Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. Her writing can be found on her portfolio site, kdshives.com.
Anyone pursuing a graduate degree has experienced the feeling that a project will go on forever. Thankfully, pursuing a graduate degree does have an end date but to get there you have to write everything into a dissertation first. Writing a dissertation can be, and quite often is, the biggest academic undertaking that many of us have experienced. Grant applications, manuscripts, and literature reviews pale in comparison to the size of the average dissertation and writing one can be an incredibly intimidating goal.
Have no fear though, as writing a dissertation is a manageable task if you approach it correctly. One thing that helped me immensely in preparing my own dissertation was making a writing plan and sticking to it. By using this approach I was able to work on my dissertation a little bit each day and make consistent progress while maintaining my sanity.
Know the expected format before you start: Before you even start to think about writing you need to know exactly what you are expected to write. Many program offer seminars on writing up your dissertation; if you can, I highly recommend taking the time out of the lab to attend so that you are aware of the formatting expectations and requirements. Additionally, many programs post the style guide for dissertations on their website. Find yours and read it all the way through before starting to save yourself many headaches in the future. Another great resource are completed dissertations from your own program, so check out a few recent dissertations at the library or through the ProQuest database!
Outline your dissertation and break it into chapters to draft and edit: Once you have a defense date set it’s time to work backwards to determine how much time you have to write and when key paperwork is due. Outline the major sections of your dissertation (introduction, materials and methods, data chapters, discussion, etc.) so that you know exactly what you are going to write. Establish your list of final figures and which chapters they will appear in. Give yourself plenty of time to write drafts of each major chapter/section and enough time to edit them as well. Don’t try to make the mistake of writing and editing the same section as you go, otherwise you may get stuck in a circle of trying to make one part perfect and fall behind on your overall writing progress which will leave you struggling to catch up as you approach the submission date. Embrace the ugly first draft of each section and move on to the next before coming back to edit individual chapters. Also, give yourself enough time at the end to correct formatting errors. Something as seemingly simple as building a table of contents in Word can take a surprising amount of time.
Map it out with concrete dates: Once you’ve established what you are going to write for your individual chapters, set actual dates for the completion of each major milestone. Set these dates into whatever type of calendar works for you so that you have a concrete, visual outline of what you need to accomplish each week to submit your dissertation on time.
For me, mapping out my dissertation writing plan meant establishing a dissertation progress meeting with my advisor every Tuesday morning where I would submit one chapter for comments and pick up the prior week’s chapter to start editing. In this way I was able to continuously write something new and edit previous chapters without getting stuck trying to write and edit the same section at the same time. Once I had a map of which chapter was due to submit and which to edit each week, I wrote them down on a paper calendar that followed me everywhere for two months. Each week I could see my progress toward a complete document and knowing that I could meet these small, consistent goals prevented me from getting stressed about writing a giant dissertation all at once.
Taking the time to set a formal outline for your writing progress may seem unnecessary to some, but the time (and sanity) saved in knowing what you need to accomplish can go a long way toward making the dissertation writing process something to enjoy rather than dread.
Have you used a formal writing outline to managed your dissertation writing? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!
[Image from Flickr user AndrewHurley used under creative commons license.]