How To Start Writing My Dissertation

“I spent every night until four in the morning on my dissertation, until I came to the point when I could not write another word, not even the next letter. I went to bed. Eight o’clock the next morning I was up writing again.” –Abraham Pais, physicist

You’ve been in graduate school for many years now, and you’ve come a long way. You’ve completed all of your coursework, formed your Ph.D. thesis committee, passed your preliminary/oral/qualifying examinations, and have done an awful lot of research along the way. There’s a glimmer of hope in your heart that maybe — just maybe — this will be your last year in graduate school.

Image credit: East Tennessee State University's Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

You’ve probably even gotten some papers published along the way, with a handful of them (if you’re lucky) with you as the lead author! But there’s one more task you need to perform before you’re ready to defend in front of your committee: you must write that dissertation!

While there are many guides on how to do that, many of them are either jokes…

Image credit: Flickr user chnrdu.

…or people grossly overstating the task in front of you. There are some very important things that go into a dissertation, but there are also some huge misconceptions about what a dissertation is supposed to be. What follows is my advice for anyone who’s reached that stage in their careers, on how to write a dissertation. (At least, as far as theoretical astrophysics goes, although I’m sure this is applicable to many other fields.)

Image credit: Jorge Cham of PhDcomics.

First off, here is a list of what your Ph.D. dissertation is not:

  1. It is not the definitive work on whatever your primary research topic is.
  2. It is not going to settle long-standing arguments in your field.
  3. It is not the most important piece of research or writing you’ll ever undertake.
  4. And finally, it is very likely not even a document that anyone outside of your committee (with the exception of a few good friends, and possibly your grandmother) will ever read.

Image credit: Peter Lubbers / Rocky Lubbers of http://runlaketahoe.blogspot.com/.

You must accept number 4 before you’re ready to write, otherwise you run the risk of becoming a perfectionist about a document that — seriously — practically no one is going to read!!!

What is a Ph.D. dissertation, then? Quite simply, it’s your way of proving to your committee that you are a competent scientist in your own right, capable of standing on your own two feet as a scientist, researcher, and academic. It is where you demonstrate the following:

  1. That you are capable of making original, valuable contributions in an active field of research.
  2. That you are aware of and informed about the broad landscape of your field, the background and currently competing work being done on your specific sub-field, and that your professional opinions are well-informed and backed up by your knowledge and legitimate reasoning.
  3. That the body of work you submit in your dissertation is comprehensive enough to merit a Ph.D.
  4. And, perhaps most importantly, that you are ready to go off and continue your research (if you so choose) without the guidance of your mentor(s).

The first, second, and fourth of these are things you must convince your committee of during your defense; the third, however, is something that must speak for itself within your written dissertation.

Image credit: Dalhousie University.

And that’s why the most important thing you can do is to just crank it out. What you may not realize is that 75% of your dissertation is already done, you just need to take advantage of it!

What do I mean? I mean don’t reinvent the wheel!

Let me explain.

Image credit: Gnarlycraig from Wikimedia Commons.

You’ve already written/published some papers, and you’re very likely at least part-way through some more projects that may or may not be completed by time you’re ready to graduate. Well, guess what?

That, right there, is most of your dissertation!

Let’s say you’ll have four papers completed by time you graduate, and another two projects that won’t be completed by graduation. Those four papers that will be finished are chapters 2-5 of your dissertation, and those two unfinished projects are Appendix A and Appendix B.

That’s your work that you created, so be proud of it and don’t re-invent it!

Image credit: Plymouth State University.

Get your University’s unique template, learn how to format your work properly within it, and marvel at how close you are! Here’s what you have to actually write, now, in order to graduate:

  1. Your title. This is important, and it needs to tie together all of the (likely) very different papers and topics you wrote on into one unified idea. “Topics in Physics” won’t cut it here, but “Cosmological Perturbations and Their Effects on the Universe: From Inflation to Acceleration” will do just fine.
  2. Your abstract. This is just two or three sentences introducing your field, followed by one sentence about each of your papers, and concluded with one or two sentences about future work.
  3. Your introductory chapter. This was — for me, at least — the hardest part. You need to put all of your original work in the context of your broad and specific fields of research. This means giving a broad (and well-referenced) overview of your sub-field, how it fits into the broad context of your field and why it’s important, and how your specific research has addressed some of these particular issues. It should be seamless to transition from the end of this chapter into your (only slightly tweaked) “middle chapters” of your dissertation.
  4. Your final chapter. This is a summary of what you’ve accomplished as well as a detailed discussion of what challenges remain in your field, with some detailed plans for future directions that your work is going to take you. This is where you include references to current, active work being done in your particular sub-fields of interest, and where you set up the motivation for your appendices.

