Advice for successfully writing a dissertation
(Last updated: 12 May 2021)
Writing a dissertation is a lot about outlook.
If you are reading this, it is safe to assume that you are somewhere in the process of contributing a body of original knowledge to your academic field. This is, after all what writing a dissertation is. It is further safe to assume that if you are at this stage of an academic career then you have already mastered the fundamentals of academic work. You are a god of note-taking, a seeker and finder of libraries, you exhaust indexes and you own google. You can pour over the old and the new of your field and string paragraphs together to create intelligent, breath-taking papers of dazzling brilliance. Everyone says so!
It is highly unlikely that you cannot, at this stage, read, write, and do research. But writing a dissertation is a challenge. It's a much longer game than you have probably ever played before.
All the advice you have ever been given is likely good advice. And more importantly you should keep doing whatever you have been doing that got you this far. All those common-sense things like:
Keep it simple!
Get enough sleep!
Find your groove!
Don’t make any major changes to your lifestyle!
Don’t ______ too much!
Don’t ______ at all!
…and so on and so on.
In this article, we won't be regurgitating the well-meaning advice that you have no doubt already heard. Instead, we'll explore the underlying mind-sets and perspectives that lead to the successful completion of a dissertation or thesis. One of those common pieces of of advice is that original work is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.
But before we go into the mental mind sets that make for a strong (and completed) dissertation, we have some practical advice. There is one slim and quick to read book that every person doing a dissertation at any academic level ought to read. Umberto Eco’s 'How to Write a Thesis' (MIT Press, 2015).
Some people criticise that some of Eco’s advice is dated (because he talks of index cards and typewriters). However it is still very much worth reading, especially for anyone working in the humanities. While Eco does offer a practical how-to approach in his book, you should keep in mind that every field has some standard reference works on how to do work in that field. You should familiarise yourself with these as soon as possible.
Think of a dissertation as a marathon
More than likely this will be the first extended piece of writing you will have done.
It helps to think of the academic papers written up to this point as 5k or 10k trainers for that 42k marathon that you are about to do.
One of the fundamental rules of running a marathon is this: don’t do anything different on race day. Whatever methods you have found to be most successful, whatever has worked for you to get you to this point, continue to use it.
Consider the following foolishness: there are perhaps dozens of various writing programs available. A curious young student uses MS Word but then a friend raves about about this great program called Mellel, which is excellent for handling long documents. But then they move on to to Scrivner (which really is the best for first drafts). But then they get curious about Latex. They keep moving around from one programme to the next, looking for the greatest experience in productivity.
Does this all sound like a grand waste of time? Would it not have been more effective to have elected one programme and used that? Yes, it would have. The point is this: you have a very limited amount of time in which to complete your dissertation and you cannot waste any of it. Be committed to a process and do not give into the many gadgets and temptations.
No intelligent marathon runners try out new shoes on race day, for example.
Keep it simple and finish; play around later.
Writing a dissertation is like running a marathon in other ways, too. Mental and physical health matters, for instance. Many students start writing a dissertation with a complete and utter disregard for their mental and physical health. They feel that they are living the life of the mind and the vehicle that carries that brain of theirs around is not so important. They don’t exercise, eat terribly, drink heavily, smoke nervously, and so on. Bobby Fischer, one of the greatest chess players of all time, was all about brain. Yet he was also keen on exercise: tennis, swimming, running and so on. And he believed, rightly as science goes, that exercise complemented mental activity and ultimately made him a better player. So for your mental faculties to operate at their peak, you should get into and stay in shape. Writing the best dissertation possible can start with simple activities like long walks, or yoga in your pyjamas.
Ultimately, however, it is the process that is most like a marathon. That long long long stretch of reading, researching, and writing. One of the biggest issues you will have to address is cohesion. How do you write five to ten chapters on a single subject? This is a challenge, especially if you only have a vague notion of how different aspects of your work will fit together. The worst thing, really, is thinking you know how it all fits together then setting out to write the dissertation only to discover that you did not see clearly at all.
Before race day it is not uncommon for people to go over the course, either physically or with a map, conferring with team mates, advisors, trusted friends. It is, after all, good to know what may lay ahead. This is an effective strategy that can easily be incorporated into your dissertation marathon.
First, there is your own advisor. Now in general, students writing a thesis are required to submit some sort of plan. This can be informal or formal, and will outline how they anticipate spending their time. This can be helpful, of course, and should be organised with the help of your advisor(s) or committee. Not uncommonly, however, these plans go out the window in the first several months. This is probably because the plan was made without actually looking at the course – the terrain to be covered.
