What this handout is about
This handout suggests strategies for developing healthy writing habits during your dissertation journey. These habits can help you maintain your writing momentum, overcome anxiety and procrastination, and foster wellbeing during one of the most challenging times in graduate school.
Tackling a giant project
Because dissertations are, of course, big projects, it’s no surprise that planning, writing, and revising one can pose some challenges! It can help to think of your dissertation as an expanded version of a long essay: at the end of the day, it is simply another piece of writing. You’ve written your way this far into your degree, so you’ve got the skills! You’ll develop a great deal of expertise on your topic, but you may still be a novice with this genre and writing at this length. Remember to give yourself some grace throughout the project. As you begin, it’s helpful to consider two overarching strategies throughout the process.
First, take stock of how you learn and your own writing processes. What strategies have worked and have not worked for you? Why? What kind of learner and writer are you? Capitalize on what’s working and experiment with new strategies when something’s not working. Keep in mind that trying out new strategies can take some trial-and-error, and it’s okay if a new strategy that you try doesn’t work for you. Consider why it may not have been the best for you, and use that reflection to consider other strategies that might be helpful to you.
Second, break the project into manageable chunks. At every stage of the process, try to identify specific tasks, set small, feasible goals, and have clear, concrete strategies for achieving each goal. Small victories can help you establish and maintain the momentum you need to keep yourself going.
Below, we discuss some possible strategies to keep you moving forward in the dissertation process.
Pre-dissertation planning strategies
Get familiar with the Graduate School’s Thesis and Dissertation Resources.
Learn how to use a citation-manager and a synthesis matrix to keep track of all of your source information.
Skim other dissertations from your department, program, and advisor. Enlist the help of a librarian or ask your advisor for a list of recent graduates whose work you can look up. Seeing what other people have done to earn their PhD can make the project much less abstract and daunting. A concrete sense of expectations will help you envision and plan. When you know what you’ll be doing, try to find a dissertation from your department that is similar enough that you can use it as a reference model when you run into concerns about formatting, structure, level of detail, etc.
Think carefully about your committee. Ideally, you’ll be able to select a group of people who work well with you and with each other. Consult with your advisor about who might be good collaborators for your project and who might not be the best fit. Consider what classes you’ve taken and how you “vibe” with those professors or those you’ve met outside of class. Try to learn what you can about how they’ve worked with other students. Ask about feedback style, turnaround time, level of involvement, etc., and imagine how that would work for you.
Sketch out a sensible drafting order for your project. Be open to writing chapters in “the wrong order” if it makes sense to start somewhere other than the beginning. You could begin with the section that seems easiest for you to write to gain momentum.
Design a productivity alliance with your advisor. Talk with them about potential projects and a reasonable timeline. Discuss how you’ll work together to keep your work moving forward. You might discuss having a standing meeting to discuss ideas or drafts or issues (bi-weekly? monthly?), your advisor’s preferences for drafts (rough? polished?), your preferences for what you’d like feedback on (early or late drafts?), reasonable turnaround time for feedback (a week? two?), and anything else you can think of to enter the collaboration mindfully.
Design a productivity alliance with your colleagues. Dissertation writing can be lonely, but writing with friends, meeting for updates over your beverage of choice, and scheduling non-working social times can help you maintain healthy energy. See our tips on accountability strategies for ideas to support each other.
Write when you’re most productive. When do you have the most energy? Focus? Creativity? When are you most able to concentrate, either because of your body rhythms or because there are fewer demands on your time? Once you determine the hours that are most productive for you (you may need to experiment at first), try to schedule those hours for dissertation work. See the collection of time management tools and planning calendars on the Learning Center’s Tips & Tools page to help you think through the possibilities. If at all possible, plan your work schedule, errands and chores so that you reserve your productive hours for the dissertation.
Put your writing time firmly on your calendar. Guard your writing time diligently. You’ll probably be invited to do other things during your productive writing times, but do your absolute best to say no and to offer alternatives. No one would hold it against you if you said no because you’re teaching a class at that time—and you wouldn’t feel guilty about saying no. Cultivating the same hard, guilt-free boundaries around your writing time will allow you preserve the time you need to get this thing done!
Develop habits that foster balance. You’ll have to work very hard to get this dissertation finished, but you can do that without sacrificing your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Think about how you can structure your work hours most efficiently so that you have time for a healthy non-work life. It can be something as small as limiting the time you spend chatting with fellow students to a few minutes instead of treating the office or lab as a space for extensive socializing. Also see above for protecting your time.
Write in spaces where you can be productive. Figure out where you work well and plan to be there during your dissertation work hours. Do you get more done on campus or at home? Do you prefer quiet and solitude, like in a library carrel? Do you prefer the buzz of background noise, like in a coffee shop? Are you aware of the UNC Libraries’ list of places to study? If you get “stuck,” don’t be afraid to try a change of scenery. The variety may be just enough to get your brain going again.