The rest — acknowledgments, dedication, references, etc. — take practically no time or effort. But you must remember that the goal of your dissertation is not to change the world; it’s to finish it and to do a good enough job to graduate!

Image credit: NYU's Leonard N. Stern School of Business.

Once your written dissertation has been okayed by your committee, you’ll still have to defend, but unless your advisor is no good, you won’t be allowed to defend unless everyone knows you’re prepared and ready to pass. You’ll make your dissertation revisions, graduate, and it’s up to you whether you want to participate in the graduation ceremony or not; either way you get your diploma in the mail a few months later.

This isn’t the only way to write a dissertation, for what it’s worth. It’s just the smartest way to do it, and so that’s why it’s my advice. (It’s also advice that — for some reason — is rarely given by others.) Now you know the secret to writing a Ph.D. dissertation, so finish that thing up and graduate already!

Why I Had to Unlearn Everything From the 7th Grade to Finish Writing My Thesis 

My first assignment in 7th grade was to write a report about my favorite book that I read during the summer.

Our teacher, Ms. P, was a no-nonsense person, and she handed out a detailed template for the report.

In capital roman numerals she listed the major sections which included information about the book, characters, main plot, and my opinion of the book.

Within each section there were subsections with details about each character, place of story, and how the problem was solved.

Up to that point this was the longest piece of writing I had to produce.

I am not a native English speaker (I was born in Hungary), and I had only been in the Unites States for only one year at that time.

Yet, I was determined to get an A+.

My parents had to make sacrifices for us to be able to move to the US and I wanted to make them proud of me.

I listened to Ms. P’s words very carefully and followed the outline verbatim.

As she suggested, I went through the different sections in the order they were listed.

The result was a boring and straight-forward paper.

I did not get an A+, just an A, but this was enough to convince me that Ms. P’s outline was the recipe for writing good papers.

I applied this process all throughout middle school, high school, and college.

While  I did not enjoy writing at the time, Ms. P’s orderly method served me well enough to get A’s on most of my essays and term papers.

Fast forward to my second year in graduate school: the time when I had to write my thesis proposal.

I had 2 months to write my proposal and I struggled for weeks.

For some reason, every time I sat down to write, my brain froze.

Ms. P’s method was not working.

Previously, in English and History classes in college, I had been given a clearly-defined assignments.

There was a title, and a list of questions that I had to answer within my report.

The writing of my thesis proposal presented a completely different set of challenges.

I only had a very vaguely defined topic and nearly a hundred journal articles to go through.

This was the first time that I had to come up with both the topic of the paper and the paper itself.

In addition, I had defend it in front of my committee and convince them that this was an original contribution to my field of research.

This was daunting given that I had only 1 year of experience in the lab (and that was part-time, as I was taking classes as well).

How could I possibly come up with a research topic, let alone put together an outline, and write each section in an orderly fashion?

After weeks of struggling and staring blankly at my computer screen, I was very close to deciding to give up and leave graduate school altogether.

One evening, my friends invited me to dinner to celebrate our colleague’s birthday.

During the dinner I began talking with one of the postdocs about the struggles I was having with my thesis proposal.

She just shook her head and said:

Are you trying to write your proposal from beginning to end?

We always leave writing of the abstract and the introduction to the end.

Just start with your methods section and your preliminary data.

That’s what the committee will pay the most attention to anyway.”

I began writing that very night, and my process went against everything Ms. P taught me.

Instead of writing everything from beginning to end, I just summarized all the data that I collected and my methods.

I felt so liberated, that I disregarded grammar and style.

I just wrote as much as I could in 2 hours so I could get home by a reasonable time.

With this push in momentum, I was able to finish my thesis proposal by the deadline (with all the grammar and style corrected in the final draft) and defend it in front of my committee.

Tossing out Ms. P’s orderly process was the first step in learning academic writing (or any creative writing for that matter).

During the next few years I learned even more strategies that were essential to help me to complete my thesis by the deadline.

Are you still writing the way you were taught in the 7th grade?

Those habits might be holding you back from producing high quality manuscripts and finishing your thesis.

7 Rules You Must Violate to Write a High Quality Thesis

1. Writing the sections of your thesis in order

Since research is a journey of discovery it is impossible to write your thesis from beginning to end.

Most researchers write the abstract last.

It varies from student to student which section is easiest.

In the experimental science the methods sections is usually easiest to begin with, followed by the results sections.

I have coached students in the humanities and social sciences as well, and they usually don’t write all the chapters in order either.

Sometimes the introduction (literature search) is the toughest, and many students leave it until the end.

Start with whichever chapter is easiest for you so you can pick up momentum in your writing.

