Pitfalls to Avoid When Writing Your Dissertation

Dr. John Ke Says: Procrastination

I found that procrastination was probably the greatest pitfall in my efforts to complete my dissertation. All of my past projects had been created on strict deadlines of one sort or another. I could procrastinate for a while, but eventually the deadline would begin to approach, and I would be able to buckle down and push through the procrastination and writer’s block to finish whatever the assignment was.

I was always very good at finishing work when I had short, clear deadlines.
With my dissertation, for the first time, there was no clear deadline, just a massive project stretching out interminably before me, with no clear end date.

While some of my friends had hands-on advisors who kept on top of them and made sure they were making progress, my advisor generally assumed that his students would figure things out on their own.

At first, this was pretty hard for me to manage. I procrastinated endlessly, because there seemed to be no consequences to it; why work today when I could put it off until tomorrow with no consequences? Whole days, even weeks, would go by when I was theoretically working on my dissertation, but had, in fact, accomplished nothing of note.

I could be productive when I actually went to the archives to transcribe my primary source materials, but otherwise my project moved incredibly slowly.

Eventually, I realized that this vicious cycle of procrastination would have to end. I would have to set deadlines for myself, make sure to do at least several hours of real work every day, and keep a tight leash on my tendency to use internet surfing as a way to avoid writing.

I found that doing my work in a public location (I went to the school library, but I’m sure other places would work just as well) helped me remain focused. Being somewhere where other people could see me, and thus, perhaps, know whether I was actually working or goofing off, somehow kept me honest. It also helped to firmly distinguish “working time” from “leisure time.”

I could still watch TV or movies, or surf the internet, or hang out with friends. I just couldn’t do it in time I had set aside for working.

Once I got a handle on my procrastination, I was able to make an enormous amount of progress on my dissertation in a very short time.

Getting control of my habits and establishing better working habits was almost certainly the main key to my ability to finish the project and earn my PhD.
Dr. William Says: The #1 pitfall is worrying over details that aren’t crucial to your research and writing.
• The things people worry about tend to make the perception of a problem grow much larger than the actual problem.
• Deal with issues that need to be dealt with by tackling areas of conflict, asking questions of your professors, and getting some help from reliable experts. For example, hundreds of grad students every year who know they have issues with proper grammar, sentence structure, and style errors run their dissertations by an editing service for this peace of mind.
• It is okay to bracket parts of your research to deal with later. You will want to save something for your follow up research.

Dr. Dan Says: Put down the books.

Seriously. I’ve seen many PhD candidates fall into the habit of putting off the actual writing because there’s just one more book to read, one more study to follow through on, and then one’s view of the field will be complete and the dissertation will satisfy everyone.

This, though, can cause the writing of the dissertation to be continually put off, often because there’s a real hesitation at putting down the thoughts into words. You can always erase later, but get into the habit of writing a few pages a day.

Another suggestion regards the committee: be very careful for personality conflicts can make dissertation committees a nightmare.
• It may seem a bit mercenary, but remember “the path of least resistance” when forming the committee in your mind: you want to get the dissertation finished and receive your degree.
• Listen to the gossip: do faculty have an active dislike for each other?
• Do the relative research interests of the scholars complement each other or might they lead to philosophical conflicts?
Dr. Rachel Says: Just Begin!

So, you’ve passed your qualifying exams and submitted a dissertation proposal. That proposal’s been accepted. Hurray! Now all you have to do is sit down and write a full-length book of original and exquisite scholarship. From scratch. No problem, right?

One of the biggest problems grad students face when they begin the dissertation-writing process is that they just don’t know how to begin. For most of the first few years of grad school, you’ve been writing short and intriguing papers (maybe 25 pages tops), and accomplishing intense but finite tasks, like MA exams. As a grad, you’re used to working really hard for short bursts of time. You’re also used to creating work according to limits and structures set up by other people, like time frames and due dates. Now, when you start the dissertation you’re suddenly all on your own, facing what seems like an enormous and insurmountable task.

Face it, a dissertation is a huge project, so huge that it can be almost paralyzing. It sounds overpowering. The idea of even starting a dissertation give you the worst case of writer’s block you’ve ever had. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way: here are some suggestions to combat the paralyzing element of a giant project.

First, don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture. If you keep worrying about how you’re going to finish, you’ll never be able to start. Stop thinking about the dissertation as a cohesive whole all the time. Sure, all the parts have to fit together and continue an overall argument. But when you’re working, you can’t keep deferring to the finished product. So, break the dissertation into small, doable chunks that you can tackle one at a time. These chunks could be chapters or even sections of chapters. Find the unit of writing you’re most comfortable with, and work around that. Before you know it, the writing will start piling up, and you’ll be making progress.

Second, make your own due dates for these writing chunks. The dissertation usually has a single, unknown due date. The project’s not done until it’s all done. Without setting up some due dates along the way, it’s easy to fall behind or stop writing all together. Find a way to hold yourself responsible for a writing schedule, whether it’s by giving yourself periodic due dates or telling your advisors when you plan to turn chapters in. Then, stick to your schedule. Think of your own self-assigned due dates as every bit as important as the paper deadlines or exam requirements you fulfilled a few years ago.

Finally, know when to stop working. There’s always going to be more research you could do, more revising you could push through, and more changes you could incorporate. If you work too hard for too long, though, you’ll burn out and you might not have enough energy to come back the next time. Pace yourself. Limit the amount of writing you do each day, or take short breaks between big sections. Let your mind rest sometimes so that you can tackle this big project, and tackle it well.
–by the Staff of Edit911, Inc. & Baldwin Book Publishing

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