As most doctoral students know firsthand, keeping up with your dissertation, let alone completing it, is a major challenge. However, if a few principles are followed, no matter at which stage of the dissertation process you apply them, you can make it much easier on yourself. You can always seek dissertation help. The following are some principles that any doctoral student should take seriously when writing his or her dissertation and, in the end, following them will help you immensely in getting closer to your final goal: successfully defending your dissertation and acquiring your PhD.
Principle One: Eliminate any hint of pessimism and self-doubt
No matter how bad a writer you think you are. No matter how bad you think you are at research, gathering data, statistical analysis, presentations, or public speech, if you’re able to read, speak, and write, regardless of the skill level, you have it in yourself to successfully complete your dissertation. Besides, if you’ve got this far (to the post-graduate level), you definitely have what it takes to acquire your PhD. Also, if you only knew the seemingly hopeless cases of doctoral students that have come before me, and seeing them go on to complete their dissertations with no problem, I could truly say, if they could do it, then anybody can do it. So first, before anything, get rid of any self-doubts you may have, no matter what you may think about yourself, and avoid that nasty confidence-shattering habit of comparing yourself to others. If needed, seek dissertation help and support.
Principle Two: Set goals and deadlines early on
I cannot overemphasize this point. Setting deadlines early on in your dissertation process will keep you focused and motivated. Having real tangible goals to strive towards is vital over the long-term, especially since the dissertation process is a long and tedious one. Also, as a doctoral student, you should already be very familiar with working with deadlines to get things done. It is the same for your dissertation except that you won’t have professors or authority figures pressuring you to meet these deadlines, and there will be no one there (besides yourself) to punish you if you don’t meet them. Therefore, you should rely on yourself early on, or work with your dissertation supervisor by setting up a meeting early on to discuss setting deadlines for each important stage of the dissertation process. If you feel stuck, it might be best to seek dissertation help and support.
Principle Three: Make sure your goals and deadlines are flexible
Usually, in your past university life, going past deadlines for university assignments, projects, and presentations would be a big no-no. However, when it comes to the goals and deadlines set for your dissertation, realize that they are not set in stone and that you may not meet some of them. So, expect constant adjustments in your deadline especially since life will hit you with many unexpected obstacles over the long-term (and the dissertation process is over the long-term indeed!). But, keep in mind that setting deadlines early on will be greatly useful since, if you’ve done so, you would be able to shuffle things about without throwing off your overall schedule in the long-run. If you feel stuck, it might be best to seek dissertation help and support.
Principle Four: Request feedback and do so early on and often
Take this as a cardinal principle. The sooner you start communicating with your committee members about your writing, the more painless your editing will be. Even when you just have a barebones outline of a chapter (yes, before actually writing the chapter), sit down with your supervisor and discover if the outline works or not. Send out partial drafts of your work to anyone qualified (and willing) to read them. Get feedback from whoever. It doesn’t mean you’ll be implementing everyone’s feedback, but you’ll be avoiding isolating yourself and your work, which could be detrimental to its quality and spell disaster (or at least lots of wasted time) over the long term. This will also keep you connected to your committee and other people of good qualification. Most importantly, requesting feedback early on and doing so often will prevent you from rewriting entire chapters and thus save so much valuable time, making your work seem effortless to others (even though it’s far from it!).
Principle Five: Know what your committee wants and expects from your work
Linked to the above advice about requesting feedback, you should make sure to get a very good idea of what kind of writing your committee members expect. You can do this in several ways. Use the feedback your supervisor gives to get an idea. In addition, ask your supervisor what things your committee would expect. Read past dissertations that were done by students who’ve worked with the same committee before. Here, you can specifically ask these students what types of things were expected for their chapters such as what types of sources should be used, how footnotes/endnotes should be utilized, how to structure chapters, and other relevant details. Furthermore, get in touch with committee members especially in the first year as a PhD student. You can send out an initial email greeting your committee members and ask if they are willing to meet you for a brief discussion about your dissertation. In the end, good communication will help you avoid many pitfalls and one way to do this is to understand what expectations there are on behalf of your committee which, in the end, is your dissertation’s most relevant audience. If you feel stuck, it might be best to seek dissertation help and support.
