Don’t navigate through a forest of challenges.
Instead of taking two years to write your doctoral dissertation, what if you could write it in two months? Think you can do it? Yes, it’s possible, and it will depend if you can dedicate yourself and maybe request the help of one or two others who thrive at doing research.
Don’t try to navigate through unknown territory by yourself when writing a dissertation
When you discipline yourself, you can create an outline, define the steps for acquiring the data, and get a draft written in six weeks. However, you must set up deadlines for each phase, and it’s important that social invitations and other shiny objects that would tempt you to delay even one day in your deadline are not an option.
Here’s How to Begin This Academic Writing Task
Decide on a date when you will start and a date when you will stop researching and writing. Next, you’ll need a competent academic editor to go over your first draft, which will allow you another week to fine tune your final document before submitting it. If you can follow these rules, then you will finish writing your doctoral dissertation in two months.
Reassure your doubting brain that you can do this. Don’t share this information with family, friends, or anyone who is in your world. Why? Their opinions, thoughts, and suggestions don’t matter. You’re in this to complete your dissertation, not get feedback or approval from peers, family, friends, or strangers.
On a sheet of lined paper, write time slots down the left column. Then fill in the blanks for each time slot with a task that you will accomplish that day. Think of it as a tiny check list. You do one thing from 9:00-10:00. Take a 15-minute break. Then from 10:15-11:00, complete the next task. If you can work six hours in one day, then fill in the details for what you WILL accomplish in each of those time slots.
Establish a date when you will start this two-month project. Write the date on your calendar, and put a huge note in a place where you live to remind yourself of your starting date. Know in your heart and mind it’s a date that’s exciting and you’re looking forward to it.
Arrange for sufficient time to select your topic. This is one of the MOST important factors involved in this process, since this gives you the goal for your research work. If you allow one week to brainstorm ideas, and then choose one topic that you’re passionate about, the rest of your work will go more smoothly and quickly. NOTE: If you don’t complete this step in the time allotted, it could result in your inability to complete your thesis, and you could wind up delaying your thesis indefinitely. Stay positive. Stay focused. Complete this step!
Create a working outline. Below are bullet points to get you started. Reject, accept, or add more bullet points you’ll need to cover in your outline.
- Jot down the key points and ideas that you’ll include in your project
- Define how you will arrange your arguments and supporting paragraphs
- Establish a method for recording your research notes in such a way that the details almost write themselves
- Use your smartphone to take a picture of your bibliography sources from printed materials. Don’t waste precious time writing this down. Let a photographic image be your resource tracker.
- Make a short list of anything that you ‘must’ cover and that you don’t want to forget about later.
- Make a quick list of your analytical findings that you’ll use in your final statements and resolutions.
- Finally, as the thoughts and impressions cross your brain, write down and record the results that you interpret from all your data gathering sessions.
Once you have your outline with you, it is then merely a 15-day task to write and proofread your thesis. If you have missed your earlier deadlines due to some reason, you can utilize the remaining time by staying focused and active. You will have to dedicate all your time to writing in the last 15 days. Do not let yourself take a leave under any circumstances. Write on a regular basis and dedicate at least half of your day to writing your thesis.
To complete your thesis writing project in less than two months, you must have your data and raw material assembled in a digital form that you can quickly look through to extract only the best information you’ll use during the writing process. Once you have researched your topic thoroughly and you know the results you want to present, then the writing process becomes much easier.
CAUTION: It you begin the writing process with only bits of information with the thought that you’ll stop and collect additional data and start the writing process again, this could increase the amount of time before you finish your dissertation. Be careful with this step. When you discipline yourself and proceed according to your deadline dates, you will write at an easier pace. Slow and steady wins the race, they say.
About halfway through your project, you might want to take a two-to-three hour break to walk in the woods, have a coffee with your friends, and get a little more rest to relax your eyes and hands and your tense deadline-driven brain. Reward yourself with a favorite food or beverage, knowing you’re 50 percent of the way finished.
Dedicate the last fifteen days to writing and editing your thesis. Do not let anything or anyone interfere with this precious time that you’ve set aside to reach your goal. Write every day, at the same time, and dedicate the time you’ve set aside to write, and only write. No exceptions.
Hire a reputable academic editor to review your document, and then allow sufficient non-rushed time to make changes, revisions, and finish your final document.
Submit your dissertation. Breathe a sigh of relief. Pat yourself on the back, and go celebrate. You did it!
