Eight Months To A Dissertation
April 2, 2011 9:05 PM   Subscribe

I have eight months to write my social science PhD dissertation. How can I improve my chances of finishing?

I have been at my program for five years. Now my SO is getting a job in another city and I am scrambling to finish as fast as possible. The earliest realistic submission deadline (set by the school) is December 1st. However, the thought of writing an entire dissertation before then is, for lack of a better word, daunting.

What can I do to keep myself writing and maximize my chances of finishing before the deadline?
posted by Spurious to Work & Money (12 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
How much of the dissertation have you done already? Have you done all the research? Have you drafted any part of it? Where are you starting from?
posted by Orinda at 9:28 PM on April 2, 2011

ok, something not similar, but similarly deadline inducing happened to me with my thesis, and the great advice I got on it was this:

1) Set aside some time EVERY day to write, no matter what else is going on, don't let a day go by that you aren't doing work towards finishing.

2) Don't look at it as "OMG THIS FUCKING BOOK I HAVE TO WRITE!" Break it down into parts that are manageable.

3) Help yourself by not putting off parts that are gonna be a pain later - make sure your references section is building itself as you go.

4) Map it out - Spend some early time breaking down WHAT you need to write (helps with #2), and plan when you need to write it. Make a calendar, get email alerts sent to yourself, whatever needs to happen to keep you on task.

5) Become extremely boring* - don't let the stress of how huge a thing it seems to be lure you into all night rockband sessions (my personal weakness)

6) *Don't become so focused that you burn out. When you're stuck, a little time off and just thinking about something else will help you get back to it.

7) Get good support. You can write faster than you think you're able to, but you can't write faster than you think, and cook, and shop, and do dishes, and keep up with social obligations, and take classes, and and and and.

8) Focus on the after. It's stressful and hell and omg how can you do it, but time exists and you will finish it, and move delightfully on.
posted by nile_red at 9:29 PM on April 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

There are two kinds of dissertations: crappy dissertations, and unfinished dissertations.

The book How to Write Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day is not as silly as it sounds, and can jump start your writing.

PhinisheD is invaluable.

Make sure you have a good relationship with your advisor. I didn't, and festered for a few years (while teaching and working) until that person left for another job, then I finished in six months.

There will come a day when you will look back at a passage in your diss, perhaps as the accidental byproduct of searching your hard drive for something else, and you will be amazed at how smart you were.
posted by mecran01 at 9:37 PM on April 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

Send regular updates to your advisor. Once a week or once every two weeks is good. And by regular updates, I mean completed sections. Having someone in authority expecting things from you is a great motivator. This will also shorten revision time, to make sure that your dissertation is defense ready within a couple of weeks of your finishing the draft.
posted by yeolcoatl at 9:37 PM on April 2, 2011

Spend some time figure out the work schedule that suits you best. I have one friend doing research who found that she could study for about 5-6 hours a day provided that she took 15 minutes off (completely off - walking away from the desk and computer and doing something else) for every 45 minutes of work, plus 30 - 60 minutes for lunch. Daily exercise was a necessity as was no work at all on the weekend. Anyway, YMMV, but having a daily schedule that helps you be focused when you are working is very important.
posted by metahawk at 9:46 PM on April 2, 2011

It is a huge efficiency-boost to meld your work schedule to your natural alert times - whether those be early morning or late at night. Most of us have a few hours each day that are natural jello-brain times, and if you can arrange those as rejuvination time there's so much less friction in your productivity time. It makes a long project much easier to tackle.

@metahawk: Did the 5-6 hours per day include walks and lunch breaks? It would be incredible to complete a dissertation, or survive any academic or industry career, working less than 25 hours a week. Especially if you have to teach or support yourself financially in some other way.
posted by SakuraK at 11:45 PM on April 2, 2011

45 minutes on, 15 minutes off. Religiously. During those 45 minutes, don't check email, facebook, that random cite you *need* on the internet, your phone, your washing, etc. I used Freedom to turn the internet right off. Anything I needed to (legitimately) look up went on a list, a big fluourescent placeholder went in my document, and I went and found it later.

