Cracking the Dissertation Code: Insider Tips for Writing Success

The summer months can be a great time to write. You may need the summer to catch up on some papers or perhaps you are nearing the end of your training and you need to begin the process of writing your dissertation. How do you start and finish your dissertation over the summer? Below are a couple of tricks to help make the process manageable.

Writing can be a significant task for many people. Even more so, writing your dissertation can feel overwhelming and daunting. How does it take? Where do you start? How does your dissertation even get written while you are completing experiments in the lab?! Writing your dissertation requires careful planning, organization, and discipline. Most importantly, it’s essential that you come up with a consistent writing program that works for you so that you continually make progress.

The best writing happens over time and not in the 12th hour although you might think it does. Your dissertation is a bear of a task and you simply cannot wait to start until the night before it’s due to your committee. Below are some tips to help you on your dissertation writing journey:

Start early and set realistic goals:

Begin writing as early as possible to allow ample time for research, analysis, and revisions. Break down your work into manageable tasks and set specific goals for each stage of the writing process. It may take some time to organize your thoughts so keep a rough sketch of topics in a secure location and revisit again when you are ready to begin outlining. Depending on your program, you may have a limited amount of time to write your dissertation so setting goals that do not hinder your overall motivation to write is extremely important.

Develop a clear outline:

An outline will serve as your roadmap during the writing process. Create a detailed outline that provides a logical structure for your dissertation. How many chapters will you have in your dissertation? Will your introduction be one or several chapters? Outline each of the main chapters and then start outlining the sections and subsections within each chapter. During the outline process, include key points and arguments you want to address in each of the sections and in the chapter overall. Address these main arguments within your final chapter. In a word processor you can use bullet points or headings to create your outline, or you may consider utilizing a mind map to organize your thoughts and key elements of your dissertation. Your outline should be as specific as possible. Run this outline by your mentor or other trusted individual to get feedback BEFORE you start writing.

Conduct thorough research:

Gather relevant literature, primary sources, and data to support your research objectives. Take detailed notes and properly cite all your sources. This will help you build a strong theoretical framework and provide evidence for your arguments. Use a citation manager to organize and format your citations.

Establish a writing routine:

Set aside dedicated time for writing and establish a routine that works for you. Use your outline to help guide your writing and to prevent writers block. Find a quiet and comfortable space to minimize distractions. Consider using productivity tools or techniques, such as the Pomodoro Technique, to enhance focus and productivity. One of the tricks I learned was to use a timer to set aside blocks that were uninterrupted for 30 minutes or longer to sit down and write. To do this you must close out your email, put your devices on do not disturb or another quiet mode, and write without distraction. Another tip, to avoid accessing the internet during this distraction-free writing time, have a scratch piece of paper near your work area to jot down ideas for papers or information to look up after the session has ended. 

Write regularly and revise:

Aim to write consistently, even if it’s just a small portion each day. Especially if you have a tight turnaround. Set aside time during the quietest time of your day. If you get a lot of emails or distractions in the middle of the day, consider writing at the beginning of your workday or at the very end. If it is possible, choose a different work area to write rather than your normal workstation such as the library or a study room. Focus on drafting individual sections or chapters rather than aiming for perfection in the first draft. Write first and THEN edit. Once you have a draft, revise, and edit it thoroughly for clarity, coherence, and grammar. Move around subsections of your chapters depending on the flow of your writing. As your dissertation starts to take shape consider the narrative and the arguments highlighted in the text, does your introduction adequately set up these arguments?  Consider the history of the field you are studying, what information is important for understanding how you got to your question? Don’t forget to include a couple of figures and/or images that can aid your readers as well as break up long text (in addition to using subheadings).

Seek feedback and support:

Share your work with your advisor, committee members, or peers for feedback and constructive criticism. Incorporate their suggestions to strengthen your arguments and improve the overall quality of your dissertation. You do NOT need to take everyone’s advice; this is your document after all. Consider joining writing groups or seeking support from writing centers or workshops. This can help you stay accountable with your writing program or provide some social support as you spend long hours writing.

Take care of yourself:

Writing a dissertation can be mentally and emotionally demanding. Take regular breaks, practice self-care, and maintain a healthy work-life balance. Seek support from friends, family, or support networks to stay motivated and focused. Take time to go for walks, dance it out, or hang with your friends and family. The time away from your writing will help you. So it is important to make space for other things while you write. Drink water and balance the junk food with some good brain food.

Stay organized and save ALL of your drafts:

Keep track of your research materials, notes, and drafts in an organized manner. Use reference management tools like Zotero or EndNote to manage your citations. Regularly backup your work to avoid any potential loss of data. Keep ALL drafts of your documents. DO NOT DELETE large parts of your writing if you do not like it. Just cut and paste into a new document and save for later. YOU NEVER KNOW when you might want a sentence from that excerpt, or you like something else about it. Just keep that text in another document for later.

Remember that writing a dissertation is a marathon, not a sprint. Celebrate your progress along the way and stay committed to the process. Use your support system to ground yourself during the process. You will finish. You just have to start!

Published by Britt Knight PhD, Director

I received my PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Connecticut. My doctoral research focused on basic mechanisms in peripheral inflammatory pain biology. After, I completed about two years of postdoctoral research understanding how biomaterials can be used to deliver analgesics for treating musculoskeletal pain I transitioned to the Program Coordinator position for the United States Association for the Study of Pain (USASP). I am also the regional Director of CT Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.

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