, you're dead. I didn't have any trouble, other than that which I caused myself. Once in a while I didn't let her know far enough in advance that I wanted a section done. But if your typist is like mine, she'll work hard to keep up with you. The other point is that you can't expect her to think. That is, after all your job. According to Turabian [and many others, including most secretaries] the typist isn't even supposed to think.


When I began writing, Mrs. Brady advised me to incorporate my footnotes in the text [a practice which is now the dissertation standard in most places] She said it would save me a lot of time. (It did.) However, I got very lazy about the footnotes. If you use this system, or whatever system you settle on, make your footnotes complete the first time around. If you're in doubt, overdo it. Better to have too full footnotes than to try to reconstruct them later.  In my final copy about ten pages (at 50¢ a page) had to be retyped because my original footnote had asked Mrs. Brady to refer to some other footnote for the reference. Sheer laziness on my part.

In this same vein, I found it unwise to assume that the typist knows everything about style. Remember, she types dozens of papers from different disciplines. So, matters of form, i.e. Turabian [or the Chicago Style Manual or whatever] will have to be decided by you or your editor. You will never get every point absolutely correct. I guess nobody ever has.





Besides having a final copy typed, you will have to have that and thousands of other words duplicated. After I saw the Copy-Mate at Lincoln Center, I checked up on it's operational ability in Consumer Reports, checked its cost a Bi-Mart ($29.95) and asked my wife for one for my birthday. I have used it often, it really works, and if you buy paper for it in 200 sheet lots from 3M here in town each copy costs about 7 1/2 cents. I recommend it. [Photocopying has come a long way since then. You can get a good used personal copier for a couple of hundred dollars. If you can afford it, you will find it very useful. I haven't seen a Copy-Mate for many years. It was a thermal process, and copies made that way aren't permanent]


When it came to duplicating the original copy, I ran into my first real snag. It was also my first run-in with the Graduate School. Everyone seemed to be on my side [this is the part that ruffled some feathers] but the Graduate School definitely does not want you to get a degree. And the first thing they do to deter you is to make if awfully tough to have your dissertation duplicated. (See p. 4 of the Grad School Style Manual) After much fooling around which I won't detail, I found that the print shop on the mezzanine of the EMU [Eugene Memorial Union] will multilith at incredibly low prices. I had eight copies run off (only two are required) for $39.38. You will be unable to beat the prices of this shop. [I'll say. I wonder what it costs today?] Furthermore, their dissertation work is done at night, by appointment. I called a couple of days in advance, took the work in one afternoon and got it back the next morning. That is I would have gotten it back if the machine had been inking properly. They were most apologetic and I really did have it by the next morning.





When all these problems had been solved, I thought I could turn in the manuscript, pick up my degree and go home. There are always a few minor details, such as the defense, but I knew all about that. What I didn't know about is all the running around. You must apply for a time and place for the defense, and you must do so at least four weeks in advance. That doesn't mean copies of the dissertation have to be in the committee members' hands, but it does mean you must have a completed abstract. There is a form to fill out (which I got from the Graduate School, but which is normally available in the department office unless there is a run on them) which details the time, the place, and the committee members. The adviser has to sign this form. He or she also has to sign one copy of the abstract (a typed copy, not a duplicate of the seven you turn in to the Graduate School.) What it really means is that items 4 and 5 on the Graduate School's checklist on page six of the Style Manual should be done at the same time. No one tells you that, though.


When you go to the library with your abstract you will be full of the knowledge that it must not exceed 600 words. Hogwash. Mine was 641 and it cost $1.00 extra. The way the Graduate School warns you about the word limit in the manual you'd think you can't get the degree if the abstract is 601 words long.


Once all this has been done you can relax or chew your nails. I went out and bought a hood ($21.00) at the Co-Op [Bookstore]. You can't make arrangements for a gown, if you're going to graduation, until the week before, and when I did that they told me I was too late. And you can sit around and consider what it cost you. My complete costs aren't in yet, and I'll probably never figure them out [I didn't], but roughly it looks like this:


One week in New York:  $200.00

Editing:  $100.00

Typing:  $165.00

Duplicating:  $40.00

Duplicate dissertations:  $55.00

Paper, ribbons, etc.:  $20.00

Microfilming fee:  $21.00


Total:  $601.00


During the couple of weeks while you wait for your orals I hope you will do as I have, and try to pass on your own experiences, which, as I said at the beginning, will be different from mine.

There isn't much you can do to prepare for your defense, though I recommend heavy doses of Secanol and Equinil [Valium, today, I suppose]. One of the final examination's worst features is that nobody will tell you exactly what form it will take, how rough it will be or how long it will last. I have been to only one, but I urge you not to duplicate my mistake. You are entitled to attend these examinations and I wish I had taken the time.


The first thing you can expect is a long list of typographical errors, which will be pointed out with glee. My dissertation was proofread five times by three people and about twenty typographical errors were turned up by the committee. [They didn't find them all; several have turned up since.] This long list was read by the first member to question me and was not greatly amplified by the other members. The result was that he took up a great deal of time and stole a lot of thunder.  Other than matters of form and spelling, the questions had to do with the subject matter, so I won't detail them. Any real advice I might give about the defense will sound awfully pompous, but I think everyone who defends should try to remember that the committee members know a good deal less about the subject than the defender.

You should also remember that every major concession on your part may result in changed pages and problems with page lengths and footnote numbers. Substantial changes will be expensive and if you believe in your material the status quo is worth fighting for. Your adviser should help in this regard.


After you have passed the final examination it only remains to deposit the corrected copies, signed by your adviser, with the Graduate School. No need to graduate; the diplomas are mailed about six weeks after graduation anyway.


So it cost six months of my life, $600, and I wore out a perfectly good SCM electric typewriter. Worth it, though.


David Steiner

March, 1969

"Any first draft, of course, calls for a second, but rewriting calls for a ruthless blue pencil. One of the most interesting aspects of writing a dissertation is the relationship between your ego and your work."



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