Hi again! For those that missed Part 1, I covered how to organize your workspace and manage your time. Taking care of the where and when you work on your dissertation lays the groundwork for productive writing sessions. In this article, we will tackle the next step: organizing your thoughts.

In most scenarios, when you set out to write a complex and lengthy document, your ideas are all tangled up like a bowl of spaghetti. Ideas must be structured to create persuasive and captivating arguments. Arguments must be organized to form chapters. Chapters need be to be sequenced to build a manuscript. Let’s explore two techniques to facilitate this process.

Mind Maps

Briefly, a Mind Map is a canvas where you structure ideas. It’s an organizational tool that answers the question: What goes where in my document? Most Mind Maps are hierarchical, meaning one idea is connected to at least two subordinate ideas, which are each connect to at least two sub-subordinate ideas, etc. Like the old Roman method of “dīvide et īmpera” (divide and conquer), which worked so well when they were conquering Gaul, a Mind Map will reduce intimidating projects into workable units.

You start building a Mind Map at the top and trickle to the bottom. At the top of a Mind Map sits a big concept: a question or idea you are trying break apart. Connected to that main idea are things that support it. Each level in the hierarchy can comprise ideas, categories, approaches, contacts, sections… you name it. Spend time brainstorming, adding, and layering things to the Mind Map. As your pyramid gets wider and deeper, so will your understanding of subject. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll use it for everything.

Check out this Mind Map I designed to help organize the content in my dissertation. Attached to “Research Methods & PhD Design” is a category called “chapters.” Under “chapters“, there is a list of, well, dissertation chapters! Inside each chapter are sections I wanted to include. In each section, I had ideas to be discussed. These included links to  references, such as PDFs and authors. What you are seeing here is only a tiny part of the whole map. The node colors–bluegreedred, and black–represent levels. This map had dozens of nested nodes hidden from view. Ultimately, this tool was immensely helpful in organizing and generating text for my manuscript. Sometimes, I would get down to the sentence: Book (title) → Chapter (template) → Section (theme) → Paragraph (argument) → Sentence (evidence).

mind map dissertation thesis tips

Mind Map

There are many Mind Map software out there. My favorite is FreeMind, because it’s simple and free. Other apps, like iThoughtsX, support iOS, which can be nice, but at a steep price of $50.

Conceptual Maps

A Conceptual Map is a diagram of networked concepts. And its goal is to discover patterns that build arguments. It can be very hard to uncover cohesive knowledge when you are dealing with large amounts of subjective data. While Mind Maps help you organize ideas, Conceptual Maps will help you create new knowledge. An extremelyA powerful tool when used correctly, Conceptual Maps can be crucial for those doing qualitative research.

All right, the next steps can get messy. So, put on your while vinyl gloves. Ready? Ok, here we go.


The first thing you need to do is assign “codes” to your qualitative data (data from interviews, surveys, questionnaires, recordings etc.). These codes represent themes that you are expecting to find or new ones you discovered. (Check the footnote for references to in-depth discussions on coding strategies.) When analyzing Ad Mortuos–a brainwave multimedia dance piece I created–my collaborators referred a lot to the choreography. So, each sentence that mentioned choreography, I added the “choreo” code to it. (I will show you how to add codes to a text in a future article. See if you can comment /note/tag a sentence in your text editor.) Interviewees always associated choreography with another concept, such as rehearsal time, technology, artistic vision etc… For example, the choreographer Yacov Sharir stated in an interview “…we had discussed during the first semester, before we made the choreography, all the possibilities that the technology would allow us to do.” Immediately, I coded that with admortuos_choreo_tech_time. Make a list of the codes you are using and consolidate when needed. Below is an example of coded text from my interviews.

Coded Text


Next week, we’ll cover how to develop themes and discover hidden patterns in your research!

Part 1: Tips on How to Write a Dissertation Part 3: Building Conceptual Maps | Part 4: Building Propositions

Coding Methodologies for Qualitative Studies:

Yin, R. K. (2014). Case Study Research: Design and Methods (Vol. 5). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative Data Analysis: an Expanded Sourcebook (Vol. 2nd). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (1990). Grounded Theory Research: Procedures, Canons and Evaluative Criteria. Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 19(6), 418-427.

Creswell, J. W. (2007). Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches (Vol. 2nd). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.



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