Planning for Dissertation Writing

A few weeks ago I saw a dissertation timeline on “The Professor Is In.” The timeline, created by Kathryn Allan at Academic Editing Canada, provides a list of questions to help students formulate a timeline for their dissertation.

Over the past few days, I’ve been using the questions in the timeline to make concrete deadlines for myself. I’ve begun writing chapter 2 of my dissertation, but I still have a long way to go. I will be doing archival research at the end of May and beginning of June. Between now and then, I plan to do some more reading and writing on my dissertation chapters. The problem that many students face when they begin to write their dissertation (or thesis) is that they no longer have a class schedule or hard deadlines to serve as a motivation. Although I initially scoffed at the idea of a “syllabus” for my dissertation, the questions on the timeline did get me thinking about three important factors for writing and planning a dissertation.

Create hard deadlines 

When I initially finished my prospectus, I had to begin the challenge of writing my dissertation. I had to plan out the largest project that I have ever undertaken. Over and over again people advise to pick hard deadlines, and it sounds easy enough. However, dissertation chapters, especially for qualitative scholars, can be long affairs. Rather than picking a hard deadline for the end draft of a chapter, break it down. Create deadlines for the research. How many books will you plan to read? How long will it take you to read them? Set deadlines for every step of the way. I’m the kind of person who can get lost in reading and researching, so setting a deadline for when to stop reading and researching is crucial.

You should work back from key campus deadlines to create your hard deadlines. It’s no good to realize that you need to defend in three weeks when you’re not ready. Universities often set deadlines a year in advance or keep relatively similar deadlines, allowing you to approximate when you need to defend to graduate. Being aware of campus deadlines using a planner, Google Calendar, or your phone will help you to stay on track. I prefer using both my phone and a physical planner. My phone allows me to set alarms to remind me to do something. My planner serves as a physical reminder and a checklist.

Get Organized 

When writing a dissertation, you will need to sort through an immense amount of data. It is critical to have a consistent system on how to get through that data. I want to go through a couple of things that have helped me so far. First, I recommend using a citation software. My preference is Zotero. I have saved everything that I read for my preliminary exam and my dissertation in Zotero. It has a tagging system that allows you to tag resources and view all resources with a particular tag. This is useful to keep track of  different kinds of readings. For example, if I wanted to pull up all the readings I’ve done on financial regulation. In addition, you can save all resources for a particular project in a folder. You can search particular folders or all of your resources. Zotero is a great tool that has served me well in the past few years.

Second, I recommend a consistent note-taking system. During my preliminary exams, I preferred to hand-write notes. It kept me focused on note-taking while I was reading. I kept my notes in a binder and used page tabs to keep track of notes for particular questions. When I needed a refresher on certain notes, I could flip through to find the relevant notes. This worked reasonably well for my prelims. However, as I moved on from my prelims, I felt like my notebook was messy and not organized enough to get me through the next step.

As I was looking to adjust my note-taking for my dissertation, I really wanted something digital, that I could easily “ctrl + f” to search through. I use Microsoft Word for my writing, so I’ve decided to make a Microsoft Word document. To some, a giant Microsoft Word document sounds like a huge headache. To more easily overcome that, I’ve created a system to keep track of my resources. When I read a something, I first record in Zotero. Then, I take the citation (I use Chicago Style full notes) and put it into my Word Document for my notes. Finally, use the “heading” function to the turn the citation into a heading. This creates a heading visible on the navigation panel on the left, so that I can easily see all the headings for my readings. The heading function also works well for creating sections and subsections of dissertation chapters.

Third, you must have a data storage system. I once knew someone who almost lost an entire draft of their dissertation proposal because they didn’t backup. You don’t want to be in that situation. Most people use an online backup storage system like Box or Dropbox. You can also use a hard backup system for any files on your computer. I use Box because students at my university receive a free account, and I have a hard backup of the files on my computer. In Box, have a folder for my dissertation materials with subfolders for writing and research. This enables me to keep track of important research files, such as copies of journal articles.

Keep Track of Hours 

Most students who are dissertating also have other obligations like teaching, research, and service. Teaching assistants at my university are salaried, but our appointments are based on how many hours a week we should work. Many students go over this and resist tracking how many hours they’re teaching. They love teaching and want to spend as much time as it takes to make their course good. While this attitude has a good heart, it contributes to overwork on campus. We can love teaching and respect our time simultaneously.

It is important to keep track of hours either formally or informally. This helps you know whether you’ve been giving too much to one area. Hours will vary from week to week. For example, the week before an exam may have heavier teaching requirements than weeks earlier in the semester. As long as those hours average out to the correct amount, that’s okay. Where the hours start to get out of hand is when you’re regularly working more hours in one area than you should and losing out on valuable research and writing time.

As tempting as it is to simply avoid contact with other humans and work on your dissertation on a Saturday night, keeping track of hours can help you maintain your sanity by being sure that you aren’t overworking yourself in any area of your academic life. The best way to formally keep track of your hours is an excel file or other spreadsheet software. A Google sheet would be easy to update regardless of where you’re working from. This form from the University of Illinois, Chicago, Graduate Employees’ Organization shows how you can track teaching. You could add rows to keep track of research, writing, and service too.

Using the dissertation timeline has helped me feel like I can meet my deadlines. I’ve created a new reading list and recorded everything in Zotero in advance. This will enable me to cite accurately and quickly when I start writing. Whatever your organization system is, find something that works for you and stick to it. Once you decide how you want to take notes, it’s easier to continue taking notes the same way than the change mid-stream.

Happy writing!