How to plan a daily schedule for a dissertation?
May 21, 2007 3:44 AM   Subscribe

I need a daily work schedule to get me through a PhD. I am really bad at managing large amounts of unstructured time. I'm trying to draw up a daily schedule which factors in all the different things I need to do - writing, reading, library, sorting out notes etc. It should be easy, but I'm struggling - any tips, examples?
posted by janecr to Education (23 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
I find that establishing a sleeping schedule is the place to start. It doesn't matter too much which time you allocate, just that you insist on sticking to it. That prevents many of the organizational problems that I have during unstructured periods of life.

At least, it does for as long as I can maintain it.
posted by sindark at 3:49 AM on May 21, 2007

I'm just finishing up my dissertation (after 3.5 years..). Here some tips I'd give:

Figure out what part of the day is good for writing for you. I'm a morning person. Schedule writing & intensive work for that time. Save mindless stuff for later. Arrange work for the 'right' time of the day. You'll be more productive with the same amount of time.

Use some kind of tool (I used Basecamp and MS Project) to create long-term goals. Break those down to middle & short term objectives. See where the overlap is. See what you have to do for each objective. You should have a number of objectives you can work on at any one time. So if you are stuck writing, or are sick or whatever, you can immediately move to another task, and not waste time. Or, if you are waiting on something (committee feedback or whatever), you can use you time doing something else.

I electronically archived every document I came across. I standardized on Acrobat. I have Acrobat Pro. I also use Endnote. I link my Endnote library to acrobat files. I copy all my abstract notes to Endnote. That way I have a custom library of 900 documents in Endnote that I can cross reference and insert into Word. I also use Mindmapping to map my writing and organized my documents. I can map 40-50 docs with abstract efficiently.

Finally, start thinking about your committee. Start drawing up a list if possible. Start writing drafts of letters. Don't wait until you're ready to find a committee. Start building contacts. Find out who is in the field.
posted by rryan at 4:05 AM on May 21, 2007 [3 favorites]

Try outlining what you need to do the next day at the end of your day -- you're more likely to be honest, since you have to do it tomorrow.

Also, I agree with sindark. Try regular working hours. Come in at 8 or 9 AM. It's very tempting to stay up really late, and come in at 11AM or 1 PM, but if you come in too late in the morning, your morning's basically shot. Come in too late in the afternoon, and it kind of snowballs, because then you have to work later at night, and then you stay up later at night, which leads you to coming in later, which leads to ...
posted by Comrade_robot at 4:09 AM on May 21, 2007

I agree with Sindark - sleeping schedule is the key. Going to bed on time ensures that you've got enough sleep. Waking up at a set time, and giving yourself a deadline to start work, ensures that each day -begins- productively. If you can do a very early schedule, you can trick yourself into feeling very good about what you've done ("look! It's only 9am but I've already been at work, look how much I've accomplished! Woo-eee!")

My biggest problem is the time I lose to internet surfing and other procrastination (hello, MetaFilter!) The times when I've been really productive have been the weeks where I make a simple rule: "no internet from 7am to noon." I enforce it by quitting the web browser, and relegating all work-related internet stuff to the afternoon.

Another way I add artificial structure to my schedule is by having regular meetings, talks or classes to go to. I seek them out just for this purpose - they ensure that I get out of the house; they keep a day that might have been wasted (if I'm being unproductive) from being entirely fruitless; they get me physically in to my office where I can bump into people.

Oh! And schedule regular meetings with your advisor, ahead of time, as often as he/she will let you. (Can you get away with weekly?) It's amazing what the presence of an eminent advisor meeting will do to clear your mind and get you working. As an added bonus, the advisor can help you figure out just -what- you should be doing. Regular meetings will also keep you from slinking into that dreaded space where you feel like you are making no progress, and are therefore too ashamed to talk to anybody, and therefore don't get you the help you need to jump-start yourself.

(Boy, grad school sure sounds fun, doesn't it?)

