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I’m finished….it’s over….Finito! (I don’t know Italian, just this word). In three weeks, I will put on a robe with 3 velvet bands on the sleeves and a colorful hood! I will walk across a stage and receive the final piece of “sheepskin” of my life – that Ph.D. Oh, and I deserve it! Anyone who has completed all of the course work (in my case, 80 credit hours beyond my bachelor’s) and written and defended a dissertation, deserves it!
And so I leave academia for the most part, (I am scheduled to teach one class next semester), but not without some great and horrible memories of the 16 months I spent writing my dissertation. And so, dear fellow student, I Ieave you with some words of wisdom as you contemplate your own dissertation production, and the most important advice I can give is to manage your time. If you don’t, you will experience stress and anxiety the likes of which you have never seen before. Take it from a “veteran” – here are the best dissertation writing tips you will ever get:
- You know by now how to write a dissertation – you have read many of them; you have taken or are taking your research course. At this point you should have your research question and have had your proposal approved by your committee. Now the real work begins, and you need a minimum of a year. That year will be busy, so plan for it!
- Make a list of all of the steps involved – the literature review, the introductory chapter (I saved this for last), and each subsequent chapter, the rough draft, the review and editing (I planned for three review and editing “sessions”), the final draft, and, of course, the formatting.
- Get out a calendar for the year – I actually printed out the 16 months and taped them on my wall. Now, put the due date in bold red writing in the final month. Working backwards, set up a timetable for completion of each piece from your list. Give yourself a large chunk of time for the literature review, because that can be the most frustrating and tedious. And, if you are conducting your own research as I did, set a date early on for the design of your research instruments. In my case, I had to have those instruments ready to go early on, as my research was going to occur over a 9-month school year at a local middle school.
- One of the best pieces of management advice I can give is to start the writing as early as possible, particularly the literature review. Why? Because every time I met with my advisor, he had found some new research he wanted me to include, and you can expect the same thing to happen.
- Schedule regular meetings with your advisor throughout the time period. He was really slow about getting back to me sometimes, by the way. We would meet and talk; I would give him a chapter and then wait, wait, wait for his comments. But I continued to work, because if his comments changed anything, I could always tweak what I was doing.
- Save the last month to review, re-write, review, re-write, review, re-write, and add the final touches.
- Carve out a daily/weekly work schedule for nothing but dissertation work. In my case, I set aside three afternoons a week, from 1 – 6 pm, and did everything I could not to veer from that schedule. Did it get disrupted? Of course. But at least I had the schedule to come back to.
- Leave your living space when you work, unless you live alone and have the self-control to turn off television and to ignore all of those little chores you see that need to be done. No one is going to ask you to clean the bathroom at the library!
- Organize your files! I am old school and used file folders and hard copies. If you are really comfortable with electronic organizing devices, try Zotero (zotero.org) – it’s a great program for this management task. I just need to spread out the stuff in each file, so I always have a visual of everything and so that I can make notes on those hard copies. I organized my files by chapter, and then had a few extra for bibliography, comments and suggestions from my advisor, etc.
- If you experience burnout during a work period, give in and do something else. You can always add the lost hours to another day of the week.
- From a psychological standpoint, I always looked at my dissertation as if it were some work project, and I set an hourly wage for myself. It was a great game to play, because I added up my hours and figured out how much I would be paid if this were an on-the-job project! It kind of kept me focused and working to play this game!
- Get rid of your distractions. I decided that the only time I would check my emails was before noon and after 6 p.m. on the days I had set for dissertation work. The same went for my social media sites – complete “no-no’s” during work time!
- My final piece of advice? Break up your chapters into sub-chapters. There is something that is just less overwhelming when you are looking at completion of a sub-chapter rather than the entire chapter!
Writing a dissertation seems like a monumental task, and it can really be discouraging to think in terms of the entire project. Setting benchmarks for pieces of it to be completed is really the best way to go!