Writing a dissertation can be challenging and takes a lot of work. But, I think of the biggest challenges is the amount of discipline and self-management that is required. You may have an advisor who will set strict deadlines and hold you accountable, but in my experience most will not do that. They will guide you through the process and provide critical input, but much of the experience of writing a dissertation is about running and managing your own project. That means you need to set your deadlines and goals, and find your own ways to make sure you meet them.
Fortunately there are things that might help you stay on track. And while this is about how I this helped me to write my dissertation, this can really apply to any big project. So without further ado here are some of the steps that I took to ensure that I completed my doctoral dissertation right on time.
1) Set a timeline early. I had established spring of 2015 as a completion date long before entering grad school, but as 2013 rolled around it started becoming more real, and turning into “get your ass in gear” time. In spring of 2013 I sat down and worked backwards from spring of 2015 to see what needed to be done, and how much time would be available to get things done. Then I met with my advisor and validated the timeline and adjusted accordingly, all while keeping that completion date fixed.
2) Communicate the expectations for your project regularly. I met with my advisor and assessed and reassessed the project timeline at least once a month, and often more frequently. These were all self-initiated meetings that I set up with my advisor. These also had the nice side effect of creating additional milestones for progress. During these meetings I would try to specify what progress I would make by the next meeting, so that I had a deadline to work from.
3) Kill as many birds with one stone as possible. I was fortunate enough to have a class project during that spring of 2014 that required a decent sized literature review. I took that opportunity and used the project to write my dissertation literature review, that way there were hard deadlines for the project, and real contingencies for not meeting those deadlines (i.e. failing class). I also signed myself up to present at conventions and other events on topics related to my dissertation that I had often made little progress on. This gave me some good professional exposure and set up some pretty powerful deadlines and contingencies to get that work done and move my dissertation forward. This also allowed me to practice presenting material that I eventually used for both my proposal and defense.
4) Similar to the last one, set sub goals and make real consequences for meeting or not meeting those goals. Signing up for the presentations and class projects I mentioned above made for some very real consequences. If it didn’t get that work done, professional shaming would ensue, if it did get done, people (hopefully) said cool stuff about the work I was doing. Those things helped immensely, but even still, I needed many more small deadlines. One thing that helped was to tie work progress to activities that I was excited about. I found that I worked a lot harder when I had to get something finished otherwise I would not be able to participate in a running race or going to a music festival. The key to this is following through - if you don't meet that deadline then you can't just participate anyway.
5) Get someone to help keep you accountable. My girlfriend Lisa was invaluable on this front, and my lab mates helped a lot too. Having people to pester you when you aren't getting things done, and praise you when you are, is very useful. These social consequences can often provide the motivation you need to sit down in front of the computer, again, to revise that paragraph, again, to submit to your advisor, again. Remember though that your accountability buddy is just as subject to forgetting, becoming disinterested, or too busy to keep you on track (I talked about how I failed on this front in an earlier post). Make sure that there is something in it for them too.
6) Get organized. Organization is critical to making the process run smoothly. I personally used my self management planner (of course) to lay out all of the deadlines and milestones well in advance and track activity and accomplishments, Google Calendar to schedule the daily research sessions, Mendeley to keep all of my research articles in line, and Copy to keep all the files organized and backed up.
Use whatever you are most comfortable with, but thinking about how you will keep track of all of the different moving parts involved can save you a lot of time and trouble later on. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was doing data analysis. I did not develop a great way of organizing all of the different analyses that I had run and during my defense one committee member asked that I revise a number of table. Because I had not organized the data well what should have taken just a couple hours took more than a dozen.
However all of these activities will come with an opportunity cost; they will occupy time that could otherwise be used for dissertation work. Before you decide to say yes when someone asks you to get involved with something seriously ask yourself whether that activity will contribute to you in a meaningful way, and whether it is worth the time. You may decide that something is worth delaying the completion of the project, and that is fine, but make sure you delay for good reason.
8) Work hard, play hard. This one Dr. Kate LaLonde reminded me of. Some of the best learning and most useful conversations came from times I was spending time with having fun with colleagues and peers, or what you might call “playing hard”. Unwinding and getting some activity contrast in can help to make the time spent working a little less aversive and can help you stay off the path to burn-out. And, you may do better quality work when you are a little less stressed. Graduate school is about becoming a scholar and learning more about a topic that you are interested in, but it is also about becoming part of a community of peers.
These things helped me to get done, and some of this may help you too, but I have also talked with successful people who have approached this in a totally different way.
Anyone out there working on a dissertation or a big project, what do you do to make sure you are staying with the program? I’d love to hear your story.