Before doing this, discuss with your advisor the possibility of a very heavy reading and research intensive first few months. Four or five months of focused and industrious reading in your area will give you the best idea of the ground to be covered. You'll have a clearer overview of what has been said, and what has been overlooked. You should read this way, honestly, like you have no opinions, no position of your own. Just soak it all up.
Consider also a first step compiling an annotated bibliography. If done well this can be something you frequently refer to over the years that you produce your thesis. Enviably, some people with the long view in mind compile annotated bibliographies in the years before they start their thesis. They certainly are ahead of the game!
Think of your dissertation as work
It is amazing how many silly stories you hear over time. Consider this one: A PhD candidate in a large city was returning home from drinks with his friends one night. He was then unexpectedly robbed at gun point. When the thief pointed the gun at the young man, he begged “Don’t shoot me! I’m writing my dissertation!”
Was it a panic-induced reaction?
Had his work not been going so well, he might have begged for the opposite. But in any case, this story has always amused the people who have heard it. This young man felt, in some way, that being a research candidate writing a thesis made his life more important than if he were doing something else.
Researching and writing a dissertation, though a noble and honourable pursuit, is still ultimately work. It will, in good ways and bad, define your life and your identity. But it's still work. It is the means by which you have decided to feed yourself and pay your rent. Without question you should want to excel at your work, which is what the marathon metaphor is about. But do not let yourself become deluded into thinking it is a calling, or has some higher purpose, or that it sets you above others.
As work, you should be prepared to treat it just like that. You should be putting in 6-8 hours each day. You should plan to work every day to make up for the inevitably lost time that comes with illness and unforeseen life events. You should have a place to work that is entirely your own (shared carrels are awful!). This should be someplace that you show up to most days of the week to work.
You should also keep in mind that there will be many people who will not understand or appreciate what you are doing. They might even resent you for it. They will suppose that because you do not have to be somewhere to work, your work must not be a priority. Or they might suppose that because your time is your own to manage as you decide, that you can prioritise your time around them. This can create a lot of conflict. Particularly if the person making those assumptions is a partner or a spouse who believes you can work when it is more suitable for them than you.
And there will be people who just think it is a waste of perfectly good money to pay someone to read books that no one else is interested in. And to write one that only five people in the world will actually care about. And there will be people who just do not understand how hard you might work on a single paragraph, or how much reading it takes to write it.
There was a Physics PhD student who had written an incredibly impressive dissertation, a model of its kind. One of his examiners, assuming that the student had taken a long time and much effort to write his thesis, asked him how long it took to write the thesis. The candidate smiled and said: “Three years and then four months.” By this he meant that it took three years to get to the point where he could explain his topic so well in a work that took just a few months to complete. The point is that often you will be working even though it doesn’t look like work. You may not actually have anything written. This can be difficult for others to appreciate and can impact how you see your own productivity.
By the same 'dissertation is work' token, you should try to set small manageable goals for yourself, and consistently meet them.
Also, considering your place within a department, everyone knows that writing a dissertation is hard work that can be frustrating and depressing. But you shouldn’t ever complain, except perhaps in your own head. You don’t want anyone in your department to ever know that you are unhappy with what you are doing. And it really is pretty fantastic to get paid to read books and write all day, even on the worst day.
But also think of your dissertation as a game
For as much as you can keep the process of writing a dissertation in your mind as a marathon and work, you should also sometimes think of it as a game.
Now, to say it is like a game is not to suggest that it is not to be taken seriously. On the contrary! If the brilliant Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga, taught us anything with his Homo Ludens (1938), it is that games and playing them is a very serious business.
First off, there are players. Certainly you are a player, and you might even wrestle with a kind of identity crisis, learning how to act and behave as a blooming academic. But is being an academic your identity, who you are as a player?
This is controversial. Some people say being too close and too obsessed with your work can be unhealthy. This is probably true to a degree. Nevertheless, you are likely to find that no matter what you do or where you go or who you are with, you will carry your dissertation around with you. It will always be there, like a heavy burden that you can neither get used to carrying or simply throw off.
