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Nose to the Grindstone

Getting your dissertation done will require a lot of hard work, but you can do it!

November 29, 2018
 
 

Megan Poorman recently completed her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at CU Boulder and associate of NIST. You can find her on twitter @meganpoorman or on her website.

This is part three of my dissertation writing series. In today’s installment we discuss the practicalities of putting hand to keyboard to write your dissertation, and I share tips that helped me stay focused in writing mine. Feel free to jump in here or check out the previous parts:
Part 1: Pre-gaming your dissertation
Part 2: Catastrophe-proof your dissertation

If you’ve been following along, you know that we’ve covered how to set yourself up for success by planning in advance, notifying your support network, and getting organized with your backups. Much like the procrastination that occurs before the writing of the dissertation itself, these were great introduction pieces that allowed me to procrastinate on offering advice about the nitty gritty. That’s not to say the previous posts don’t contain useful advice (in my biased opinion, of course), but I fully admit that regardless of your preparation, desire to write, or the realities of looming deadlines, getting words out of your brain and onto a page is tough. Forcing yourself to do it consistently for days on end is even tougher. This makes offering advice on the subject particularly difficult because on some level it all boils down to putting your nose to the grindstone and doing what must be done. My hope is that by sharing what I did you can find ideas that might work for you.

Create a Mind Map
This was a technique I picked up at the dissertation writing retreat I attended. I looked at the three projects that comprised my thesis and was struggling to figure out how to fit them together into a cohesive story and still give enough detail in the introduction without going down every rabbit hole. The small group leader suggested I draw my entire dissertation out in a diagram to see how things fit together. I was dubious at first as I wasn’t sure how to compress such complex topics into a simple diagram, but 20 minutes later I had a full sheet of paper and a clear plan for writing.

I unfortunately no longer have a copy of that page but here are a few links I found suggesting similar concepts (1)(2)(3) and even a program (4) courtesy of our editor, Heather. Essentially you start with a blank sheet of paper and write your major topic in the middle bubble. You then start connecting the middle bubble to the subtopics and sketch out a map of how everything relates to each-other. This conveniently makes writing your outline super easy.

Start with a word vomit
It’s less gross than it sounds, I promise. I learned this one when I wrote my first journal article. Once again I was paralyzed by the amount of information I had to write about. A friend suggested I start by writing down everything I thought I needed to say without judgment, no using the backspace key. For my dissertation I found this method most effective when I started with an outline of each chapter and with a few guiding words about what each subsection would contain. Once I had this, I would pick a section and just write all of the thoughts I had about that section. If I had a thought about tying it to a different area or adding a reference I would literally write “LINK TO XXXX SECTION B/C of XXXX”. Once you have all the thoughts out of your head you can begin shaping them into coherent paragraphs.

You don’t have to go in order
You don’t have to start at the beginning of your dissertation and write through until the end. This may not be true for all fields, but for STEM type writing I have found it easier to start with the methods and then results before even trying the introduction. After all, you know what you did and what the results were –  once you’ve got that down on paper it’s much easier to see the story you want to tell. It also means if you get burned out on one topic you can switch to a different one and still make progress. This is where having chapter links and good formatting in your document can really help when jumping back and forth.

Writing-wise, this is what worked for me. I encourage you to check out the advice other GradHackers have offered on the subject in the recent Writing Round-up.

Find a hiding spot and bring snacks
Better yet, find multiple. Find a spot both on and off campus that is removed from your usual environment where no one is likely to find you. Guard the identity of that location closely. The idea is to have a couple places where you know you can focus and that you will not be interrupted without your consent. I had a corner in the library that was just a few buildings over from my desk but up a flight of stairs where no one went. This spot was great if I only had a few hours between meetings. I also had a desk at home where I knew the only person who would find me was my roommate, and she was very understanding about when I needed to not be disturbed. In all of these scenarios, come prepared with everything you will need to stay a while. You don’t want to have to lose your spot because you got up for to grab a sandwich or end up stranded because you left your keys in the office.

Turn your phone on airplane mode
If you’re worried about someone needing to find you (such as your advisor, parents, or significant other) warn them in advance that you will be unreachable for a few hours at a time and that you will check in when you are back from writing. Turning your phone on airplane mode means no distracting texts but you can still listen to your music. I don’t necessarily think you need to turn your laptop on airplane mode since you will likely need to look up references, but if you have a habit of getting on social media perhaps consider one of those apps that block particular sites for set periods of time.

Use your calendar to plan in advance
Especially if you’re still tying up loose ends on experiments or are involved in organizations and hobbies around campus, it is unlikely you will get entire days to yourself where you can write uninterrupted. Do your best to plan activities one after another, such as put all your meetings in the morning so that you have the afternoon to write. I was never one of the people who had a consistent writing practice or designated time of day, but I was able to work on writing most days of the week since I planned a few days ahead and blocked out time.

Writing your dissertation is tough but with enough focus you can make it through. You had the grit to make it this far I the grad school process, you’ve got what it takes to make it past this too.

[Image by Flickr user steve lyon  and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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