Getting It Done

Fabio Rojas offers advice on how to finish a dissertation and maintain your sanity.

December 7, 2011

Dissertation writing and weight loss share one thing in common. People tell you that it’s easy to do in 15 minutes a day, but they both require a great deal of persistent and dedicated effort.

I am not saying that dissertation writing should be a 10-year project. Rather, successful dissertation writing, like all writing, means that you sit down every day for a while and just work. It’s like any other job. Here are some things to keep in mind to help you actually create the final product:

Most dissertations are built from smaller chunks, which aren’t that hard to do. Therefore, you should write a fairly detailed outline of each chapter, and a sketch of how the chapters fit together. For example, most dissertations have a chapter, or section, that describes prior work on your topic. That’s a pretty easy thing to do that you can work on before you get to harder topics.  Even the hard parts can be assembled from easier small chunks.

Schedule. Once you have figured out the bits and pieces of your dissertation, establish firm but reasonable goals for each month. For example, a reasonable goal for a semester might be to write one or two good chapter drafts and prepare one for submission to a journal.

Daily workout. Prepare a time and place where you can work every day uninterrupted for many hours, at least four to five times a week. At the University of Chicago, the computer lab in the basement of the public policy school served this purpose for me. Make sure that you have all the tools you need to work – dictionaries, software, games for relaxation, etc.

Breaks. Schedule off time. Most people work in a cycle of high and low intensity, where you recover your spent energy. Go to a movie, play games, hang out with your family and friends. Also, eat well and exercise. Sustained writing is often an isolating activity -- take care of yourself.

Learn that every good paper started out as a bad paper. Don’t worry about how horrid the first draft is. Just do it. Once you have something, you can always revise it. If you haven’t written it, it can’t be improved, and if it can’t be improved and finished, it won’t ever help you graduate!

Follow the basic rules of writing you learned in freshman composition class. Avoid wordiness, have a clear thesis, avoid passive sentences, and so forth. If English is your second language, there are usually courses that help you develop your writing.

Hang out with people who are progressing well on their dissertations. You need all the support you can get. Avoid people who discourage you or distract you. Your friends should be a help and inspiration, not a hindrance. Create a social environment of people who reinforce the right habits and attitudes. Create a dissertation support group so you can learn from other people.

Minimize time spent on teaching and committees. All your time at work should be spent working on your dissertation. Even if college teaching is your main goal, you still need to finish the dissertation, which means limiting paper grading, office hours, and the like.

Learn that the only good dissertation is a complete dissertation. No matter how bad you feel, keep working and just get it done!

Like any other activity, writing your dissertation requires dedication. So create an environment that will help you complete your work


Fabio Rojas is associate professor of sociology at Indiana University at Bloomington. This essay is adapted from his new book, Grad Skool Rules: What You Need to Know About Academia From Admissions to Tenure (Smashwords Editions).


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