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I have no idea how to start writing my dissertation.
January 3, 2013 8:51 AM   Subscribe

I don't know how to write my dissertation.

I am a humanities graduate student (working on a topic for which primary sources are mostly abroad) and have passed my exams, had my dissertation topic approved, and applied for some travel fellowships to do research next year. Almost a year has passed since my topic was approved and I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing now. I'm starting to get pretty depressed and am losing motivation to continue.

I did reading in the course of preparing for my exams and topic submission, but I still don't feel like it's enough (but acknowledge that maybe I never will). I talked to my advisor about my confusion and s/he encouraged me to just start writing. I've tried this, and it's only made me feel more overwhelmed and confused. I also haven't been able to travel for primary research much yet, and so I feel like what I'm writing is sort of pointless and based only on secondary sources.

I have always been a hard worker (or at least I assume so because I've made it this far), but I've reached a point where I have no idea where to direct my energy. I successfully completed a M.A. thesis and so I tend to think that once I get moving on my dissertation, I will be fine. For now, though, I am at an absolute, miserable loss as to how I can begin. With every day that passes without any tangible accomplishment, my anxiety level goes up a notch and I wonder more whether I'm just not cut out for academia.

My question is, for those of you who have completed a dissertation or similar, how do I get started on this thing?

I would also be interested in any strategies for breaking up the process of getting started into small, manageable tasks. While I was preparing for my exams, it worked really well for me to divide my reading list into daily assignments, etc. but the dissertation seems so much more nebulous that I haven't been able to figure out how to do this with it.

Thanks for any advice!
posted by anonymous to Education (19 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a writing center on your campus? They (or, say, your graduate student organization) may have workshops.

Do you have a counseling center on your campus? They are very familiar with this kind of anxiety. They may also have support groups available, if you're willing to consider that. It might be worth just going and listening to a couple sessions. But you may also benefit from going in and unburdening yourself to a confidential listener who doesn't have the power to direct your path (unlike your adviser).

There are TONS of books out there that can help you. I'm sure you've looked into at least some of them, and perhaps even own twelve, but this book is often recommended.
posted by Madamina at 8:56 AM on January 3, 2013

Break it into bites. So long as your adviser doesn't mind, start at the point in the diss that excites you the most, and work on compiling all sources that you can for that chapter. Read widely, note-take, and then outline the chapter. Draft the chapter as best you can without the primary sources, leaving clear gaps that that the primary sources will fill and knowing full well that your argument might change as you look at the sources. Repeat for each chapter. Along the way, plan and conduct trips to archives.

In terms of the day-to-day, use to-do lists: every single task needs to be listed. Don't leave your desk at the end of a work session without a clear to-do list for the next day. Tasks need to be really concrete. It's not useful to write, "research X topic." Instead write, "read prefaces to X book and X book and record notes."

Along the way, if ideas occur to you that are through-lines or main points that you'd want to make in your introduction, record those in a separate file. I use Evernote for my diss. Everything I read gets its own file, and every chapter is its own Notebook.

This is an adventure. A long, weird adventure. But it has its exciting side. Try to focus on immediate, quantifiable tasks at hand. It's scariest at the beginning, but it's yours to enjoy if you can. Good luck!
posted by cymru_j at 9:04 AM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Madmamina's suggestion is good; I've known students helped by the quirky but good book Clockwork Muse.

But you need more than a book at this point. Seconding the writing center, too, but I also think you should talk with your adviser--it can be very hard to show this vulnerability in some advisor relationships, but if you think yours is up to it, share this difficulty with them as frankly as possible. If your adviser is absolutely not approachable in this way, look to your peers, if they're accessible.

Whatever your advising situation, you could consider joining or trying to form a dissertation group, ideally with regular internal deadlines for sharing writing and discussing it. Doesn't work for everyone, but it can be great.

Finally, what cymru_i said: make it manageable; focus on the hugeness of it only to remind yourself what a badass you are, then go back to working on definable, do-able slices.

