How to Start Writing your Dissertation and Finish your Degree

How to Start Writing Your Dissertation

Your plight is known all too well. You have finished all your coursework, foreign language requirements, oral exams and successfully submitted your dissertation proposal. It’s a steep hill you’ve climbed, congratulations! You might think can’t I just rest for a bit before starting the big “diss”? Simply put, no, you cannot. Like athletic training, you need to build on the conditioning you have developed your coursework years. Starting and finishing a dissertation can just be as much work as you’ve already completed to get to the “all but dissertation” point. And, this is often the point where many graduate students quit. According to a 2007 research study, less than two thirds of Phd students who start their dissertations complete them within 10 years. Even though completion rates vary by discipline, those kind of odds are working against you finishing a dissertation quickly or even at all. But if you have made it through the other doctoral degree requirements, you owe it to yourself to finish your dissertation and earn your degree. Try some of these basic tips for dissertation writing and soon you will be able to write Dr. in front of your name.

1. Rediscover your reasons: Take some time to remind yourself why you started pursuing a PhD in the first place. To become a professor? To earn a higher salary? To attain the highest educational achievement in your field? To impress your family and friends? Whatever the initial reasons, know that your reasons may change over time. You may even decide that your dissertation and degree are not worth completing. However, if you have taken out student loans, remember that you will need to pay them back. Only with the degree in hand can you garner a salary to help clear your education debts. By understanding your primary motivations and being honest with yourself can you muster the true motivation necessary to finish. Write your reasons on an index card and carry them in your wallet or purse. Take the card out and read them often. Keep imagining yourself finishing. Picture holding your hard-earned diploma in your hands and resolve to make that vision a reality.

2. Incorporate writing into your life: Do not try to hole yourself up in a cabin in the woods for 8 months shunning all human contact in order to complete your dissertation. If this approach has never been your style, adopting a monastic life will simply not work. It’s too radical a break from your previous habits and lifestyle. You will feel even more deprived of life’s riches than you will when you’re sitting in your study writing on a beautiful summer day. View writing as just the next stage in the process of your attaining your degree. It’s part of what you must do to get the job done.

3. Stop whining: Focusing on the negative and all the reasons why you cannot complete a dissertation will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think it cannot be done, then it will not get done. In recent years the field of positive psychology has shown how thinking encouraging thoughts can produce good results and transform lives. Athletes use positive mental imaging to envision winning championships and gold medals and so should you. Picture yourself writing your dissertation. See the letters and words appearing on your computer screen and hear the delightful click of the keyboard as the ideas flow smoothly from your mind to your fingertips. Imagining positive outcomes will help produce the results you need to finish your degree.

4. Enlist others: Tell others about your plans to finish your dissertation. Even if you are still writing, give friends an anticipated graduation date. Put that future date on your C.V. and in your appointment book. Write it in your annual holiday letter. Having a group of inquiring minds who want to know how your work is progressing will keep you on track. It’s never fun hearing yourself give some weak excuse for why you missed your deadline. Use that awkwardness to motivate you to write and complete chapters. Seeing the end in sight and hearing others ask how you are doing will motivate you to drive toward that goal of completion. Also, consider forming a writing group to support each other’s efforts. Be sure your group members are at similar points in the writing process and share a similar lifestyle. If you are a mother working a fulltime job and writing a dissertation, you may find you have little in common, or little sympathy for, a fellow, twentysomething graduate student who stayed up until 4am and couldn’t make the writing group’s 9am coffee meeting. Be honest with yourself about people who energize and de-energize you and surround yourself with sensible, reliable cheerleaders.

5. Schedule it: Devise a writing schedule that fits your life routines. If you are a night owl, then make sure you do not need to be up at 5am in the morning for children or for work. If you are in graduate school and have your days free, be sure to schedule blocks of time dedicated only to writing (not grading, checking email, or social networking websites). If you work full time, then you may have to book mornings, nights, or weekends to write. In all situations, do not plan to write every morning, noon and night. That is not a sustainable plan and will quickly lead to burnout and poor writing products. Choose a 1-2 nights, a 2-3 mornings, and 1-2 afternoons that you will write and then schedule those times in your appointment book or online calendar. Tell others the days, nights or mornings you will be writing. If possible, schedule a breakfast, lunch or dinner date as a reward for completing your writing time. Notice that initially your focus is on time and not on pages. As long as you are staying true to your allotted writing time, the writing and pages will follow.

6. Chunk it: Break the big project into smaller tasks. At the outset, do not try to plan writing the whole dissertation in a year or a chapter in a month. That’s too general and too daunting for a writing “to do” list. Break your dissertation down into discrete, manageable pieces that fit into your writing schedule. If you plan to write for 2 hours on Wednesday night, set a goal of drafting or revising 2-3 pages. Always keep a journal article and/or drafts in your bag in case you get stuck waiting somewhere. If you have a 30 minute break in the day, pull out 1-2 pages of draft writing and edit them. Read that article and jot down some notes. Watch these smaller chunks of work accumulate into larger, complete sets of writing. If you cannot work in terms of number of pages, set yourself time limits for writing. For example, forty five minutes of writing followed by a 15 minute break results in one hour of work. These smaller chunks will add up to larger blocks of time that can yield pages of tangible products.

There are many challenges to completing a dissertation and earning a PhD. If it were easy, more people would do it. Remember that if you have made it to the writing stage, you have already successfully cleared major hurdles toward your degree and you should be well-trained and conditioned for the final event. Don’t quit. Be methodical, know yourself, and work steadily. Regular, consistent progress measured by pages or by hours will get you closer to a finished dissertation and to your doctoral degree.