And now, off to quit my browser and get to work!
posted by wyzewoman at 4:11 AM on May 21, 2007 - ignore the cutsey-poo nature of the site and focus on the substance, which is excellent. She's gotten me through a lot of huge projects.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:12 AM on May 21, 2007 [3 favorites]

It's not easy, and your stuggles are quite normal. I currently advise around 15 dissertations, so let me give you the two aphorisms I tell all my students:

a) there are two kinds of dissertations: perfect ones and done ones
b) all dissertations are written in 6 months; the only question is which 6 months.

The trick is to convert the fear/anxiety response into productive energy. Write every single day. Write descriptive, narrative sections when you're out of theoretical ideas. Don't kill yourself. Take breaks. Share your work with a fellow writing friend.

I highly recommend Howard Becker's *Writing for Social Scientists* if writer's "block" is a problem for you.
posted by spitbull at 5:52 AM on May 21, 2007 [5 favorites]

My sister, officially a doctor for about a year now, gives a copy of Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis to her friends as they finish their comps. It really helped her.
posted by Sara Anne at 6:24 AM on May 21, 2007

another grad student here. I follow advice from Merlin Mann ( Most importantly, what rryan said. Find times that you are most productive and guard that time. Go to a coffee shop if your office is distracting. Work better from home? Then stay home during that time.

I use the GTD method from David Allen (read his book, Getting things done) to plan my schedule.

Seconding Endnote to keep track of papers and notes. I also highlight on PDFs rather than paper copies (because I eventually lose them).

Download OneNote (I think there's a trial version). I use it extensively to track ideas and pull stuff off the web/pdfs as place holders. It captures faster than any program I know and you can move bits of text around quite easily.
posted by special-k at 6:55 AM on May 21, 2007

I second Sara Anne's comment - that's a great getting-motivated book. Won't help with scheduling but it's good for breaking the feeling of 'writer's block' and whatnot.

Do forms help? i.e. Schedules and schematics? If so the Printable Ceo series is a beautiful bit of paper design, free of charge, and might have a helpful time-tracking or planning form for your needs. This one - time-boxing, time-tracking, notes, etc. - might be a good start. YMMV of course.

I also second the above comments about a sleep schedule. Let yourself get plenty of sleep, make sure to exercise for God's sake, and make sure that your social time is actually social; the temptation among grad students to let their work spill into all available time is damaging to minds and souls. Schedule some socializing in advance! It provides a built-in motivational structure for your week and keeps work-runoff to a manageable level.
posted by waxbanks at 7:15 AM on May 21, 2007

All the dissertation writes in my grad program do the 8-5 thing. Seems to work well for them.
posted by k8t at 7:24 AM on May 21, 2007

Oh, and if you happen to married/have a SO/and or have kids- make sure you allocate time to them. Sounds corny, but I had a habit of 'working' on my dissertation when I was with my wife and kids.

Made me feel guilty and didn't do a whole hell of a lot of good for my relationships.

Oh, and don't drink and write. Makes for crappy copy and generally some WTF?! questions from you committee members...
posted by rryan at 7:27 AM on May 21, 2007

Another vote for GTD/David Allen (amazon link)
posted by winston at 7:45 AM on May 21, 2007

Seriously rryan? A good post-doc friend would always say "write drunk, edit sober". I follow that advice a lot and i'm making fairly good progress.

me + scotch + quiet office = lots of writing.

I should add that I am a functional alcoholic of sorts (aren't most grad students?)
posted by special-k at 7:48 AM on May 21, 2007

special-k: No.
posted by waxbanks at 7:51 AM on May 21, 2007

I like Mary McKinney's tips
posted by Eringatang at 7:57 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

There's basically only one piece of advice that helps, and that is: Write something every day. (Now you don't need to buy the Fifteen Minutes a Day book, because this is almost all it tells you.)

I don't think it matters so much exactly when you write – different people work differently, so you just need to find a regular time that works for you. And you don't need to write a lot every day, though you should always be ready to write a lot if things start coming together, rather than lowering your expectations if you get blocked.