Good luck!
posted by Mngo at 9:11 AM on January 3, 2013

PhD student in the humanities here.

Start with these two goals:
1. Write your Literature Review Chapter
2. Create your dissertation Table of Contents

Your literature review chapter is going to consist of a lot of smaller steps. These include, but are not limited to (in a quasi-random order):
A) Figuring out which sub-areas, theories, models in your field that you want to focus on.
B) Gathering articles and books, reading abstracts (ONLY!), searching online for sources, people, background info
C) Developing a tracking system for all your references - this may require a lot of false starts and trial & error. I personally prefer to do everything online/on-the-computer and use Mendeley to track it all.
D) Reading articles and making notes (this also requires figuring out a system that is going to work for you...when to read, where to read, how to read, when to take notes, where to make notes, how to make notes, etc.)
E) Sketching ideas, outlining, writing - like the above, you will need time to develop a system and adjust it as necessary.

Once you write your literature review, everything else will be much clearer, I promise. And you will have done the hardest part (I think) of the whole dissertation. It will also guide you as to how you will approach your methodology (easiest chapter next, I think) and more generally your overall plan (how the whole thing will be grounded and where you want to really go with it). Then you follow your methodology, get your results, write them up, and write up the rest. Not that it's easy. Or that there aren't other approaches. This is just the one that's working for me.

As far as the practical, day-to-day stuff...start with any of A-E that appeals to you. You may find that you spend weeks plugging through that part, or you jump around. I did a little of both. When I was super excited/motivated, I could focus on the same task at any hour, for days on end. Other days, all I could be bothered to do was google for more sources and then tinker with filling in meta-data on Mendeley while I listened to podcasts, and taking breaks to do other things.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:12 AM on January 3, 2013 [9 favorites]

My question is, for those of you who have completed a dissertation or similar, how do I get started on this thing?

My entire grad school experience changed when I worked up the nerve to go to my supervisor and say "look, I'm really stuck here, can we work on a plan together with a timeline and some specific goals?" My only regret is that it took me so long to get to that point.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 9:24 AM on January 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

Grad students at my university are looking at starting up a Shut Up and Write group.

If you might do better in a group setting, try to find one near you?
posted by wenat at 9:34 AM on January 3, 2013

It sounds like either (a) your advisor is falling down on the job or (b) you're too scared or intimidated to ask him to do his job.

He can't write or plan your dissertation for you. But he should at least be willing to give advice more concrete than "Get to work!" That is his job as your advisor. That is what advisors do. And the only catch is that he probably won't do it until you ask, because he can't read your mind and isn't sure what you need.

But so if he isn't helping, and you aren't asking him for help, then that's the source of the problem right there.

Now, you might need to be more specific in terms of what you ask for him. For instance, you might But what if he says "no"? Or just takes your outline and promises to read it and then never does?

Well, first, odds are he won't. Most academics are too busy, many are oblivious to subtle hints, but few are actually going to refuse a reasonable request like this point-blank when it's coming from their own student. That would go beyond "busy" or "oblivious" and into "neglectful" or even "malicious," and few people will cross that line on purpose.

But, second, if he does, don't blame yourself. Do not do the Stockholm-syndrome abusive-relationship-victim thing and say "If he won't help me then clearly I don't deserve help." Recognize that you're up against an unusually difficult challenge, and that you deserve better than you're getting, and be gentle with yourself.

And then, last but not least, find someone else who can give you that sort of support. That might mean going to your campus writing center, though they're often clueless about research projects larger than a term paper; it might mean starting a support group with other students; it might mean turning to another faculty mentor or someone else on your committee if you can do that without ruffling anyone's feathers. Hell, doing stuff like that is a good idea even if your advisor is being helpful — but it's absolutely essential if he isn't.
posted by and so but then, we at 9:42 AM on January 3, 2013

I started by organizing my chapters and appendices in flowchart form. The TOC is by necessity linear, but my body of work didn't really feel linear; the flowchart allowed me to acknowledge that and figure out where various ideas needed to be introduced first. Then I wrote the TOC, a rough version of the easiest chapter (not the intro), and sent that all to my advisor ("Look, I am doing something!") just about 3 months before my defense. (Which was last month. I'm not in the humanities, though.)

