Recently several friends who are in graduate school asked me for advice on how to write a dissertation. I did that a long time ago…and now with so much more technology tools available I might do it differently. Although, I’m pretty content with the strategies I used then.
I also did a study that was best suited for qualitative research. So my plan included interviews, transcribing all my tapes and developing a tedious, but trustworthy data analysis strategy. Be sure to make ample time for the actual research–whatever the method or methods.
Here’s my list of suggestions.
- Get and have handy a dictionary and thesaurus. I prefer paper copies to online. A thesaurus is a great inspiration tool when you’re seeking the right word or think your creativity has gone dry.
- Create a dedicated work space. Keep only the most essential items there. I am a believer in parsimony. It’s perfectly fine to have an inspiration piece, perhaps a special coffee mug or photo. But keep your work space neat, tidy, and completely dedicated to writing.
- Create a timeline with benchmarks. My advisor and I developed a work plan based on my desired graduation date. Working backwards I put in every date for chapter completions, research, analysis, due dates for the graduate school, sending drafts out, ordering academic garb…anything that I needed to get to the finish line and had a due date was mapped out. I was extremely ambitious, but made it work. I wrote for 3-4 hours before work every morning at least 5 days a week.
- Create a dedicated block of time to write. Stephen Sondheim said, “The worst thing you can do is censor yourself as the pencil hits the paper. You must not edit until you get it all on paper. If you can put everything down, stream-of-consciousness, you’ll do yourself a service.” You must be relentless in your writing. You can edit and rework anything–but without words on paper, you’re paralyzed. My colleague, Dr. Roger Durham told me the secret to dissertation success is to “sit your ass down and write.”
- Do not have any social networking or email programs open while you’re writing. Discipline yourself to only write while writing. You may get up and stretch for five minutes per hour. Maximum.
- Create a dedicated block of time to read. There will be moments when you need to read in order to write, but I strongly encourage you to keep these two necessary processes as separate as possible. Reading is often procrastination in disguise.
- Keep a journal or wall chart of progress. I kept a diary of how many words I wrote every day. Make this public and congratulate yourself after every 500 words.
- Alphabetize and organize all of your literature into 3-ring binders. You may choose to do this electronically, but I preferred to have hard copies. It was more expensive, but I liked having the binders nearby and often re-read articles, marking them up and making notes in them.
- Write your citations and references out in the proper style as you go. It’s not that difficult. And it’s the last thing you want to put off until the end. Your reference page should be perfect from day one of writing.
- Back everything up on a flash drive or the Cloud every hour. I also emailed a copy of my finished progress to myself and a friend twice a week. Also, develop a document naming convention so that you manage versions.
- Don’t wait on feedback. Keep writing. The more words, the more material with which you have to work.I actually wrote a 25-page section that didn’t make it into the final dissertation. It truly was a bit of a tangent (a long history of events that led up to some of my direct referenced content), but writing about those events accelerated the writing of some later sections.
- Set time aside once or twice a week to proof and edit. Make sure the version you’re handing off to your Chair or committee members is your absolute best work.
- Keep a journal with you at all times to jot down ideas that come to you out of nowhere.
- Have one day per week that you do nothing that has anything to do with your dissertation. This requires great discipline, but I think it’s absolutely necessary for staying sane.
- Treat yourself. I had a vanilla milkshake one day a week for the entire duration.
- Make time for friends, family, and physical activity. Don’t be too obsessive. Get exercise. Stay healthy.