Most academics will admit to themselves and students that the majority of dissertations and books are written in a 6 month block of time (the remainder of the post focuses on a PhD process, but it can be easily applied to book writing). I’m talking here about the WRITING process- not the research, figuring out the question, organizing the chapters etc (no wizard can do all that in 6 months- at least not this wizard). But once you’ve done your (field) research, reading, thinking through the chapters, taking notes etc. it really should only take you 6 months to finish the thesis. For PhD students this is referred to as the end of the faffing about/procrastination/reading gawker and people.com daily/existential crisis about the structure of the thesis phase and the start of the “time to suck it up, close the office door, shut off the email, and just f#$@king write” phase.
So how can one get a complete draft of the thesis done in 6 months? Here is the 10-Step Process to Completion.
1. Figure out what your D-Day is. Look ahead approximately 6 months and determine either when you would like to submit a full draft or else acknowledge when you MUST complete (maybe the last date before you have to pay for an extra semester of tuition, maybe your committee members are leaving for sabbatacle after a certain date, maybe your partner has threatened to leave if you don’t finish by a particular date, maybe you want to finish before you give birth)- whatever it is, get the date and highlight it on all your calendars and write it up in a threatening font and paste it to your wall (I used the final date as my email password so I had to enter it everyday as a reminder….and no, I don’t still use the same password).
2. Count back from that date and clarify how much time you have left. Is it 6 months or slightly more or less? Count the number of weeks (ie 24), then acknowledge any potential periods within that time frame where you know you won’t be working (Holidays, attending a wedding etc). Now you have your total number of weeks until D-Date.
3. Panic. Yes, coming to terms with the fact that you’ve got 22 weeks to crack out a thesis before you will be faced with an extra semester of tuition sucks. Revel in the panic for a day, it will ultimately be motivating. Ask yourself how many more times you want to get questioned about “still being in school” from family members during the holidays, think about how it would feel if the student in your tutorials become your grad-student colleagues, calculate what your retirement (non)savings plan will look like if you are a student for another year- now take that panic and zen-force it into writing fuel.
4. Set out a work plan. Using the 22 week example, make a list of each of the chapters that you need to write. Start with the chapters that you feel most confident with (ie the ones that may be partially written or are based on an article or conference presentation you’ve already done). Now calculate how many weeks you can spend on each chapter and still stay within your 22 week budget. Try to be realistic (most people can’t write a decent chapter from scratch in 1 week, but you can probably revise an article and build it into a chapter in 2 weeks).
5. Panic. This is the “holy SH*T I’m never going to be able to finish” stage. Again, revel in it for an afternoon. Acknowledge fully that your days of 2-hour coffee sessions and showing up to the office hungover at 11am are over. Say goodbye to facebook, better yet, unplug or delink your office computer from the internet for all but one hour a day (most research related searches leads to an hour staring at fashion.com or somehow reading about Jessica Simpson’s second pregnancy- you know it, and I know it, so just fix the problem)
6. Based on the timeline you set at stage 4 break every week up into smaller tasks. For example, if you known you only have 2 weeks to revise a chapter and update it, break down the list of tasks that will be required and give yourself specific things to accomplish everyday (this could include reading 3 articles and incorporating the work into the chapter, revising the conclusion section etc). Again, be reasonable. I recommend writing out your weekly and daily goals up on a big piece of paper and sticking it to the wall, or getting a white board and having everything clearly laid out. You’ll look like Russel Crow from a Beautiful Mind hunched over your desk with maps and outlines everywhere- but whatever. When you finish your tasks for the day reward yourself by going home or heading out for coffee- conversely, if completing the days task means you need to stay late, so be it. Also, if you get off-track from an illness or unexpected distraction, don’t throw in the towel and abandon the whole plan. Instead, try to revamp the schedule and redistribute the tasks so that you can reasonably get back on the rails. Getting sick for a day or two is no excuse for throwing the entire plan into the garbage.
7. Set weekly rewards for yourself. Use the internet as a reward- surf through the Duck of Minerva after you’ve edited for an hour straight. Give yourself 15 minutes of Jon Stewart when you finally revise the intro you’ve been working on.
8. Make a list of brainless tasks and set it aside. Footnotes, grammar and spelling checks, looking for a lost resource are all things you should do at the end of the day or when you are feeling like a zombie. When you have to do this type of work, throw on some reggae music or whatever makes you feel good and pretend you are not doing the devil’s work.
9. Everyone says it, but you really need to do it: set a word goal everyday. In addition to your specific tasks- free write for at least an hour everyday and remind yourself that during this time you don’t need to worry about perfection. No one will read this first spewing of ideas but it will provide you with something to revise and rework into a legible chapter.
10. Let go. Get over the idea of your first draft being an earth-shattering opus and let go of your identity as a PhD student holed-up in the office writing. You will NEVER finish if you wait for perfection or if you get too attached to your student status. For me, and for most others, the best parts of my research life started POST PhD. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy the process and revel in the time and environment you are privileged with as a grad student- just don’t cling to it like a security blanket.