Writing a dissertation is a grueling process that does not just require academic prowess, an excellent writing style and mastery of a very specific area of knowledge. It also demands discipline (in setting a writing schedule), perseverance (in keeping that schedule) and motivation (to get the writing done and the project completed).
The beginning of the academic year, with its array of looming deadlines, administrative procedures and mandatory adviser/graduate students/department meetings, can make it difficult to find motivation and hold on to it. The COVID-19 pandemic, with its utter disruption of normal operations, exacerbates this problem even further.
So, if you need additional motivation in these trying times, maybe a practice I followed when writing my own dissertation can help. I call it Motivational Post-it: a series of brief slogans to write on Post-it notes and put all over your desk or workstation, so you can see them every time you sit down to work. Here are some of mine.
Start with one (line/page). The idea of writing what may amount to hundreds of pages can feel disheartening, especially if you just started your project. So, if you find yourself staring at a white page while the white page stares back at you, don't think about the arduous work ahead. Focus on the present rather than the future. Start with one line or page. One is better than zero, and the lines, as well as pages, will accumulate over time if you keep it going regularly. Breaking down the work in more manageable chunks will get you writing and help you push through your writer's block.
Obsessing is not progressing. This is for all the perfectionists out there. I know it is not realistic to just stop obsessing on each line/quote/passage if you have done it for years and that is precisely what makes you great in an academic environment. Been there, done that! Thus, I propose what I call a “timed obsession”: leave a brief period -- such as three days -- out of the allotted time to obsess over the details of a specific chapter or phase of the project. Then, whether that chapter/project is now up to your standards or not, after your timed obsession, you let it go. You send it in as it is.
Finished is better than perfect. This is again along the lines of perfectionism, but it applies more broadly to the dissertation in its entirety rather than to the single chapters. Your dissertation is not (yet) an academic book. It has to pass the scrutiny of your dissertation committee -- not be published by a prestigious academic publishing house. Even if you wish to publish it in the future, that is not your goal right now.
Remember: the perfect dissertation does not exist, and a good dissertation is a finished or written dissertation. Prioritize writing all the chapters or completing all the experiments or sets of data rather than spending precious time refining small details in already written chapters.
Interruptions happen. When creating your writing schedule, try to plan with reasonable expectations on the amount and quality of your writing. That means you will need to accommodate the fact that some days you will exceed your writing goals, and some days you will not reach them, so your schedule will have to be adjusted accordingly.
Remember also to account for interruptions: it is normal and human to feel physically exhausted and/or emotionally drained in the middle of the daily emergency that is COVID-19. Recognize that such times will come and that you need a writing schedule flexible enough to allow you to get back on track without feeling overwhelmed.
Work backward. Write your introduction at the end. The intro to your entire dissertation? After you have written all the chapters, so you know precisely where you are going and which considerations to highlight. The intro to each single chapter? Again, after you have conducted your analysis, so you know which points you want your readers to concentrate on. In this way, you will create a more compelling text and avoid losing writing time at the very beginning that should be dedicated to the meat of your argument. (Note: This approach may not apply to those dissertations that acquire a linear approach.)
The most you can do is your best. Give it your best shot. Still feeling like your argument could have been more convincing or better framed? You did what you could, so you are at peace with your conscience. You cannot do more than your best.
Celebrate your accomplishments. Celebrate your achievements to feed your motivation. You sent your chapter in? Take one day to destress -- possibly with some pampering -- and celebrate this milestone. You reached your writing goals for today? Buy yourself a treat and/or your favorite latte and take a walk outside.
You may be tempted to capitalize on the adrenaline rush of completion or on being in the working/productive mind-set and try to tackle the next topic, but that is a recipe for burnout in the long run. Recognizing that you are progressing and getting closer to your main goal provides immediate reward and helps you envision your objective of completing a dissertation as feasible and attainable.
Why do you like it? If you got midway through your dissertation and are now feeling stuck, try focusing on the part of your project that you enjoy the most. That might be the close analysis of a particularly poignant passage or the application of a specific theory, method or approach to your data. If possible, see if you can start writing the chapter you are stuck on not from the beginning but from the portion that speaks to you the most.
Ask yourself: Which part of this study am I most looking forward to writing/dealing with? Then go there. The rest, the connective tissue between sections, will come. The goal is to get you going.
It can also be useful to just look at the beginning of your journey: Why did you choose this project? Focus on the reasons that got you interested in it in the first place. Remember the enthusiasm you felt when you started? The eagerness to jump right in? Tap in to that to motivate you to bring your project to the finish line.