2 Write for a set number hours a day

While it is great if you have blocked out time in your calendar every day for writing, it is more important to focus on the results than the time you spend writing.

Without well-defined goals, two hours of writing can produce absolutely nothing.

Instead, try to write a certain number of pages, or complete a clear and realistic goal such as creating a table or making a figure.

3. If you skip a day, make it up the next day by writing twice as much

We are all great planners – or at least we try to be.

We make a plan, and a week later we discover that we did not really follow through.

So, the following week we try even harder to “make up” for all the lost time.

This is a mistake, and it can lead to burnout and poor quality writing.

To produce high quality writing, focus on today’s writing only.

Forget the guilt of not writing enough yesterday.

Put aside any worries about how you will meet your writing goals tomorrow.

Make the best of every day by setting realistic goals for that day – this will help you to keep up your momentum.

4. Make yourself resist distractions

If I could have a dollar for every graduate graduate student who asked me: “How can I resist distractions”? I would have a small fortune.

Try to “not think of a white elephant” .

Do you see the white elephant?

I do too.

Your mind is quite stubborn.

Once it comes up with an idea, such as “I must email XYZ to ask about….” it will not leave you alone until you do something about it.

But that something does not have to be writing the email and getting distracted by all the messages in your inbox.

The simplest solutions is to write every thought down.

If it is out of your head and on a piece of paper there is a good chance your mind will leave you alone.

(Notebooks and notepads work better than post-its).

Then, take care of these items once you finish writing.

There are many ways to “resist” social media (disconnect from the Internet while writing).

But, if social media is important for your work (e.g. Linkedin for job searching), you need to  set reasonable boundaries.

A good solution is to go on social media only at predefined times of day – and preferably late in the day after you got your work done.

5. Follow rules of grammar and style while you write

Remember the spelling tests from second and third grade?

Many schools today place a smaller emphasis on spelling, and focus more helping students to develop their creative writing skills.

The reason is that teachers realized that students were afraid to express their ideas if they did not know how to spell certain words.

Many students try to get the grammar, style, and even formatting of their thesis perfect even before they have all their ideas down.

Remember that it is much easier to correct your grammar and spelling than to write creatively.

Use your writing time for putting as many ideas on paper as you can.

Leave the editing and styling for the later stages after you have all your arguments in order.

6. Write when you feel inspired

This rule is tricky.

Yes, if you feel inspired it is a good idea to write down any ideas you have.

If you can carry around a small notebook to capture your impromptu thoughts, it could save you from staring at the computer screen blankly for hours.

The problem with this rule is that it leads students to believe that inspiration will come someday, and then they can start to write.

To finish writing your thesis you also have to write when you are not inspired.

In fact, 95% of the time when you write you will not feel any inspiration at all when you sit down at the computer.

Skilled writers know how to write when they have no inspiration at all, and they would rather be doing anything else (including cleaning the bathroom), than to write.

There is no secret.

When you have a deadline to meet, and you have no ideas, you need to write anyway.

If you feel stuck, do some free writing.

You can even write about why you cannot write about your thesis.

After 10 pages of free writing, there is a very good chance that you will have some ideas that can go into your thesis or paper.

The good news is that if you write when you do not have any inspiration, the inspiration will come as you write.

This is a very rewarding process.

7. Grandma’s law: You have to eat your zucchini (or spinach, lima beans, broccoli etc.) before you can have dessert

This law works to some extent when applied during dinner time, but it can lead to having an aversion to foods that are actually good for you.

In graduate school this law can lead to self-deprivation for years, which can result in loss of motivation and focus. 

Many graduate students have no publishable results until their final year.

Does this mean that you should not reward yourself until your thesis is approved and bound in a shiny black cover?

Rewarding yourself for your effort consistently (whether you get good results or not), will actually lead to increased self-confidence and better quality work. 

Celebrate each small success – and definitely do not wait until your graduation party to have dessert!

When I was a 1st year student a postdoc told me that he felt empty inside after he defended his thesis successfully.

He was not proud of himself at all.

While he was relieved, he did not feel like celebrating.

I had a similar experience.

My hooding ceremony was a day just like any other.

I did not feel ecstatic, and it actually surprised me how ordinary the day was after so many years of anticipation. 

Don’t wait for others or external results to give you a sense of accomplishment.

You need to give yourself the feeling of confidence, whether your work goes well or not.

Celebrate each small victory and every small step you take in the right direction.

Whether  you celebrate with dessert, a movie, or a night out with friends, your creative mind will thank you for taking care of it on a regular basis.

What is your #1 challenge when it comes to writing your thesis? Please leave a comment below and I will reply to you directly 🙂

Click here to get on the waiting list for the online “Finish Your Thesis Program” and get a copy of my free book “Finish Your Thesis Faster”

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