When you start the intro/lit review, you should be at the point where you are mostly writing things like, "Blah blah blah [REF], blah blah [SPECIFIC NUMBER] [REF]...". Go as far as you can that way, and then start opening books to fill in the details. And yeah, you'll be reminded to add some subsections and figures, but you'll know what you want out of each source material and won't get lost in them.

Think about how your work/organizational habits during your PhD have made this difficult for you. Figure out how to prevent that during your next position: you'll never stop having to write things up (though they will mostly be in smaller chunks), but you won't get a free pass for a breakdown in the future.
posted by ecsh at 9:46 AM on January 3, 2013

The above advice is really useful. I would also recommend trying out the "Pomodoro" technique (Google it - there are lots of websites with info)...lots of grad students I know have used this and loved it. Even if you don't buy into the whole process, just working in short chunks where you tell yourself, no, I cannot check my email for 15 more minutes is actually super helpful.
posted by rainbowbrite at 9:50 AM on January 3, 2013

I haven't written a dissertation, but I have some writing experience (academic, professional, personal), have taken multiple writing courses, did NaNoWriMo, so hopefully I can offer a little help.

There are a lot of ways to divide up writing into pieces, and then divide those pieces into pieces, etc. One that works well for persuasive writing such as a thesis would be something like:

A) Claim you are trying to make.
B) Information that you have.
C) Reason why B supports A.

And then do it again with C as your new A, so that you go down to the most basic level of explanation. (There is a name for this but I don't have my notes from my writing class.)

What I usually do when writing a longer academic paper is a little less formal than that, but it does work for me. I write down a list of all of the points I want to make in my paper. Sometimes I can hierarchically group these, like:

This is my main point.
..A) This is one of the things that proves my main point.
....1) This is one of the things that proves a.

And so on. Sometimes it's just a flat list and I have to figure out how to organize it later. That's fine. Either way, under each point on the list, I group together all the evidence/data I have that back it up. Next to each bit of evidence, I quickly draft all of my thoughts on that bit of evidence. (This could literally just be copy/pasting your notes from your readings.) By that time I've already got the better part of a paper written. Don't aim for length, just aim for making sure all of your thoughts are on paper, made clear, and backed up by evidence.

Good luck!
posted by capricorn at 9:50 AM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just write something. It doesn't have to be good or even OK, you can rewrite and edit later. Once you get started you will find it less difficult than you think.

If you can get hold of other people's theses in the same field (in the UK these are usually available in the university library, I'm not sure if that's true elsewhere) and get a feel for the structure, then start out a very rough chapter outline for yourself.
posted by *becca* at 9:52 AM on January 3, 2013

By the way, I mention NaNoWriMo because just like with that particular 'churn out 50k words in 30 days' project, your job right now is to get all your thoughts on paper, not to write your magnum opus (that's what your advisor is for). Take *becca*'s advice to heart. Just write some words.
posted by capricorn at 9:58 AM on January 3, 2013

I just finished a draft of my dissertation proposal, and my advice to start writing as well, but with a specific output goal in mind every day. I started by writing 400 words a day and then worked my way up to 600 words. It was helpful because a) it forced me to think through problems and come up with some kind of solution, or at least a concise question that I could ask my adviser; and b) it gave me a stopping point every day that I could feel good about (which was super important). If you do the math, 600 words per day is around 15 pages per week, depending on how you format the pages. I'm not sure how your dissertation process is structured, but for me, that means that I finished my proposal within about a month (although finals and Christmas screwed up my schedule a bit).

