The Key to Fast-Tracking Your Dissertation

As doctoral students, we live for our dissertations. That is, anything we can do to ensure that our research is successful, we do it. This may include doing research or teaching grunt work in exchange for data or letters of support, living on an income that is below a living wage, and/or setting up systems in our workspaces to heighten focus and ensure personal success.

Because we have had varying success with a number of methods, we’ve decided to come together with the greatest advice we could muster for fast-tracking the dissertation (writing) portion of the doctoral degree. Check it out:

Get clear on your goals, then get clear again. Did you begin the Ph.D. with a goal of pure research, teaching in higher education, practice or some alternative? How did you imagine using your degree? Does that path still ring true to your spirit today? Be clear on how you want to use your final degree at each step of the process, as your final actions will heavily direct how you spend your time as a student.

Go Visual. There are a few ways to set up visual reminders to keep you moving forward. First, you can establish a vision board of what you’re seeking to do, and how it will shift things. Make this visual reminder visible in your workspace, and look at it often. You can also schedule visually– writing down each task of your project in color-coded blocks or oblong disks (whatever makes you feel best), or use a more traditional method such as a Gantt Chart to assist you. And finally, make sure you have your detailed plan with you as you move from place to place. Write reminders in your planner in the same color-coded method you used for your visual schedule in your office.

Pick a committee of cheerleaders. Don’t underestimate the power of having a committee of people who believe in you, regardless of their own topics of interest. They influence your process and their positivity is infectious when you need it most.

Remember why you chose it.  Sometimes, it takes constant and consistent reminders to keep us motivated through tough projects. Considering the duration of a dissertation, why not preemptively assist yourself in your process and drive change through regular reminders of your why? That is, why is your topic important both to you and to your field, and how do you want to use the knowledge you’re seeking to create to shape the world? Sometimes keeping the juices flowing really is as simple offering yourself reminders.

Know yourself. This part is critical. Take a moment of observation before you dive in and get to know the time (of the day) you’re most productive. You can build your own schedule around your work habits. When do you focus best and when are you most distracted? Under what conditions do you work best? When and how do you achieve the greatest clarity? I tend to work best in the morning and can maintain focus over long periods. It’s best for me, however, to break up my strong points of concentration with regular breaks, so I write on a 40-20 cycle: 40 minutes of targeted writing, with specific goals for each time block, broken with 20 minutes of procrastination, talking, coffee and bathroom breaks (or otherwise, life).

Put your needs first. Before you begin to insert your writing into your schedule, make sure you’ve prioritized what you need for yourself and written in time for the things that keep you going. What space do you need to be your best self? Do you need to write in you self-care?

Schedule your time in as much detail as you can. Writing, research, breaks– write it all down to the 15 minutes and stick to it. Consider a rotating schedule (ie work for 40 minutes, take 20 minutes off) and block out your day so that you can stick to that in a target number of rotations.

Set daily goals and strategic targets. How many words do you want to draft in each session? What is your editorial schedule? Do you want to edit today, or do your data? What are your daily research goals? When do you want to finish each section?

Hold yourself accountable. If you find that difficult to do, get an accountability buddy– someone you can tell your milestones to that will check in with you on whether you achieved them in your target time or not. This person will be honest and fair, and finally, they will be sure to give you a tough time when you slack off to watch TV instead.


What are your secrets to fast-tracking your writing process?

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