A dissertation is the most important paper you will submit to earn your degree, but ironically, it’s one of the most often mismanaged, hurried, and slap-dashed works that students do. A tiny percentage of students go about writing their dissertation the right way – by planning it carefully and progressing along the roadmap to a successful conclusion. Most of the time, however, students underestimate dramatically how much time and labor it takes and think they can concoct something in a fortnight of all-nighters when the deadline draws closer. In contrast, others are very aware of the copious amount of work such a project involves and dread the sheer enormity of it to the point they feel paralyzed with anxiety and keep procrastinating – yours truly falls into this last category, most regrettably.
This is why I wanted to warn you against repeating my mistakes. This guide will help you to plan the work on your dissertation. Planning is a crucial step that is too often ignored, but I hope this will change – with my humble help. Here is what you should do to make sure your work on the dissertation is less overwhelming and more productive.
Define your field of interest
Let’s start at the very beginning: your intellectual curiosity. A dissertation is a long-term project that spans many months. The best thing you can do for your future self is to think carefully about the topic to which you will devote all this time. This must be something you will genuinely enjoy reading and thinking about.
To make a better decision, do some “window-shopping” and read about your areas of interest to identify gaps in the knowledge or particular perspectives your research could address. Better do this in the summer before you are supposed to declare your topic or start working on your dissertation. Assessing relevance and available literature is important, but finding the topic that ignites your interest is even more essential. At this stage, focus on what sparks your curiosity and follow your passion.
Choose a thesis advisor
This is one of the most important choices you will make about your dissertation – probably, as important as the topic. The thesis advisor is the greatest influence on your dissertation and the entire experience with your project, so make a wise choice. This person will guide and mentor you, keeping you on track and deploying emergency brakes if needed.
Both their field of academic interest and compatibility with you are important. In my time, I saw cases when students would fall out of love with their topics because they had communication issues with their advisor. And on the contrary, there were students who changed the direction of their major because they’d chosen their advisor based on their instruction style and winning personality. The instructor would then spark their interest in an academic area they never knew could be exciting.
Negotiate your topic
When you have defined your field of interest and approached a faculty member requesting to chair your dissertation committee, it’s time to talk business. Present the approximate topics you’ve zeroed in on within your field of interest or discuss one of the topics your advisor suggests. It’s a common practice in many universities for instructors to have a list of research and dissertation topics they encourage their students to explore, so if any of those piques your interest, this could be a match made in heaven.
However, if you would rather have a different slant on the research question or you would wish to shift focus a bit, don’t hesitate to suggest it. Negotiate the topic with your advisor. Although a dissertation is largely a solitary endeavor, a good thesis advisor is as invested in the outcome as their students, so ideally, you both should be happy with the topic. When this is settled, ask your advisor for suggested reading for your research.
Decide on the methodology
This aspect of your dissertation depends on the discipline, topic, the nature of your research question, and available resources. There are no ready-made answers, so you will need to think it over and discuss this issue with your advisor. Having extensive experience in research, they should be able to suggest research methods that are the most suitable for your topic and match your aims: quantitative methods to test a hypothesis, qualitative methods to explore ideas, thoughts, and meanings, descriptive methods, experimental methods, etc.
It’s also vital to assess the resources you have access to. Are there enough readily-available secondary data to analyze, or will you need to collect primary data? How will you manage it? Will you be able to conduct experiments in the lab? Will you distribute questionnaires? Work with focus groups? Conduct interviews?
When choosing your methods, you might want to read other people’s dissertations to have an idea of how similar research can be conducted. Look under the “Theses” section in your university’s library or request a sample dissertation draft from a college papers writing service.
Draw an outline
Before you start planning your work, you must outline the general structure of your dissertation, with an introduction explaining what you are examining and how you will do it, the main body with definitions, arguments, study, etc., and a conclusion with a summary of your findings.
Depending on the goals of your dissertation and department requirements, your main body may include some necessary sections such as a literature review (summary of relevant research done on this topic prior), methodology (description of your research methods, scope, data collection, etc.) and results (analysis methods and findings). Moreover, your conclusion may include a separate section dedicated to a discussion (potential limitation of your research, implications, and direction of further study).
