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Eating the Elephant 20 Considerations for How to Write a Dissertation

July 22, 2015 - Posted to How to: Writing Dissertation

Content 10

Some days you would just rather have a root canal than work on your dissertation. Everyone who has ever produced a dissertation absolutely relates to your current pain, and prepare yourself – there will be more days like this to come. But there will also be great days when you get so much accomplished, you know you can go out and celebrate your small victory with some friends. Whether you are having a good or bad day today, take some time to read through these tips and hacks that may make eating that elephant a lot easier.

  1. Set Deadlines Early On: You have submitted a general timeline with your proposal, and your committee has accepted it. Now it’s time to set smaller deadlines for yourself within that larger framework. Hopefully, you have scheduled your Introduction Chapter last – if not go change that with your advisor and committee members now. So, your first due date will be for your literature review. With that date in mind, set smaller deadlines for yourself when you will have sections completed.
  2. Deadlines Also Have to Be Flexible: Life does happen, and you do have to give yourself some flexibility within the deadlines you have set, without feeling guilty. You may be a TA and have had more than the usual amount of papers to grade. So, move a deadline if you have to and get over it.
  3. Get as Much Feedback as Early as Possible: Even if you only have your outline finished for that literature review chapter, run it by your advisor. If you have a section of a chapter finished, get some feedback, even from a committee member or two. And every time you have finished the rough draft of a chapter, get it to your advisor and a couple of committee members for review. Better to get the feedback now than when the work is finished and you have to re-write a chapter when all you want is to be done with it.
  4. Don’t Ask For Feedback When You Are Discouraged: Nothing could be worse. Your response might be to put the whole thing away in a drawer and walk away for longer than you should.
  5. Figure Out What Your Committee Wants Early: The best way to do this is to review dissertations that members have approved before or talk to people (if they are still around) about common committee members and their expectations.
  6. Take Time Off When You Need it or at Least Change the Scenery: If you need a week, take it. Or, if you can afford it, take your work with you and get out of town – go to the beach or to a lodge. You may be surprised to discover that you actually feel like writing.
  7. Establish a Writing Schedule: Everyone will tell you something different, but only you know you. Do you write better in short spurts with many breaks, or do you work better for longer periods. Some people prefer long periods because they lose focus otherwise. Also, establish the days of the week that you will set aside time for writing. A routine that develops into a habit is best.
  8. Say “no” When You Need to:   Friends and family members who have never done this, will not understand why you can’t just drop everything and go somewhere with them. They may even be “miffed” for a while, but they’ll get over it. There will also be times when you can say “yes,” so stop with the guilt trip if you are on one about this.
  9. Stop With the Excuses: Procrastinators “do” excuses. They don’t feel well; they have too many other things to do, like clean out a closet or wash their car. If you are falling into this trap, you are going to have to find ways out. The best way is to just force yourself to sit down and write, even just a sentence. Once you do that, you are in your work space, and you are much more likely to keep going.
  10. Reward Yourself Along the Way: That degree is your ultimate reward, but when it’s a year away, it’s not much of an incentive right now. Give yourself a small reward when you finish a section and a much bigger reward for a chapter. You can even break this down to smaller chunks. When you finish writing for 30 minutes, you get that Snickers Bar in the fridge.
  11. Get at Least a Cursory Outline Typed up and Printed out Before you Begin a Chapter: You can’t just free-write a dissertation. There has to be a logical order to your presentation. At least list what you will cover in each section.
  12. Once Your Topic is Approved, Get a Support Group: It may only be a couple of other students who are beginning their dissertations at the same time. Plan regular meetings to give feedback to each other and to bounce ideas around. This will help keep you working, because you know you have to have to show up with something!
  13. Deal with the Exhaustion of it All: Take up a physical activity – jogging, yoga, swimming. And eat better than you did before this all began. Twinkies and Ramen noodles will not do now.
  14. Schedule Work Time When You Know You are Most Productive: Your biological clock is unique abut you know whether you are a morning, afternoon, or night person. Work during your productive times.
  15. Figure Out Where You Work Best: If home is too distracting, then go to a library. If being on campus is too distracting, then work at home. If the kitchen table is good for you, great; if you have to be behind closed doors, then get there.
  16. Develop Rituals Around Your Writing Time: Maybe you make a pot of coffee; maybe you put on slippers; maybe you pick up your favorite pen. All of these things, done routinely, tell your brain that it is time to write.
  17. Know Your Learning Environment: Do you need music or is it too distracting? Should the room be warm or cold? Do you need to snack while you write?
  18. Put Motivational Quotes Up on Your Wall: Or maybe a letter from your grandmother telling you how proud she is of you – hard to let her down, right?
  19. Put Citations and Graphics in Your Rough Drafts: It will be easier to revise and re-write if they are already in there – big time saver in the end.
  20. Get the right Tools and Apps: Endnote is great for keeping track of resources an citation information; if you don’t have access a your school, get a plagiarism checker; Dropbox will let you transfer files to your other devices; and Self-Control will block your Internet browser for a time period you set.

Use these suggestions if you find them helpful, or, better, use them as start points to develop your own dissertation writing hacks. You have a big project ahead of you, but you CAN do it!

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