The rules of writing words:

-if you don't write for whatever reason one day, your output goal does not accumulate for the next day. It's the same goal for every day. This is because you don't want to shoot yourself in the foot by setting unattainable goals.
-You can write more than your goal for the day if you want (often this happens), but this also doesn't count towards the next day's total
-if you can't find a good citation for what you want to say but know it exists, write (CITE) and come back to it later
-if you delete words from the previous day as you go, that doesn't count against your day's total.
-if you get stuck on a section and can't figure out how to move on, go write something else for a while, or write about why you're stuck.

Do you have questions or problems that you can't figure out yet? Write about them on paper and then write about how you're going to solve them (ask the adviser, ask someone else in the department, look at the existing literature on the issue). Do you need an outline for your proposal? The outline is made of words that count towards your daily total. Do you need to write notes about the literature? Those notes are made of words too, and will contribute to your overall review.

You will probably start really slowly and eventually discard a lot of what you write. That's okay, because half of 60 pages (one month's work) is 30 pages, which is still a sizable chunk of dissertation done.

Does your adviser have a student who has already completed the dissertation process? Get that person's dissertation and look at how it's structured (failing this, find some recent graduate from the department). It will help inform your own planning, and help you come up with ideas about how your own dissertation should look. Did someone else already do a dissertation in the same general area that you want to do yours in? Look at what they did and take notes on what would work for you and what wouldn't. This might help you come up with a more functional outline for your dissertation.

This long post is actually a bit disordered, because the process that I'd recommend is:

1) look at what other people already did for their dissertation
2) write a starting outline of yours (even though this will change, it's a useful exercise)
3) take the notes that you already have about research in this area and match them to your outline. Note where you're missing information, and read a certain limited number of articles or books in that area. Write notes about them.
4) write as much as you can in your outline according to your daily quota
5) clean that up and give it to your adviser, along with a list of questions about stuff that you couldn't figure out or aren't sure about.

Also, if you're planning to do data collection abroad, have your already figured out the methodology etc? If not, then consider the same 5-step process + daily quota of output to get that done.
posted by _cave at 10:09 AM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a PhD in a social science. I had a similar period of anxiety and doubt and depression. Two things helped me: first, I saw a psychologist who had a PhD herself and was experienced working with graduate students. I found her by getting recommendations from my school and insurance company, then by interviewing people that were recommended about working with grad students. Second, I followed the advice in Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen minutes a Day, by Joan Bolker, very carefully. A lot of her recommendations are consistent with the above -- but having a physical book I could refer to helped me a lot.
posted by OrangeDisk at 10:23 AM on January 3, 2013

You should be able to do two major sections before you get to the primary research: your lit review and your methodology sections (or analytic/theoretical approach section if you don't need a methodology section).

Nthing advice to talk to your adviser, in person if possible. If you aren't getting the support you need/want from your adviser (it does happen), go to someone else on the committee and ask them for strategies for approaching your work.

I found that my early dissertation work was full of fits and starts and dead ends and wrong turns, but it was work and it made me move forward. I finally had success starting with the methodology section. I was also in the humanities, so this wasn't a common feature in every dissertation in my field, but somewhere, somehow, you have to talk about the decisions you've made in designing your study (which you've done) and carrying it out (which you haven't completely done yet, but you already know something about how you'll do it). I started with that section because it was concrete and I was overwhelmed by the abstract at that time. It was much easier to write, "I decided to study X in Y way because Z" than it was to write other things. Even if your committee doesn't need this to be a large part of the diss itself, you will help yourself prepare for your oral defense early on by having a solid articulation for why you've approached your topic the way you have.

Then I did the lit review because it forced me to see the various academic conversations I wanted my work to be part of. I put up a big sheet of paper on the wall and started making a mind map of the different sub-fields that had influenced my work leading up to the dissertation. Then I spent about a month on each sub-field just reading and taking lots of notes on articles in just that little sub-field before writing the lit review for that little section. I worried about what order to put them in later. Working on that little sub-field for a month wasn't efficient, but your goal isn't to be efficient. Your goal is to be effective and finish that section, spend some time with the other lit-review sections, and end up with a complete lit review.

