Writing a Thesis or Dissertation? How to Make Progress Even When You Don’t Feel Like Writing

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If you haven’t started working on your thesis or dissertation or aren’t currently actively working on it on a daily basis ? let’s face it, you will most likely not finish it. That’s why you have to establish several mini-goals for the end of the year and start working towards them.

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What is it you want to cross off your to-do list this year instead of rolling over to next year’s resolution list? Perhaps you are looking forward to making significant progress on your thesis or dissertation before the end of the year. Be specific. How many pages/chapters would you have to finish for you to feel like you have made significant progress? We believe that a good thesis or dissertation is a DONE thesis or dissertation.

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The biggest misconception about finishing a thesis or dissertation is the belief that writing is the key component to completion. The real key to finishing is effective time management. This is particularly true given the fact that, for most students, writing the document must be completed in tandem with numerous other important tasks, such as preparing for the job market; moving to or starting a new job; preparing for graduation; or working a full-time job. If time-management is not your forte, there are many resouces available to help you manage, structure, and organize your time to maximize your efforts.

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To help better manage your time, enlist your network of friends and family to assist you with completing tasks that don’t require your intellectual capital. Most loved ones are more than willing to be supportive if they only know what they can do to help. In response to my request, for example, my friend flew out to Wisconsin to help me pack up my house while I worked on my dissertation. He also got up at 2:30 a.m. to help me format tables, make copies, and drive me to Kinko’s, because my exhausted brain was simply too numb to be able to complete those simple tasks.

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In addition, it is imperative that you give yourself ample time to complete your thesis or dissertation. I can’t emphasize enough that you should NOT wait until your coursework or qualifying/preliminary exams are finished to begin thinking about getting an early start. In fact, you should be thinking about a possible topic on your first day of graduate school. Let your interest guide you regarding what courses to take. Pursue a possible topic in one or two of your graduate seminars; these will force you to adhere to a strict deadline, and will also provide you with insightful feedback from your course instructor.

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If you haven’t followed this advice, and have already finished your coursework and exams, all is not lost! Keep in mind that you aren’t actually starting from scratch. Think of this document as an extension of your proposal. Pull out your approved thesis/dissertation proposal and begin by reading, editing, and formatting it based on your university’s required specifications. Be sure to update your literature review by including any new studies that address your research question.

Regardless of what stage you are at in completing your thesis or dissertation, the following tips are designed to help keep you going when you feel you simply can’t write anymore. Remember: the key to finishing is to keep moving the project forward, and it is critical to spend at least 12 minutes EVERY DAY working on your document. Your goal is to make consistent, incremental, daily progress. And, even if you just can’t contemplate writing some days, there are still a number of required tasks that you can accomplish. Find something from this list you can do right now!!!

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1. Transfer important semester deadlines to your calendar, day planner or palm pilot. Missing some of these deadlines can cost you time and money.

2. Get a copy of the format manual. Colleges and universities often have a book or brochure that provides information on the required format of all theses and dissertations. The manual includes detailed specifications for margins, page number locations, minimal font size, spacing and a host of other formatting rules. Pick up a format manual from your graduate school office/secretary, or download it from your university’s website.

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3. Get your hands on ?Depositing and Defending’ guidelines and deadline materials. Again, these documents are typically available through your graduate school office/secretary, or from your university’s website.

4. Do some field research. Visit the library and look at other theses or dissertations in your field. Make a note of how many chapters they contain, and be on the lookout for those in which your advisor served on the committee. If you find a thesis or dissertation on a topic similar to yours, be sure to photocopy the bibliography.

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5. Nail down the format requirements. You’ve already gotten yourself a copy; now thoroughly review the format manual and become familiar with all of its contents. These requirements are not “optional,” so be sure you get them right the first time. Begin formatting your proposal and by creating a format template that reflects all of the requirements.

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6. Have the tools you need in place. Making sure that you have – and have ready – tools such as your methods journal, binder, and the correct software settings. Being prepared will make your path much easier!

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7. Create your title page. Be sure to set it up according to the format requirements!

8. Complete your approval page. Remember: every committee member will sign this, so it’s important! Again, be sure to set it up according to format requirements.

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9. Develop your abstract. Even if you have only the energy to write the word “Abstract” on the page, do it. It will help as a page reminder that you still have to create an abstract.

10. Produce your “Dedication and Acknowledgements” page. This is your opportunity to thank your best friends and family for supporting you! Completing this page might even inspire you, and rekindle the energy you need to continue moving your thesis or dissertation forward.

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