So, you’re a Ph.D. candidate and the time has come to sit down and write your ground-breaking dissertation or thesis. Sadly, you can’t postpone it any longer. Your advisor is breathing down your neck, and the stipend with which you barely got by will end eventually. Maybe you know your research questions and have a clear idea of what to write about. Good for you. Sadly, most of us don’t have that luxury. Creating new knowledge on a massive scale in the form of a dissertation is a daunting task. I have a music background, and fitting my research and practice into a qualitative academic format required some serious mental gymnastics. Here are some things that helped me and will hopefully help you get through it. (I believe in you, Peter Pan!)


First things first: Where are you going to think and write about this dissertation? Believe it or not, the space that surrounds you will make a crucial impact on your productivity, especially in the long run. I strongly advise against writing in your dorm/bedroom. You’re going to be distracted by your toys, friends, SO, and your roommate’s cat. You will also suddenly want to eat, drink, and go to the bathroom way more often than before. So, where are the good spots?

Coffee shops are ok. However, sometimes, they are packed and your belongings must be supervised whenever you get up. Although that poppy seed muffin and mocha frappuccino are a great excuse to stretch your legs, you’re going to be incurring extravagant expenses on sugary treats. Furthermore, you’re never going to be able to truly organize your physical research materials on that temporary desk. An important aspect of having a space is storing your books, notes, articles, and whatever equipment you use for your research. You do not want to be lugging that every day.

I recommend writing in a library or office. All universities have libraries, and if you are writing away from your institution, you can probably find a library in your town. I used to write at UT Austin’s Perry-Castañeda library when at home, and at the Astoria library when visiting my girlfriend in New York. Some universities will grant you an office. Ask your department or library. UT gave me an office for two semesters. Granted, it was a hole in the wall, but it did the trick.

Get comfortable. Make sure you have a nice chair, your table is at a comfortable height, and the lights don’t give you a headache. (Seriously, there was one flicking fluorescent light at UT Austin’s library that used to drive me nuts.) Treat your workspace like a shrine: cozy, organized, and free from distractions. I don’t know about you, but exercise helps me stay rested throughout the day. If you’re like me and your back hurts after sitting for a few hours, do some upper body exercises every morning.

Time management

Tick tock tick tock… three hours later and you have done what again? Oh right, you created a “dissertation v1” document, stared at the screen, browsed on Facebook, went for a leak, and checked some people out on Tinder. Writing a dissertation sometimes feels like those coin pusher machines–your keep putting coins in it but it just doesn’t budge. (Until it does. Congrats. Now play again and again and again ad nauseam.) Here are some techniques that got me moving forward.

Set time targets. Clocking your time is a good strategy initially when you are still exploring your topic. I started with the time I spent thinking or writing about my research and nothing else. For my dissertation, I designated 6 hours a day, divided into 2 hours chunks, 6 days a week. If I didn’t use up all that time, the missing hours would roll over to the 7th day of the week. Not feeling inspired? That’s ok. Just make sure you’re doing something towards your dissertation (even if it means re-formatting the headings for the 10th time).

Set word count targets. This technique becomes useful later on when you have your sections organized and are feeling confident about what goes into each one. This is how to go about it: Come up with a reasonable total number of words for a dissertation in your field. Ask your advisors and friends. Some researchers measure their dissertation in pages. In that case, calculate the number of words per page. A double spaces page has around 250 words. My supervisor told me that the College of Communications at UT Austin expected around 50,000 words. I gave myself 8 months to finish, writing 25 days a month. That came down to 250 words a day–about a page a day. Doesn’t seem that crazy anymore, does it? You just need to make sure you abide by that target or compensate on other days when you under-achieve.

You might be thinking “these techniques don’t ensure that you are producing quality content!” True, they don’t. But, they are meant to keep you moving. They won’t help you write the new On the Origin of Species (even if you own a beagle.) However, as Marx once said: quantity is quality. Stop fretting and start writing. Keep your eyes trained on the horizon: a finished manuscript. I guarantee you’ll be proud of the fact that you accomplished finishing a dissertation.


Part 2: Mind Maps and Conceptual Maps



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