By Michael Premo, Writing Coach

Your dissertation is the longest and most in depth work you’ll ever perform in your academic career and that can be a bit overwhelming. 

Writing a dissertation is a lot like writing a book. Both are long, self-directed projects that require years to complete. As a writing coach, I’ve helped hundreds of doctoral candidates get started on a path toward completion. The difference with this checklist that I’m about to share is real-world experience. The writing centers can’t help you save time and energy. They may even do more harm than good, so be careful when reading other blogs or visiting your school’s writing lab. Be a little skeptical, especially when given ambiguous information.

Working-Full Time and Trying to Write

Let’s face it, any checklist for this process has to take into account that you are working to feed, clothe, and shelter your family. And, the longer it takes to write your dissertation, the more money you lose in tuition and fees.

This checklist is about saving you time and energy. This checklist is also for anyone that’s stuck or failing to show any progress, because you may have one or more of these things that are incomplete. Just take a look and start checking them off as you go.

  • ☐ Office: You will be writing for years, so make sure you have an office (space) where that can happen. I have a small corner with a desk, filing cabinet, bookshelves, etc. You get the point. Don’t make your kitchen table your office, or sit in front of the TV. Create a productive space and make it yours.
  • ☐ Technology: I suggest working on a desktop PC with Windows 10 and the latest version of Microsoft Office. Apple products do not play well with Office. There are a lot of imprort and export issues, and formatting problems that may affect your progress. Use two (2) desktop monitors and an ergonomic keyboard. Already have this stuff? Great! Laptops make it difficult to switch between applications and screens. Get another monitor if you have a laptop. For research software, I use Mendeley. It’s free and does everything you need and then some. The goal here is to not over complicate your process.
  • ☐ Prioritize: Time management is really big. This has to be a priority and one that’s done almost every day. Put it in your schedule and treat it like a job. You also need to learn to say “No” to others but in a nice way. Your research is a priority, though probably not the most important thing in your life, but a very significant one.
  • ☐ Dissertation Requirements: Plan a meeting with your department’s graduate secretary or Director of Graduate Studies (DGS). Also, dissertation requirements are often listed in detail online. They are usually accompanied by templates and other resources. These guidelines spell out expectations and repercussions. They also explain how to the school handles grievances. From these requirements, you can make a list of milestones, then attach dates to those, just remember to be realistic.
  • ☐ Advisor: Prior to any writing, you’ll need to sit down with your advisor and discover their expectations. How often do they answer email? Are they open to scheduled phone calls? Deadlines? The advisor also approves your topic, so you should get the go ahead from them—in writing—prior to writing. They’ll help you refine the topic to find the right variables for pertinent and timely research.
  • ☐ Topic: Choose a topic. Refine it. Then stick with it. A broad topic has too many variables to take into account when writing your research questions. Narrow the focus and stick to the most important and timely issues. Maintain your focus or else you’ll go down the wrong path. Any changes will confuse your advisor and committee.
  • ☐ Committee: Gather your members as soon as you’re able. Don’t wait until you’re done with a chapter or two. It will take a lot of time just to get them on board and then give feedback and approvals.
  • ☐ Support: Friends and family have to understand that you are working toward a life-changing goal. They need to offer support in a multitude of ways or else you’ll become exhausted or sick. Sit down with them early to talk about the issues ahead. You’ll know when your dissertation will be more difficult, requiring more of your attention, not necessarily time. Sit down with them about every three months to check in and make sure everyone’s needs are being met.
  • ☐ Professional Help: You may not be aware of it, but you can actually save money by hiring a writing coach. They will help you graduate on time. I’ve helped many people graduate months, even years before they thought they could. Don’t underestimate yourself and their help. If you are not APA proficient, hire an APA editor. Your advisors don’t have the time to teach you how to write and will send back version after version if it’s not formatted properly.
  • ☐ Researching the Literature: Beware of rabbit holes. Research is one of the things that got you interested in getting an advanced degree. Stay focused on your variables. Keep only the articles that matter in a research folder that’s kept in the cloud (along with your dissertation). If you find something interesting, but off topic, then save it in a file “To Read Later.” Don’t read it now or else you’ll lose more time. If certain keywords don’t work for search parameters, look into the research and find the ones that do. You may be using unscientific words. Sixty articles should give you an excellent start. By the end, you will have many more.
  • ☐ Annotate: It takes about fifteen minutes to write a good annotation (don’t copy the abstract) that contains three or four paragraphs. For seminal work on your topic, write a page or two describing the problem, purpose, and significance of the outcomes. Each annotation will be used in one or more of your chapters.
  • ☐ When You Don’t Want to Write: There are so many other things you need to do to finish your dissertation. Send emails. Gather participants. Do some research. Clean your office and get organized. Format your document. Edit recent pages. You don’t have to write every day, so don’t get down on yourself when you don’t.
  • ☐ Exercise / Sleep / Self-Care: You can’t write if you are sick. Anxiety and stress will also slow your pace to a crawl. Exercise will reduce them. Getting regular, consistent amounts of sleep will keep you healthy and sharp. You don’t want to spend days writing and find out it’s all off topic and has to go away. Both of these are research based concepts that should matter to you. I can’t stress enough how important self-care is. So many people fail to take care of themselves during this time and wind up falling behind.
  • ☐ Feedback: Don’t take feedback personally. When you do, you’ll set up an obstacle that is nearly impossible to overcome. Why? Because your advisor is in a position of power. They also have years of experience and wrote a dissertation, as well as advised many other candidates on theirs. Though their ego may get misplaced at times and used in the wrong way, try to ignore it. You need to stick to addressing their comments and ask for clarity. Always ask for clarity if you are confused. Don’t just guess. Send them an email and learn what they mean. Remember, they can make mistakes or let their egos get in the way, but that shouldn’t stop you from reaching your goal.

Not Comprehensive, But Close

This list is not comprehensive, but it’s close to what you should expect when writing your dissertation. Though it’s not comprehensive, this checklist gives some great pointers on how you can save time and energy toward completion of your dissertation.

I don’t want to cover the actual process of research and analysis. This is something you’ll need to work closely with your advisor and follow IRB guidelines. Everyone has different expectations when it comes to gathering data, so be aware of that and be flexible with your plans.

If you’d like to learn more about this checklist or other issue related to your dissertation, I’d like to know more and see if I can help. Simply fill out the form below. You won’t end up on a mailing list, because your privacy is important to me, too.