Principle Six: Learn to rest when you need it
Rest can be as important to your PhD success as writing the actual dissertation. You must learn to take time off and to give yourself short breaks when you need it. Naturally, there are going to be times when you’ll need to focus your time on other things in life such as taking care of your family, work, relationships, hobbies, and even watching movies. The point is, it’s important you understand that you will have to take short breaks from writing. They will happen, and you should take these breaks without feeling guilty.
With that being said, you must remember that it’s good to take short breaks. S…H…O…R…T. Taking a week off to focus on teaching tasks (e.g. grading 200 papers), taking two weeks off to prepare for job interviews, taking a couple days off to put in some overtime or spend some quality family time, is all fine. But it is imperative that you don’t extend this time off. You must begin writing again. In the end, your dissertation is a long marathon and you must balance your academic responsibilities with other responsibilities, but that’s the key, finding a balance. You probably know that guy that’s in his 8th year of dissertation writing because, according to him, he can’t ‘find the time’ to write. Please. Don’t be that guy (or girl).
Principle Seven: Save time by learning to say NO
One of the obstacles to finding quality time to write a dissertation is being around people who just don’t understand. There will be many of your colleagues, family, and friends, who have absolutely no idea what writing a dissertation involves. Especially when you’re working on your dissertation, it can be hugely distracting having people by you that are trying to demand your time and it is absolutely imperative you be able to tell them to go away, to turn down requests to go to the movies, to not go kick it with your friends, to turn down a seat on that committee or organization. Many of your colleagues, friends, and family may have trouble with the fact that you won’t have time to spend with them like you used to. But that’s ok. It’s very important that you learn to say ‘no’ every now and then, no matter how much you may hate it at the time.
Principle Eight: It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so claim small batches of writing time
As you’ve probably heard many times before, dissertation writing is a marathon, not a sprint. As a result, dissertation writing usually happens in small bits and pieces that are spread out over the course of a long period. Towards this end, no matter how busy you may be during the day, you must, I repeat, you must, find the time to write for at least half an hour a day. No matter who you are, no matter if you’re the president of a country, you should be able to find 30 minutes of quiet, quality time to write for your dissertation. Wake up a few minutes early if you must. When it comes down to it, if you just write one page a day, you’ll easily be able to compile close to a chapter a month. If you feel stuck, it might be best to seek dissertation help and support.
Principle Nine: STOP making excuses
You’ll always be able to come up with a million excuses not to write. You don’t have the time. You have a pounding headache. You have other important work to do. You have people to see, meetings to go to, food to eat, cartoons to watch. Maybe the stars aren’t aligned correctly or maybe you woke up with a nasty zit on your face. Point is, there will always be reasons not to write. Yes, it is difficult. However, you must be able to stand up to these excuses and tell them to “shut up!” Even when you feel like you just can’t, sit down and write. This is the only way to get anything done.
Principle Ten: Celebrate small accomplishments as you progress
No matter what it may be, take the time to appreciate any small accomplishment as you’re writing. It is enough to simply work for the reward of acquiring your PhD and successfully defending your dissertation, but it’ll be extra nice to be able to celebrate the little things as you progress through the different stages of your dissertation. Did you finish a page? Well, have a brownie! (a normal brownie please). Finish a chapter? Heck, go have a beer! Did you work through something you were struggling with? Why not take the rest of the night off? The point is to try and always find places to feel good about the progress you’ve made; otherwise, things will get a tad bit (or a whole lot) depressing.
Remember, if Joe Schmoe can do it, you can DEFINITELY do it.
I’ve worked with a lot of seemingly hopeless cases. Just about all of them completed their dissertation. Believe me, no matter who you are, if they could do it, I guarantee you that you can do it. Yes, you’ve really got this!
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