Outlining doesn’t mean that you cannot change the structure of your dissertation when you actually begin writing. You can add or remove particular parts as you progress and adjust your research questions. However, a draft outline will help you plan your work.
Make a detailed plan
As a rule, your advisor will provide you with an approximate framework with the key stages of your dissertation mapped out. However, this would be a very generalized, bird-eye view. Your task is to come up with a more detailed plan. This is the first big project that you will manage, and it will feel huge and overwhelming. Believe me, I understand the anxiety involved. Yet it’s important to set long-term and short-term goals as soon as possible if you want to complete your dissertation in a timely and orderly matter.
Your plan will look like a mix of research stages and write-up sections. For example, the first stage will most likely involve preliminary research and proposal writing, while the second one will consist of collecting data and preparing a literature review. The important thing is to break your big project into stages and set deadlines for yourself to pass the set milestones. Keep the plan somewhere you can always see it. Otherwise, it risks ending up as another good intention.
However, even the best-laid plans might shift as you progress with your research. Don’t worry! You can adjust your title, list of sources, sections, etc., to incorporate your new ideas. Stella Klein, a writing coach and academic skills tutor from the Goldsmiths University of London, insists that’s the beauty of having a plan: “A good plan means you will not lose focus on the end result,” – no matter the route you take to arrive there.
Incorporate it into your schedule
Okay, here is the crucial bit. Although many students progressed as far as mapping out their work with deadlines and everything, almost as many failed to actually stick to their plans. Because here is the secret I bought with sweat and tears: for your plan to work, you must set aside time dedicated to work on your dissertation on a weekly or even daily basis and set it in stone. Okay, scratch the stone; any calendar will do. Yet you must show up and do the work regularly.
I get that you are busy and overwhelmed with all the study load. Each course has a shedload of work to do and screams for your attention. The fact that the final deadline for your dissertation seems ages away makes it all too easy to keep putting it off repeatedly in favor of something urgent. Yet it won’t do. Vague promises to yourself like “I will work on my dissertation sometime in October” will get you nowhere. Start working as soon as you’ve agreed on the topic. Read for half an hour every day – or two hours every Saturday. Make sure the work on the dissertation has a fixed place in your schedule.
Keep track of notes and sources
As you research, don’t rely on your memory – it will inevitably fail you. When you begin writing several months later, you won’t be able to remember where you’ve seen each particular idea. To prevent unintentional plagiarism and to save yourself a lot of time searching everything you’ve read time and again to hunt down quotes, always keep notes as you read with complete information about the author, title, and page.
This is going to take some information management skills, but learning them will pay off tenfold. It will be helpful to keep all your literature, documents, papers you’ve read, and citations in one place. It can be an Excel spreadsheet with all the citation info, a folder on your laptop, or a physical folder if you work with many hand-written notes and print-outs. You might want to use a specific project-management tool, like Evernote, Trello, Asana, etc., especially when you start writing and will need to keep track of multiple drafts and edits.
Keep ongoing contact with advisor
If you struggle with planning, finding sources, or understanding the material, don’t hesitate to contact your advisor for guidance and clarification. Try to schedule your appointment in advance – ideally, at the end of your current meeting. Another good idea is to write a short agenda for each meeting to let your advisor know your objectives and issues you want to discuss. Send it along with a reminder about the upcoming meeting when the time draws near.
However, if your scientific advisor has a busy schedule, there is a possibility that face-to-face meetings may not occur for extended periods of time. This is often the case with department stars who have many conferences to attend, journal articles to finish, and students like you to advise – not to mention that they have an everyday human life outside their academic responsibilities. If that’s the case, Dr. Kendra Gaines, a writing consultant and instructional specialist from the University of Arizona, warns that you shouldn’t fall into the “out of sight, out of mind” category of students and advises sending regular progress reports by email instead, with any requests for clarifications and guidance you might have.
Don’t let the scope of this project overwhelm you. Start each week by planning it and establishing weekly goals, including work on your dissertation. Structure your daily schedule to build a sense of routine, and don’t forget to include time for rest and relaxation. This is not a waste of time but a necessary step to stay sharp and productive. Love planning, and good luck!