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  • Destenie Nock

Overcoming Dissertation Writing Hurdles

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

If you are in a PhD then you have to overcome many hurdles. In my opinion, writing the actual dissertation is the biggest hurdle. For this article you should note that in my dissertation I used the Three Essays = Three Chapters Method.

January 11, 2019 by Destenie Nock


You are in the PhD and you have completed all of your coursework, the stress of your qualification exam is a distant memory, and you are about to or have finished your dissertation proposal. At this stage you are most likely a PhD Candidate and considered ABD or "All but Dissertation." First let me say congratulations on making it this far! You just have one major hurdle left and then you will have conquered this mountain we call the PhD.

If you haven't started writing your dissertation yet, but you have completed most of your research for the main chapters, my suggestion would be to start writing as soon as possible. If nothing else, at least write the methods section for each chapter.

I started writing my dissertation in my first year of the PhD. That’s right, I said “I started writing my dissertation in the first year of the PhD.” Why so early? It’s because the dissertation is what you need to graduate. It’s the thing people complain about most, so why not get a head start. In my first year, I started writing the introduction for chapter two which was a paper on electricity planning in New England. By writing the introduction and literature review, my adviser and I were able to narrow our focus. Then, as I was building the mathematical model, I started writing the methodology section. This meant when it came time to write my dissertation, I was copying and pasting as opposed to trying to go back, look at my python code, and hopefully remember what I did. So if you haven't started writing yet, do us both a favor and go start!

The hurdles that hold most PhD Candidates up are as follows:

  1. Lack of motivation to start/continue writing the dissertation

  2. Slowing editing turnaround time from advisers and co-authors

  3. The amount of edits you will have to make

  4. Murphy's Law - Something goes wrong because "anything that can go wrong will go wrong"

Number one - lack of motivation to start/continue writing - is the biggest hurdle because if you don't write anything, then your adviser cannot edit or approve anything. My method for overcoming hurdle number 1 was to create a writing schedule. In the summer after my second year of graduate school the commitment was 2 hours every Friday. At the end of my third year I increased the schedule to writing for 2 hours in the morning every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. I put the schedule on my google calendar and when someone tried to take away this time I often told them I was busy, and tried to find another time. If I absolutely had to meet with the person at one of my designated writing times I would reschedule my morning writing for Monday or Wednesday. The most important thing is to not skip writing. Carve out time for you to write, and protect that time. So many people have told me that "the best dissertation is a done dissertation." You can't graduate if it's not the sooner you get writing the better.

Start writing as soon as possible...carve out time for you to write, and protect that time.

There will also be days when you just don’t feel like writing. On those days I would hit the gym in the morning and tell myself that I needed to do at least 15 minutes of writing. Usually by the end of the 15 minutes I would have enough motivation to keep my laptop open and write for another hour or two. When you are losing motivation for writing follow Dory's advice from finding Nemo....just keep writing. Just keep writing. Writing, writing, writing, writing.

When the dissertation gets you down you know what you gotta do? Follow Dory's advice, and just keep writing.

The second hurdle - slow editing/turnaround times - is a little harder to manage because your adviser is a very busy person. My suggestion here is to give your adviser small chunks of your dissertation that will be easier to manage and hopefully lead to quicker turnaround times. For example, instead of giving them all of Chapter 2 to read and edit, ask them to edit the introduction for chapter 2 while you finish up the methods section. Once they have returned the introduction, or when you have finished the methods section, send them the methods and an updated introduction for Chapter 2 to edit. While they are working on Chapter 2 you can start working on the introduction and methods for Chapter 3. I have found that it is easier to ask someone to edit a 3 page document compared to a 25 page document. Keep in mind that this advice may not be universal and some advisers may prefer you to send all of a chapter before they edit. The important thing is to make sure that you are sending drafts of sections of your dissertation as early as possible.

Give your adviser small chunks of your dissertation that will be easier to manage and hopefully lead to quicker turnaround times.

