8 Tips for Writing a 210-Page Doctoral Dissertation In 8 Months
From November 2016 to July 2017, I remember the feeling of being hypnotized by my blinking cursor for hours on end, and going into a trance-like state where words were flowing from my brain to my fingertips and ultimately into my word processor. It felt like I was in the Matrix.
I want to share my experiences because finishing a dissertation in this economy is very important. Dropout rates for ABD (All But Dissertation) graduate students has been estimated at 50% and for some, the feeling of not finishing feels like a blemish on their resume. Writing a dissertation requires discipline and good work habits but it is NOT a singular measure of your academic ability. It’s just a document. That is all. So, I want to share some tips that will help in demystifying the process.
Full disclosure: This post is not meant to be a treatise on how to best finish a dissertation… it just provides some tools that will help in getting it done!
1. Write 200 words every single day!
Make a goal to write at minimum 200 words a day. It’s so easy to do! In fact, I just did it right now in this very post. A 200-word goal is very easy to accomplish and requires maybe 20 minutes of your time. Too often I find people saying that they need a whole day to write but as a grad student, who has a whole day to spend writing? If you say you need to write 200 words before you start your writing exercise, invariably you’ll write more at the end. Writing 200 words can also mean doing a revision, a lit review, or annotated bibliography. 200 words is an easy, accomplishable goal that if performed regularly, will give you close to 200 pages of written content in 8 months.
2. Choose a topic that you actually care about.
Every now and then when we are picking a subject or research question, our advisors tell us to think about the job market. This is great advice. However, really ask yourself, “Am I going to be able to obsess about this for a year?” If the answer is no, then don’t choose that topic. Choose a topic that you are deeply invested in. My dissertation was on race and comedy — something that I did during my free time as well. Whenever I felt burnt out, I would just go perform and feel reenergized, full of new insights and questions that my dissertation was going to engage in.
3. Tell yourself that you will finish on a specific date and work backwards.
For me it was June 15th. Even though I missed that date, it gave me a concrete date to work backwards from. I would plan dates to show my committee each chapter so that they had ample time to review each chapter and give their feedback. Having an end date really helps to focus your energy and attention and not feel like you’re floundering into the abyss of nothingness (which is also the title of my one man show…).
4. Have a routine.
Figure out what schedule and location works best for you and stick to it. For instance, I would wake up every morning at the same time, have the same strawberry flavored Light and Fit yogurt, and sip my Donut Shop coffee as I sat next to my dog and started writing. This established a daily routine that I felt comfortable doing. Feel free to mix it up but make sure
you’re comfortable in your surroundings. In my case, if I didn’t write, my dog would look at me with an exasperated expression. I’m guessing she was saying, “Publish or perish, Dad!”
5. Be mentally strong when it comes to feedback.
Spoiler alert: Your advisors will tear your dissertation to shreds. That’s their job! They want to make sure that your research is up to snuff, so it’s nothing personal. I remember feeling humiliated when an advisor said that my argument was ‘overstated’ (which it definitely was) but I immediately went back and made changes within 2 weeks. Sometimes they might critique elements that you feel are non-negotiable, but remember it is just a dissertation. You can rework your analysis when you decide to publish it on your own. Make sure you communicate the expectations you have of your committee and what they expect to see from you. If there is a disagreement within the committee that’s for the dissertation chair to figure out — you continue writing!
6. Write by sections, not by chapters.
Every day when you write, think about a specific sub chapter or section that you will be working on. Do not start by saying, “And now for my next trick, I will write a 40-page chapter!” If you think too macro, you’ll feel like you’re floundering into the abyss of nothingness again. Think about what you can tangibly accomplish within a 200-word limit and work from there. Within 10 days, you’ll see your chapter coming along.
7. Celebrate small milestones!
I am all about positive reinforcement. My wife happens to be a Behavior Analyst and from her I learned that if I gave myself a treat for completing a sub-section, transcribing lengthy interviews, or finishing a full chapter, I will be motivated to complete my assignments faster. For example, when I completed my second chapter, the family and I took a day trip out to the beach to celebrate.
8. A dissertation is an assignment not an encapsulation of your life’s work.
Lastly, it is just an assignment! Nothing more, nothing less. Again and again, I talk to grad students who describe the pressure they feel from their advisors or an imagined community that will critique their work. And I agree that some advisors are not as approachable/helpful in their feedback but no one is going to critique/read your dissertation outside your committee. My mom hasn’t even read it. In fact, I think she believes that I am a medical doctor, which would probably explain why she gave me a stethoscope for my birthday.
Now go get ‘em!
You’ve done all this amazing work to become ABD. It’s time to finish the dissertation and move on to the next step.