Plan anything that could be a potential distraction in advance. For me, this meant that on Sunday I'd plan meals for the week, when I was going to wash my clothes, any fun stuff that I wanted to do, as well as exercise for the week. I found that almost all of my willpower and concentration went towards the dissertation - setting aside to plan these things in advance once/week helped a lot.

Remind yourself continually that the diss only needs to be good enough to *pass*. Do not get wound up in perfecting each tiny piece of prose - this wastes time and is unnecessary. The diss is not a book nor a magnum opus. It just needs to pass. (I was in the UK so told myself that instead of agonising over minor points, it'd be fine to wait for the examiners to specify the corrections needed).

Also - 7/8 months is actually a *lot* of time! Set reasonable (but slightly aggressive) deadlines for chapters/sections and get cracking. You'll be just fine.
posted by lumiere at 2:24 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not to piss on your parade, since the advice above definitely makes sense, but a lot of what happens (or doesn't) the next 8 months depends less on you than your advisor and, more importantly, your committee of readers. Certainly, finishing will be your own priority #1 during these coming months, and conceivably it could be your advisor's as well, if you've had a strong working relationship thus far, if she/he is a reasonably decent, humane, and empathic sort of person, and if she/he more or less has her/his own shit together professionally; that is, doesn't have any pressing sorts of projects/deadlines that she/he will be freaking out over her/himself in the interim (perhaps a stretch, depending on your program but not impossible).

Then, it gets really tricky, because to actually finish officially in the next 8 months means multiplying everything above according to the number of dissertation readers required by your program. If your program's at least somewhat sensible on this front, we're only talking 3 other members besides your advisor (2 would be ideal but not likely), without any requirement for an "outside" reader beyond your own program (or even worse, from another campus). As you can tell, the problem arises around priorities, as in you have 'em but further up the network, it'll get sketchy: a) you'll need to follow all the advice above religiously (and hope life - yours and/or your spouse's/family's - doesn't intervene too much to screw things up), b) your advisor need to make this a major priority amidst the assorted chaos she/he'll face professionally, and c) these other 2-4 wing-dings need to fall in line (or at least remember occasionally that they signed on to the process).

Thus, I'd start tracking them down (as in tomorrow) and make your plan known as emphatically as these relationships allow. Then, you and your advisor need to agree upon a coordinated plan to keep this herd of cats in the loop with your developing project, as in the sorts of weekly/bi-weekly meetings/updates suggested above. The big challenge with this part of the project is that you can only do so much, given your non-faculty status. It really comes to down to having an advisor who, ideally, is a) established/tenured, b) reasonably well-liked/respected by colleagues, c) has a reputation generally for getting shit done, and d) has some chips to call in from the other members of the committee based on previous assistance she/he offered around their own professional crises, etc. None of this is impossible per se, but you need to consider who you're dealing with as well as what you'll need to do.

Oh, and if you're feeling completely freaked out at this point, do take heart: I actually finished mine under an equally brutal schedule and amidst all the above shit (although I got really lucky with several factors I mentioned). Needless to say, no one was thrilled, I pissed off a few folks, and I'm still recovering to this day but, yeah, it can be done, if you're proactive about the stuff you're directly responsible for (writing, revising, meeting deadlines, etc.) as well as for what everyone else in the process needs to do but won't make the same level of priority that you will.

FWIW, all the luck and best wishes, from one who's been there.... ;-)
posted by 5Q7 at 2:45 AM on April 3, 2011

Why can't you continue writing when you move? Plenty of people who are ABD relocate or even take faculty positions while writing their dissertations.
posted by vitabellosi at 4:55 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

To add to Orinda's list of "previously"s: The best kind of PhD is a finished one.
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:18 AM on April 3, 2011

I submitted my diss to my committee yesterday. (Woo!)

I cannot recommend highly enough to not try to write when you have a fulltime job. It was close to impossible and really hurt my quality of life and health trying to do both.

However, I'm not sure that I understand why you need to finish so quickly. (Although looking at your old posting, no offense, but it seems that you have a problem finishing this PhD, as you've stated that you're "close" to finishing for a few years now.)

Is it that you live off your TA stipend and can't do that after you move? What about (gasp), living on loans for a few months while you finish?

Are you planning on trying to get an academic job in the new city? (Looking at your old postings it appears that you're going to try to get a non-academic job.)
posted by k8t at 8:44 AM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

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