If you get those things done before you get into your primary research, you'll have a better idea of what you need to look for in that primary research + how what you find will fit into the existing literature + a much better idea of what research questions you're working with.

Many of my peers set daily word counts, which didn't work well for me since I was doing a lot of data analysis once my study was done. I switched methods frequently just to keep things interesting but found it best to work with a set writing schedule where anything advancing my writing counted as writing (transcribing interviews, annotating a recently published article, etc.) coupled with longer-term output goals (10 new pages by X date).

Take pleasure in small progress. There isn't a lot of outside affirmation during the dissertation writing process, so you need to learn to pat yourself on the back for every bit of progress, even if it looks tiny. If you worked for 15 minutes today but you hadn't worked on it at all during the past week? Pat on the back. If you wrote 100 words when you'd been struggling to get a sentence out? Pat on the back. Pretty soon, you'll get on a roll and set bigger goals and make better progress. Pat on the back. If you rely on external confirmation of your self-esteem/value as an academic, you'll have a lot of hard emotional work ahead of you because that external support isn't built in to the diss writing system unless you have an unusually nurturing chair. You may have to ask directly for a committee member's views of the strengths of your work if you need to have them confirmed because they'll be on the lookout for weaknesses instead. If you need that info, ask. If you need more emotional support, ask for it.

If you don't have local writing support, you could also look into joining Phinished, an online forum. Be careful of getting too involved, though, and letting complaining about work get in the way of actual work. I also liked How to Write a Lot, which isn't targeted specifically to dissertations but gives some tough love advice about how to write (basically, set a schedule, sit down, and start typing).

Good luck! This is a messy, messy process. The best advice I got early on was to let it be a mess--to forget about coherence and just dig in and get some things down on the page, even if they were just fragmentary ideas. You have time to force it into coherence later, but you can't do that if it's not on the page first.
posted by BlooPen at 10:31 AM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've got a few articles on my blog that treat this, the blog is at and you should be able to find them there but if not drop me a line. Hope no one sees this as vile and blatant self-promotion - I am not looking for more business but I work with students and wrote these to help them!
posted by LyzzyBee at 10:41 AM on January 3, 2013

In the beginning stages of my dissertation, what really helped me psychologically was this: I kept telling myself that I just need to write six papers (chapters). You're probably used to writing about three papers a semester anyway, so it's quite not so bad.
posted by jcatus at 10:48 AM on January 3, 2013

BlooPen wrote: "Then I did the lit review because it forced me to see the various academic conversations I wanted my work to be part of."

^This. Even if most of your sources aren't immediately accessible, you need to figure out who is in your audience and how you want to engage them. You also need to know what sources fellow scholars in your field have used, including any that you intend to examine; how they have read them; and what conclusions they have drawn. If someone has staked out a position that seems unconvincing or wrong, write a section that summarizes their arguments, sketches out your reasons for disagreeing, and describes what you would look for in your sources to test your interpretation.

You may find that a lot of what you write now doesn't end up in the final dissertation. That's OK. Part of the process of writing a dissertation, in the broadest sense, involves thinking through problems by writing about them. It's like scaffolding: After you've built a tall building, you can get rid of the scaffolding around it, but you couldn't have built the building without the scaffolding.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:53 AM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Start by writing. I'm absolutely serious and not trying to be clever. Ultimately, a dissertation is words on paper, and the only way to get them there is to develop good habits, but in the first instance: write. I'll back up the idea of getting a book like "How to write your dissertation in 15 minutes a day" but I think that the suggestion of visit to the campus writing center (if you have one) is even better. This kind of question is bread and butter to them.
posted by ob at 12:40 PM on January 3, 2013

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