Now certainly there are people that do seem to keep their projects and their lives separated. Many of them have families – partners and children – and family does tend to take priority. The point is that it is probably easiest to accept that being a researcher is both who you are and what you do. Rather than divide the spheres of identity, just be ‘on’, so to speak, all the time. Take an article or book with you when you commute. Keep a little notebook with you at all times. Read in the bathroom. Write in bed. Just allow yourself to be obsessed, at least to a healthy degree, with your work. Much the way children have a singular and obsessive focus, like Star Wars, for instance:
That is the kind of healthy focus you want to try to maintain.
There is what you must do, and what you feel you should do. If you break the dissertation process down to the most fundamental level, there are only two things you need to do every day: read and write. If you read enough and write enough each day eventually you will have all the information and all the pages needed to say ‘finished’. But many of us have a perception, call it an ideal, that feels like it needs to be met in order to say we have written a dissertation.
Sometimes this takes the form of perfectionism. You know, that ideal image of a dissertation so profound that your supervisor’s heart skips a beat while reading the introduction. Or perhaps that ideal ‘should’ comes in the form of workload.
There's a rumour that often does the circuit around dissertation time. A young graduate student, who felt they could not write a decent dissertation without being an expert first, set themselves impossible tasks. They finally had a nervous breakdown and never wrote their dissertation. Maybe that is just one of those scary stories. But it offers a nice caution. Know what you must do and do it. The perfectionism, the idealism, the image of yourself as the great scholar – you need to let those things go and focus on your project.
In our opinion, it's better to cultivate an image of you as someone who works hard. As someone who sets a daily goal of reading and writing each day, and working toward that goal. A recent PhD graduate was told after his degree was conferred, “You certainly weren’t my smartest student, but damn you were the hardest working”. That is very respectable. You will see the road to the dissertation littered with brilliant people. Many will have brilliant ideas, that simply never delivered. All because they did not put in the work.
Find recent players. The chances are good that in searching for a director or supervisor for your project, you found someone prominent in your field. Someone famous and respected. Likely someone who is author to various books and papers (most of which you should have read before asking them to supervise your project). But here’s the thing: most of the old lions and lionesses that supervise dissertations haven't written one themselves in several years. Or even decades. Fields do change, important books come out that go unread or unnoticed.
It is certainly wise to take the biggest and bossiest as your advisor, and what they say will ultimately go. But we encourage you to also seek out people in the department or in a related department and cultivate a collegial relationship with them. Granted, academics are not necessarily the most socially adept people. But in our experience, when approached with a legitimate question, they can be incredibly open and receptive. The easiest way to cultivate this collegiality is to send an email. Explain that you are just starting your work, you noticed that they finished not so long ago, and if they have any helpful hints or tips for getting through the process as quickly and painlessly as possible, you would love to sit down for a quick lunch. They will likely be glad to accept knowing they will eventually be looking at supervising students, too.
Now, you might consider getting together with other graduate students that are also writing a dissertation. But this is best kept to a minimum. Of course, you want to seem social and collegial. Go to every class, and every seminar, especially if it is being given by someone in your department. Even if the topic is of no interest to you whatsoever, consider it a holy day of obligation and get your ass to that talk. Do not miss it, because you want to be seen. You want others to think of you as someone involved in the department. But outside of this, we discourage hanging with your cohort. People talk, they gossip, they complain, and they moan. You do not need to be a part of that, and you do not want someone else’s negativity cutting down your drive. Of course, if you are a social person and need that camaraderie, then befriend others at your academic ranking, just with some caution.
Also in line with being like a marathon and very much 'work', there are rules in writing a dissertation. Some of these are formal and you can find them in your student hand book. But there are informal rules, too. Expectations in a dissertation that place it within that kind of writing (a dissertation genre is quite real). But these are not expectations that are bulleted in a student handbook. You have to find them and work them out through reading and talking with others in your field.
And yes, just like in games, there are winners and losers.
There is an intense stigma associated with not completing a dissertation. And with not progressing further through academia. Without question there are people that have very legitimate reasons for not completing their thesis. A friend of ours had the unfortunate luck of having an advisor pass away half-way through his dissertation. Said friend did not bother to cultivate good relations within the department. So when it came time to put a back up plan together, no one was really interested in taking him on. He floundered for another year and finally withdrew. Another friend, however, finished his thesis in a timely fashion despite having undergone chemo for testicular cancer and a few related surgeries. His CV is impressive, largely because the only year that was blank and unproductive was the year of his illness.
It's easy to think of finishing versus not finishing as the difference between winning and losing. But unless the circumstances are against you, there is no real reason not to finish. And if you've read this far, you want to finish.
Choose to work hard, and you will choose to finish.