Hurdle number 3 - the amount of edits you will have to make - highlights something that rings true for me and most of my colleagues in graduate school. You will have to make more edits than you think. No matter how many edits you think you will have to make, you will have to make more. Once my adviser told me she had a few edits and comments in the chapter/paper, and there were 42 comments. They were all very good suggestions, and pointed out holes in my research that really needed to be addressed, but it was still more than I expected. The number of edits is one of the reasons it is important to get feedback from your adviser and committee as soon as possible. My strategy for handling so many edits is addressing the easiest things the same day I get the chapter/paper back. Then I break the more difficult edits down into smaller tasks, and make a to-do list which normally goes as follows:

  • Address 3 edits in the introduction - look up papers on XYZ

  • Address 5 edits in methodology - verify equation 2, double check the computer code on calculation 5, etc

  • Address 6 edits in results section - redo all of the graphs, write a paragraph explaining each graph, explain strange thing that happened in Figure #7, etc

  • Address 2 edits in conclusion - make sure this section matches the new results section

Hurdle number 4 - Murphy's Law - is the unexpected, like your computer crashes for no apparent reason, the code won't compile, your family decides this is the best time to have a crisis, or the universe just seems to want to sabotage you at this very moment in time. If you are going through the worst the best thing to do is keep going anyway you can. Some of my biggest causes of stress happened in my last year. Here are just a few examples, and ways I have/am overcoming them:

  1. When my battery stopped charging, I backed up everything (i.e. all of my documents and computer code) to the cloud, and my external hard drive. This saved me when I found out my laptop was discontinued, I couldn't order any of the parts to fix it, and I needed to transfer everything to a new computer.

  2. When one of my family members was going through personal issues I made it so my writing time was earlier in the morning, and I shifted my schedule to allow for more time at home.

  3. In my last year there was an error with my paycheck. I had switched to a different scholarship and it took me 2 weeks, and five tear-filled, money stressed, conversations with my parents to realize that there was an error. It took a month to find the right person and convince them that I was supposed to make more than $12,000 for the entire year. It then took 2 more weeks to get the proper pay check. During this time I was worried about rent, food, and the heating bill. When one of my friends noticed I wasn't eating as much for lunch as I usually would he asked what was wrong, and I just broke down crying finally admitting to all of the stress I was having about money. He said come with me, and then we got on the bus and went to the food bank. We have gone every week for the entire year, and it was the best decision! Food stress....gone. Make sure in grad school you find a really good best friend or friends. There is nothing more valuable than a good support system. Also if you can, go to yoga. I have been going to a lot of yoga.

In the last year there are going to be many things that make you want to scream and pull out your hair. Can you imagine being one of the PhD students at Tulane University in Louisiana right before hurricane Katrina hit and wiped out grad school essentials like furniture, computers, laboratory equipment, and buildings? Not to mentioned the displaced advisers. In this dissertation writing phase there are many times when you feel like you are at the end of a rope and barely hanging on, just trying to make it to graduation. In the words of Franklin D Roosevelt, "When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on." Better yet, you could tie a knot, get a piece of wood, and make a rope swing.

I hope that by highlighting these hurdles it can help you on your path towards completing your PhD. Congratulations on making it this far, and good luck as you continue pressing forward! If you like this blog post please consider subscribing below so that you never miss an update.

Bonus resource: This blog titles "Thesis Help: 99+ Free Tools to Save Time" offers strategies and tools for saving time during graduate school. In the article, you can find an overview of more than 99 helpful resources for those who want to optimize the process of writing and finish their thesis faster.

When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on. - Franklin D. Roosevelt

Summary of the tips for Overcoming Dissertation Writing Hurdles:

  1. Start writing as soon as possible

  2. Make a realistic writing schedule and stick to it

  3. Follow Dory's advice: Just keep writing. Just keep writing. Writing, writing, writing, writing.

  4. Give your adviser chunks of your dissertation as early as possible

  5. There will be more edits than you think. Start early, and make a to-do list to break them down into smaller tasks

  6. Back-up your dissertation on the Cloud and on an external hard drive

  7. When things start to go wrong lean on your support group.

  8. If you are worried about food, look for a food bank in your local area. If you don't know where one is, you can use this search tool, or this one.

Note about the Author: Destenie Nock is a 4th-year PhD Candidate in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is currently in the editing phase of writing her dissertation, is planning to defend on March 18th, and will graduate in May. She has been in the job market since Fall of 2018, and has written the majority of her Chapter 3 on airplanes as she is traveling to interviews and conferences. She apologizes to all of the people on the plane who got trapped in conversations when she was so fed up with her dissertation that she was trying to find any excuse not to write. In her free time she likes to play tennis, cook with friends, paint, and make to-do lists.

#STEMPhD #PhDingIt #GradSchool #MinorityPhD #PhDLife #PhD #phdchat #phdadvice #phdforum

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