How to survive a dissertation

I have a lot of smart friends and family. I am surrounded by Masters and Doctors in assorted fields, and know several Doctors-to-be. The subject of dissertation writing comes up a lot, because many people I know have either survived the process by the skin of their teeth, or are struggling to get through it now.

Back in November 2013, for my own M.Phil, I had an awful lot of dissertation to write. I treated my thesis like it was work, project managed the crap out of it, and remarkably got it done before my submission deadline. I churned out a first draft in record time, despite having a full time job and only being able to work on it at night. I’d like to share a few tips here which I reckon saved my bacon.

1. Write in the cloud

Google Drive logo

Use Google Docs! In 2015 if you are not writing your thesis in the cloud, you are quite simply a fool. Apologies if this sounds harsh, but we have incredible, versatile cloud storage and WYSIWYG editors available to us today - use them! Google Docs is my personal favourite because you have epic backups and version control at all times. You can easily view your history of changes and go and recover that paragraph you deleted last week in a rage.

Working like this brought me enormous peace of mind - I knew that my computer could burst into flames at any time and it would make absolutely no difference to my work because everything was automatically saved, synced and backed up to hell and gone!

Google Docs can also sync offline - this means that if you need to go and write your literature review on your iPad in a field, you can do so. When you’re done, don’t forget to quickly sync the offline doc by tethering to your phone.

Never rely on backing up to a hard drive. They fail. Don’t be that person who loses all their work the week before they’re due to submit. (See my rant about this here).

And don’t worry about typesetting to begin with. Until you’re sitting with a final draft you don’t need to perfect your font choices and diagrams - you need to churn out words. Draft in Google Docs and typeset when you’re basically done proofreading.

2. Plan all the things

The first step in managing any project is to plan your time. I created a Google spreadsheet which contained every day until my submission deadline. I then laid out all the chapters I had to write on a weekly basis, and all the sections within a chapter on a daily basis. I catered for weekends and nights off. I planned around Christmas holidays and New Year. While my schedule worked on days and weeks, there is no reason it wouldn’t work for weeks and months.

One Spreadsheet to rule them all
The spreadsheet of doom

Work in the spreadsheet was colour coded - green for “done”, and yellow for “to do”. Important sub-deadlines were flagged in red.

I budgeted time for writing, editing and proofreading. And I allowed for iteration. This helped me avoid getting stuck on one thing for too long. If I got to “section 1.4” on a certain day but had no inspiration I forced myself to write something. Even if it was the most bare bones structure or a single idea, when I iterated back to that particular page I then had some words on the page. This did wonders for my writer’s block and really helped keep me afloat - instead of feeling overwhelmed by a huge and difficult task, I felt like I was always making progress, even if it was in small increments!

My schedule was not cast in stone - it was absolutely a living document. I updated it every day and shuffled things around as the writing process evolved. There were obviously days when I was too tired to work, for example, and then I could easily shift things out, but it helped me see the longer term effect of moving things around. It wasn’t about enforcing work on myself, it was more about reducing the burden of having to remember what I was supposed to be working on.

3. Create routine

A daily routine into which you can fit your research/writing is key. So for example, let every day start with coffee and a walk, or a trip to the gym. Then work 9am-12pm (with a break half way through), take a timeout for lunch, work 1-4pm, break for tea, and then do admin from 5-6pm…

A bottle of wine
It is acceptable to schedule wine into your daily routine.

You’ll obviously know best what times of day you feel most productive and when it makes sense for you to work (for me I did my best work late at night, with a glass of wine). Figure this out, cater to your personal energy levels and take time out. Your brain won’t stop working on your research, even if you’re gardening or reading or going for a swim. This makes a huge difference to productivity. It’s much better than trying to impose a system which just doesn’t fit your daily rhythms!

Include exercise and plenty of sleep in your routine. Our bodies and brains do best when we have regular bed times and get more than 7 hours of sleep a night.

4. Clear out the clutter

Make a tidy, calm and pleasant workspace for yourself.

Make a list of nice coffee shops nearby that have Wi-fi, for the days you need to get out of the house.

Use software like Evernote to organise your life. I kept all the papers I read stored as PDFs in Evernote. This meant I could access them anytime (because Evernote will sync to all your devices) and also tag them by author, topic, keyword etc. This made searching for particular stuff later on really easy.

5. Don’t be too hard on yourself

Writing a dissertation sucks. Research is bloody hard work. You will have good days and bad. Listen to your body, take breaks when you need to, and give credit where it’s due. You have to acknowledge the small things. Some days it will be impossible to sit and write for hours on end. But if you can read a couple of papers instead - bravo! All progress is good progress. Just get something useful done every day, no matter how small. And acknolwedge that it’s still a huge step in the right direction, even if it’s not exactly what you had planned.

If, after all of this, you still find yourself feeling miserable and unmotivated all of the time, please seek professional advice from your GP or therapist. Postgraduate studies are notoriously linked to depression and anxiety disorders. This is a very real thing that academics and supervisors often ignore. Believe it or not, your dissertation actually shouldn’t make you want to die. If you’re struggling to cope, you are not alone and you can and should get help.

This too shall pass.

PhD Comics
So true it hurts...
By the venerable PhD Comics