You’ve got an advisor, you’re done with classes, you’ve finally passed your qualifying exams and your dissertation project is underway. Life is looking good, but it’s not too early to start thinking about how to tackle your dissertation. Chances are this is the biggest writing project you have ever undertaken, so breaking it up into small, manageable parts is the way to go. Here are some ideas to get you started.

1. Talk to Your Dissertation Committee About What They Expect to See

You may be pleasantly surprised. In the sciences, many departments are moving toward more practical dissertations. Instead of expecting you to labor over a tome that is only going to gather dust in the library, they may prefer that you focus on publishing your work as journal articles; in this case, your dissertation may simply be a collection of published and in-progress manuscripts. If your committee does want to see a traditional dissertation, however, it’s best to know early.

Throughout the dissertation process, communicating with your committee is key. During your very first meeting, you can outline the different chapters together and create a timetable for the completion of various parts. If your committee rarely meets, you may want to set up individual meetings with committee members to discuss their expectations. Be sure to get everyone involved as soon as possible, so that you can find out your committee’s expectations and create a plan.

2. Make Your Dissertation Work for You

You will be more motivated to tackle your dissertation if your work pays dividends in multiple areas, so do your best to make every chapter serve at least two purposes. Your introduction is going to involve a big literature search. Why not write this chapter with the goal of turning it into a review that you can submit to a journal in your field? And that technique you had to develop for the express purpose of carrying out your research? Write it up in your methods section with an eye toward publishing it as a technical article.

Approach each chapter with the goal of maximizing your first-author publications and use your committee as a resource to figure out which journals are good targets. Then knock those chapters/publications out, one by one, and watch your CV grow. When you go on the job market, you will be grateful for the publications. In addition, committees tend to look favorably on work that has already passed the test of peer review.

3. Get Organized: Moving From Big to Small

One common mistake is to start writing with no plan. Don’t fall into this trap! Before you pick up a pen, you and your committee should agree that the major hypothesis you are testing is compelling. This is the frame on which your entire dissertation is going to hang, and it needs to be a strong one.

Got a topic? Now it’s time to sketch an outline for your entire dissertation. What do you envision for each chapter? Write it all out. It’s certainly possible that the contents will end up shifting as your research progresses, but it’s important that you have a clear vision of where you are heading. Each chapter should tell its own story—and each story should revolve around your dissertation’s central theme.

After you have the broad strokes down, you can get started on individual chapters. But before you start writing, create a chapter-level outline. Outlines are a great way to ensure:

  1. You write about everything that needs to be covered.
  2. You do this in a logical fashion.
  3. Only the pertinent information enters your dissertation.

Are your outlining skills rusty? Don’t worry, there are tons of writing resources online. I’ve listed some below.

Write a Little Every Day

If you make writing a habit and keep your outlines handy, your dissertation will progress steadily, until one day you realize it is just about done. Many researchers find that routine is key. Set aside the same time every day to write. Protect this time from your other obligations, including research and teaching. Find a place that makes you look forward to writing, whether it is your desk at home, a coffee shop or your university library. Some days you may only end up writing a paragraph, but don’t get discouraged. Keep plugging along and you’ll get there.

Many students find that joining a mutual accountability group is helpful. Think it would be helpful to meet with peers every few weeks to review one another’s work and offer/receive support and advice? Chances are that a lot of other students in your department or division feel the same way. Join an existing group or put your own together.

Brush Up on Your Writing Skills

Did you go into science because you feel much more comfortable at the bench than putting pen to paper? If so, you are not alone. Unfortunately, writing is a skill that you need to master to become a successful scientist. Whether you go on to run an academic lab, work in industry or join the ranks of government researchers, odds are that you will do a lot of writing—and that your ascent up the career ladder will depend heavily on the quality of that writing.

Make it a goal to face your writing demons. Assign yourself a small writing improvement target every week. Learn those grammar rules that have always eluded you. Pick up a few books on how to improve your writing style. Read a bunch of great research articles and some bad ones too—this is a fantastic way to learn what works and what doesn’t. And have fun applying your new skills to each part of your dissertation. If you are not yet a confident writer, now is the time to become one: writing is a skill that will serve you well for the rest of your life. Look at your dissertation as an opportunity to grow!

Helpful resources

  1. Eisner, Jason. How to write up a PhD Dissertation.
  2. Siegel, Ethan. The secret to writing your dissertation. Starts With a Bang Blog.
  3. University of Leicester Student Learning Development. Writing a dissertation.
  4. Wolfe, Joe. How to write a PhD thesis.
  5. Grammar girl’s quick and dirty tips.

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