How to Actually Complete a Dissertation

Segmenting, Scheduling, and Rewarding

First, pick something that interests you deeply. Your interest is what carries you through the long days and nights of concentrated effort.

So you’ve picked an interesting topic. What can you do now to improve your chances of finishing the dissertation in a timely fashion?

Find a special place to write. Make it a place where you can spread out papers and get messy. Get everybody to agree that you don’t have to clean it up until the dissertation is done.

Then, use three techniques that have helped generations of students: segmenting, scheduling, and rewarding.

Segment the whole dissertation into small chunks. Tackle just one at a time. Avoid fixating on doing the entire dissertation all at once. Instead, focus clearly on just one small piece at a time.

One way to begin to segment is to write a detailed subject outline of the dissertation. Get right down to the subsection level – the part that takes only a page or two. First make a topic outline for the entire work. Then make a dissertation outline; tell what your dissertation (argument) will be for each subsection. Don’t worry now about being totally and perfectly accurate in the outline. Certainly the structure will change a bit as you move along through the dissertation. But having the detailed outline will prove a great help to finishing the Dissertation – especially when combined with scheduling and rewarding.

Schedule your dissertation writing for three days a week. (The days don’t have to be consecutive.) Plan on completing one small subsection each day. After finishing the writing each day, research those nagging minor points that cropped up while you were writing – find the exact spelling of a name, for example, when it’s been cited differently by your sources, or check out the correct pages numbers for an article.

On the fourth day of the week, rewrite the three sections you finished most recently. Make sure that you have polished each chapter to a shimmering brilliance before copying it for supervisory committee members.

On the fifth day, deliver dissertation chapters to committee members, make appointments for consultation with experts whose help you need, and take care of all those other time-consuming chores.

Now comes the crucial technique. To many dissertation writers, the actual writing looms as the hardest part. Such students may be able to breeze through a newspaper article or TV script with no problem, but a hundred-page manuscript blocks them like a ten-foot granite wall across the path. You can make that wall crumble in front of your eyes – by rewarding yourself.

Find something that gives you pleasure. Make it small, easy, inexpensive. Then, at the end of each day’s writing, treat yourself! Tell yourself that you’ve done well! Acknowledge your progress to yourself! Feel good about it all!

Some treats: M&M candies. Soaking in the tub. A phone chats with a friend. A donut.  A five-mile run.

Find something you enjoy. It’ll help.

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