10 Tips for Writing your Dissertation

My dissertation was FINALLY officially accepted by UCLA Graduate Division last Friday, which means my degree can finally be conferred and I am officially a PhD 🙂

Writing the dissertation is one of most stressful times during a graduate career, whether it is for your PhD or Masters. Writing up everything you have done can feel and be really overwhelming, but it is manageable and can be done!!

Everyone’s dissertation experience is a bit difference based on the program, the requirements, your advisor, and the nature of your research. So a research project in bioinformatics might look completely different from mine in protein biochemistry, so keep that in mind when writing; you can’t really compare your experience with others sometimes.
I also was writing while still doing experiments, and only stopped doing experiments in the month leading up to my defense. Some people prefer to “go away” to write from home or somewhere else to focus on writing, so do whatever works best for you. Clearing your mind of other commitments can really help you focus on your writing and writing the best you can.

Here are some tips of things I learned during the writing process, and hopefully you can implement some of these for a smoother writing process.

  1. Give yourself plenty of time to write. 
    Pick a date. Count back at least 4-6 months. This is when you should start writing. I started writing with 4 months to go, but I also had several papers written and published already, so it made it easier for me with less to write during this time. Leaving writing to last minute is a way to feel very overwhelmed and stressed out; may lead to panic attacks.
  2. Have a writing schedule/calendar.
    This might not be the most ground breaking tip ever, but it is SO helpful. I used a writing schedule while while breaking down my chapters/papers.
    I set deadlines for myself on when I would have certain sections done, and I tried my hardest to stick to it. I tend to use my google calendar and set Task reminders, and it has helped a lot when I was writing and doing experiments at the same time. A desk calendar is also something I’ve used in the past to organize my thoughts and to do list, and it helps a lot to be able to see it visually. I had weekly goals for various sections of chapters, and monthly goals for which parts I wanted to have completed.
  3. Make an outline of each chapter/paper
    An outline of your overall dissertation as well as an outline of each chapter is very valuable and can help guide your writing. Pick your dissertation title, and place the chapters that fulfill that goal, and anything extra you have done that deserves credit but doesn’t fit in that general project can fit into an appendix! Get your credit! An outline specifically for each chapter helps as you can set goals for what you want to particularly talk about in each part, and helps you be more focused. In addition, having an outline of your figures/what you want to show, can really help you create your figures and how you want to display your data.
  4. Write during your most productive time of day
    I’ve posted this on my Instagram before, and it seems a lot of you are like me – I am most productive in the afternoon to early evening hours. I tend to work best between 11 and 7 pm. I have tried so hard to be a morning person and get to work at 8 am so I can leave at 4, but I usually end up wasting the morning trying to focus and get super focused in the early afternoon. I end up spending too much time in lab/working and get mad that everyone else leaves early and I’m still there. When I finally figured out and had the revelation that I work best in the afternoon, it changed the game! I would take the mornings to relax and just plan, get a workout in, and then start writing after lunch. It allowed me to have more uninterrupted and focused writing time. So find the time of day that works best for you and work then! Trust me, it’ll make your life easier. So if you work/write best at 10 pm, DO IT. Do something else during the day.
  5. Change locations often
    Something I constantly had to do to focus was changing locations where I was writing. There were days I could only focus if I was writing at home. There were other days when at home I would get distracted on Facebook, with my cat, watching TV, etc. I would then go write at a cafe/library, and then there were days I couldn’t focus at those locations and I had to work at home again. Other days I did best writing at my desk in lab. Other days people would constantly be asking me questions in lab and I had to go to the library. It’s ok to change locations often as long as it helps you stay focused!
  6. Set goals
    This goes along with setting a writing schedule, set goals for when you want to have things done by, and also set some personal goals. Do a yoga workout 3x a week, etc. You get my drift. Having a personal goal that you can accomplish alongside writing goals can help you not feel like you are being consumed by writing. It’s as much a mental game as it is a writing/scientific feat.
    In addition, small daily goals can help you achieve your writing. Check out my weekly planner sheets on my etsy shop to help with setting goals and getting organized to be productive!
  7. Have rewards
    Something as small as getting a coffee if I can finish this paragraph – can go a long way. Set daily rewards. If I get 2 paragraphs done of introduction, I will cook myself a nice dinner. If I get chapter 3 done this week, I will go to the beach on Saturday. You can set small rewards for daily accomplishments, and bigger rewards for weekly/monthly goals. Write them down on paper. Visualize them. If you are constantly reminded you can have a slice of that delicious chocolate cake tonight for dessert…it’ll push you to focus.
  8. Have your advisor read each chapter as you finish it
    Having your advisor read as you go will help with not feeling overwhelmed with edits later. Granted, you might be writing another chapter when you get back edits for the previous chapter, but I set time each day to work on edits as well as working on the new stuff I’m writing. It really helped that I didn’t have 150 pages of edits to do afterwards – and it was all done in chunks. Really helped me deal with the overwhelming feat of writing.
  9. Leave formatting for last
    Something I like doing is working on formatting, especially as its an easy and fast thing I can do and check off my list. As long as you don’t have gross formatting changes to do (like, manual complete 150 page document changes), I would leave it for last and focus your time NOW on the writing. But, again, do whatever floats your boat. I like checking off simple things, so you can always do what you please.
  10. Work on the presentation last
    It may be useful to work on the defense/viva presentation as you go, but I found it was easier for me to select what I wanted to talk about once the dissertation story was complete and I had an overview of what to talk about. It was easier to just take the already prepared figures and paste into powerpoint after they were all done.
    It also helped craft a cohesive story for my dissertation defense, as I was able to find ways to incorporate my many related projects into one presentation, and it didn’t feel choppy or unrelated at all.

Do you have any tips on writing the dissertation that I forgot? Add them in the comments below!
How was your writing experience if you already defended/if you are currently writing?

I have also created some thesis/dissertation writing sheets with my new “Writing My Dissertation Planner” that I created that can hopefully be of some use! They are an instant digital download so you can download and print off as many copies of the sheets as you’d like. I’m hoping to offer some physical bound copies of this and the weekly planners in the future! Would this be something people would be interested in? Check them out and let me know if they help!

Organize yourself for dissertation writing using these planning sheets

Let me know, I look forward to reading what else has worked for you!

xo

Andrea

3 Comments

  1. Louise
    August 31, 2017 / 11:52 am

    Interesting post! I would point out that some of the specifics mentioned here will not work for a lot of the humanities. Counting back 4-6 months for writing time as a philosophy grad student would be a disaster. But still lots of other advice here that can be generalized.

    • andrea
      August 31, 2017 / 1:49 pm

      Ah yes! thanks for that point! very true, every discipline is different so plan accordingly but its good to make you think of how long it’ll take for you to complete the writing so you can set a timeline for yourself!

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