What To Do When You’re Close to the Finish Line? Practical Strategies on Writing Up Your Dissertation
This month, we interviewed Sonia Singh, a former grad student. Sonia is currently a research scientist at the Callier Center for Communication Disorders, University of Texas at Dallas and graduated with her PhD from Georgia State University in 2019. During our talk, Sonia shared how stressful it can be when you’re nearing the end and was happy to suggest some insightful tips and practical strategies on navigating through the final stages of your dissertation. Below, we discuss these strategies in some detail and share resources that might come in handy later.
Come up with a plan
- Goals and subgoals: Creating both broader goals and smaller subgoals can be crucial in helping you stay on track. Sonia suggests that you should do this with your advisor, i.e., both you and your advisor should be on the same page regarding your writing goals and what you need to achieve on a weekly and monthly basis. Having these interactions about goals with your advisor in a written format can sometimes work as a motivator as well as a non-binding contract. When you’re creating goals, it also helps if you work backwards. This would mean that you would need to know the final date for when you’d like to submit your work and then decide weekly goals accordingly. Depending on your preference, you could either define goals as the time you spend during one session (e.g., “I will write for two hours today”) or how many words you’d like to write in a day (“I will write 1000 words today”).
- Ordering the different sections: You do not need to write the different sections in the same order as your final submission. For example, it might make more sense to start with your methods section first (even before you collect your data) and then write your literature review section and finally, once you have collected and analyzed your data you can write up your results and discussion sections.
- Drafts: When you are writing your dissertation, be prepared to create multiple drafts which can also be organized at different levels. For example, Sonia suggests that at the first level you could create a notes section (on your phone or in a book that you take with you everywhere) and can scribble any thoughts, ideas, or plans you’d like to include that might come to you during the day or when you read something new. At the second level, you can write up a rough draft in a way that is akin to free writing. Last, you can then work on editing your draft and proofread for grammatical or other errors.
Most universities will share a template that should be used for your dissertation. To save time and effort at the end, it would make sense to look up the template and use it even before you begin writing your dissertation. Here’s an APA downloadable template shared by Georgia State University. You should, however, look for one that is recommended and shared by your university.
Evidence tables are great for summarizing your literature review, making it easy to look at later. Dealing with too much text can be stressful. Moreover, it’s possible that you might forget some information from your references especially if you’re going back to working on a literature review weeks or sometimes months after you’ve first looked at it. Sonia recommends, this “short webinar…in which Stephen McQuilliam explains how to create a journal matrix or literature review database. This was absolute GOLD! I currently use this and wish this I had seen this during the dissertation writing process.”
There are tons of reference management and note-taking software that can help you. For writing and editing large documents, “Scrivener, OneNote and EverNote are…pretty awesome.” If you want to engage in mind-mapping, Scapple (works with Scrivener), Lucidchart, MindMeister, and XMind are great options. Highlights is useful for annotating pdfs and has the advantage of saving the annotations as part of the original PDF. Depending on what you need it for, software like Zotero, Mendeley, and Endnote can help you organize your references and cite your sources when you need it! According to Sonia, “Everyone has a preference for this, but I like Zotero the best. Here's a comparison chart…Find what works for you - is my mantra.” Sonia recommends that you can also use excel is to make or find a template for monthly/ weekly goal tracking. “Everyone has their own way of doing this and it helped me to stop procrastinating.”
Binge writing vs. writing everyday
People might have different styles when it comes to how they approach their work more generally and writing, specifically. Writing consistently every day can help avoid an impending crash-and-burn situation that might result from binge writing.
Receiving feedback graciously
If you’re sending drafts of your dissertation chapters to your advisor (highly recommended!), be prepared to receive and graciously accept criticism. Sometimes, to do this, you’d need to maintain a level of “healthy detachment” from your work. With the years of effort you’ve put into your dissertation, this can be incredibly hard to do. Just remember that even seasoned writers and well-accomplished scientists revise their work multiple times. Being open and willing to receive critique on your drafts can help you better your writing and improve your dissertation overall (even if that means going through 15 rounds of feedback).
Find your cheerleaders
It is important to connect with people who provide you with social and emotional support during the last few months of your PhD. Staying connected with close friends and family and hearing words of encouragement can go a long way in motivating you to tackle challenges that you might face.
Make time for physical activity, food, and rest
At this stage in your PhD, it’s common for mundane things like getting adequate nutrition, activity, and rest to take a backseat. However, if you do not pay attention to this, your productivity can decline. Because writing is such a sedentary task, Sonia recommends taking breaks in which you move your body - e.g., walking, stretching, or practicing yoga.
Join writing groups
Writing groups are a great way to motivate yourself to work consistently. They also help by making you feel more accountable. This is especially true if you’re working on your dissertation from home/remotely. SPSP also conducts virtual writing groups each semester that you can keep your eye out for.
- How Researchers Should Work to Write the First Draft of Their Manuscript
- How to Write A Lot by Paul J. Silvia, PhD (Note: According to Sonia, it's great because you can read it in one afternoon.)
- The Writing Workshop: Write More, Write Better, Be Happier in Academia by Barbara Sarnecka (Shared via OSF)
- Connected Papers - This website can help you find research papers that are related to the ones you already have.
- Organization and goal-setting tools: U Minnesota dissertation calculator, thesis writing tracker
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Sonia Singh for her enthusiasm in helping PhD students like me and sharing these wonderful resources and insights on how grad students can tackle the final stages of their dissertation.