One trap that hasn't been addressed yet in all this interestingly various advice is the difficulty of combining research time with writing time. There's a great temptation to say "today is a library day" and substitute time reading in the stacks for the day's writing time. Don't do this. Even if you just make notes on the day's reading, sit down to write something that day.

(All this should be filed under "do as I say, not as I do," but it's still good advice, I think.)
posted by RogerB at 8:05 AM on May 21, 2007

do as I say, not as I do

Alas, RogerB has it. For all the good advice out there, and all the common sense in this thread, no two writers are the same, all of us are human, and the task is designed to entail a high risk of failure. The most important thing you can do is analyze your own process, come to terms with it, learn your own distractions and best incentives, forgive yourself when you fuck up (or the anxiety kills you going forward), and then, in a manic series of all nighters spread over a couple of months, write a damn dissertation A few people are naturally systematic and organized. Some learn to be. Others do what needs to be done when it has to be done.
posted by spitbull at 8:09 AM on May 21, 2007

Some of the advice that I got that helped me:

You're only productive (e.g. writing good stuff) at most 6 hours a day. I was really only productive about 4 hours a day. That doesn't mean I goofed off the rest of the time, but I did all of the things that didn't require my brain to be on full time. I maintained my endnote collection, I went to the Med School Library (which required a certain degree of courage...), I put the past week's writing in Dissertation Format (DO NOT let the dissertation get out of format for too long.)

As people say, write every day. Even if it's awful.

Budget 1-2 days to be sick per month. If you don't get sick, you take a long weekend. If you do get sick, you say "I have sick days, so I can watch Law & Order all day!"
posted by printdevil at 8:18 AM on May 21, 2007

When I was scheduling for my master's thesis, I built in "catch up" periods of a couple of days here and there--like printdevil's sick days. I just assumed I'd fall behind a bit here and there for various reasons, and I built in those chunks so I wouldn't just keep falling further and further behind. Assume you'll be imperfect in implementing your plan, and then you won't have to freak out and fall completely off the wagon as soon as you miss a day, or some piece of research takes twice as long as you expected.
posted by not that girl at 8:44 AM on May 21, 2007

The thing that's helped me the most in writing was to lower my expectations of how much I could do in a day. As printdevil says, most people cannot write - or do anything that requires intense brain power - for more than a few hours a day. To think you can do more than this means a lot of wasted time staring at your screen (or searching AskMe) and feeling guilty for not writing. A few pages (3 or 4) a day is great progress. One page a day for a year = 365 pages.
posted by walla at 9:30 AM on May 21, 2007

I'm doing my best to make progress with my PhD... I'm still in the beginning stages but here's what works for me: (1) turn of the Internet - unplug it. Looking for online sources is handy but it is easy to get side-tracked. Make a list of stuff to do online and do it later. (2) Sketch out on paper what a section should contain - I, at least, have a tendency to ramble and massive reorganization of my thesis took weeks. I should've done the table of contents first, not when the work was nearly done. (3) Like a good gym rountine, you should schedule it into your calendar as a block of time. It is too easy to put it off otherwise... Good luck!
posted by mateuslee at 11:44 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

My best tip for writing is to tell you to try to let go of any perfectionist tendencies you might have. A dissertation is your first go at professional research within your field. Ideally, it will be something that you revisit by publishing articles or a book. It is often your foot into the door of the profession. You should do your best, but don't expect it to be the last word on your topic. In fact, the "I wish I could have looked at XX but didn't have the time, resources, expertise" topics are often those that will make for a great research agenda in your future career.

The actual act of writing happens in many ways. I'm not sure any strategy works better than another. FWIW I liked Howard Becker's book, but I'm also a social scientist.
posted by B-squared at 3:08 PM on May 21, 2007

University of Minnesota has a dissertation calculator.
posted by drea at 6:30 AM on January 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

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