Work where you feel comfortable. Wherever you work, make sure you have whatever lighting, furniture, and accessories you need to keep your posture and health in good order. The University Health and Safety office offers guidelines for healthy computer work. You’re more likely to spend time working in a space that doesn’t physically hurt you. Also consider how you could make your work space as inviting as possible. Some people find that it helps to have pictures of family and friends on their desk—sort of a silent “cheering section.” Some people work well with neutral colors around them, and others prefer bright colors that perk up the space. Some people like to put inspirational quotations in their workspace or encouraging notes from friends and family. You might try reconfiguring your work space to find a décor that helps you be productive.
Elicit helpful feedback from various people at various stages. You might be tempted to keep your writing to yourself until you think it’s brilliant, but you can lower the stakes tremendously if you make eliciting feedback a regular part of your writing process. Your friends can feel like a safer audience for ideas or drafts in their early stages. Someone outside your department may provide interesting perspectives from their discipline that spark your own thinking. See this handout on getting feedback for productive moments for feedback, the value of different kinds of feedback providers, and strategies for eliciting what’s most helpful to you. Make this a recurring part of your writing process. Schedule it to help you hit deadlines.
Change the writing task. When you don’t feel like writing, you can do something different or you can do something differently. Make a list of all the little things you need to do for a given section of the dissertation, no matter how small. Choose a task based on your energy level. Work on Grad School requirements: reformat margins, work on bibliography, and all that. Work on your acknowledgements. Remember all the people who have helped you and the great ideas they’ve helped you develop. You may feel more like working afterward. Write a part of your dissertation as a letter or email to a good friend who would care. Sometimes setting aside the academic prose and just writing it to a buddy can be liberating and help you get the ideas out there. You can make it sound smart later. Free-write about why you’re stuck, and perhaps even about how sick and tired you are of your dissertation/advisor/committee/etc. Venting can sometimes get you past the emotions of writer’s block and move you toward creative solutions. Open a separate document and write your thoughts on various things you’ve read. These may or may note be coherent, connected ideas, and they may or may not make it into your dissertation. They’re just notes that allow you to think things through and/or note what you want to revisit later, so it’s perfectly fine to have mistakes, weird organization, etc. Just let your mind wander on paper.
Develop habits that foster productivity and may help you develop a productive writing model for post-dissertation writing. Since dissertations are very long projects, cultivating habits that will help support your work is important. You might check out Helen Sword’s work on behavioral, artisanal, social, and emotional habits to help you get a sense of where you are in your current habits. You might try developing “rituals” of work that could help you get more done. Lighting incense, brewing a pot of a particular kind of tea, pulling out a favorite pen, and other ritualistic behaviors can signal your brain that “it is time to get down to business.” You can critically think about your work methods—not only about what you like to do, but also what actually helps you be productive. You may LOVE to listen to your favorite band while you write, for example, but if you wind up playing air guitar half the time instead of writing, it isn’t a habit worth keeping.
The point is, figure out what works for you and try to do it consistently. Your productive habits will reinforce themselves over time. If you find yourself in a situation, however, that doesn’t match your preferences, don’t let it stop you from working on your dissertation. Try to be flexible and open to experimenting. You might find some new favorites!
Schedule a regular activity with other people that involves your dissertation. Set up a coworking date with your accountability buddies so you can sit and write together. Organize a chapter swap. Make regular appointments with your advisor. Whatever you do, make sure it’s something that you’ll feel good about showing up for–and will make you feel good about showing up for others.
Try writing in sprints. Many writers have discovered that the “Pomodoro technique” (writing for 25 minutes and taking a 5 minute break) boosts their productivity by helping them set small writing goals, focus intently for short periods, and give their brains frequent rests. See how one dissertation writer describes it in this blog post on the Pomodoro technique.
Quit while you’re ahead. Sometimes it helps to stop for the day when you’re on a roll. If you’ve got a great idea that you’re developing and you know where you want to go next, write “Next, I want to introduce x, y, and z and explain how they’re related—they all have the same characteristics of 1 and 2, and that clinches my theory of Q.” Then save the file and turn off the computer, or put down the notepad. When you come back tomorrow, you will already know what to say next–and all that will be left is to say it. Hopefully, the momentum will carry you forward.
Write your dissertation in single-space. When you need a boost, double space it and be impressed with how many pages you’ve written.
Set feasible goals–and celebrate the achievements! Setting and achieving smaller, more reasonable goals (SMART goals) gives you success, and that success can motivate you to focus on the next small step…and the next one.
Give yourself rewards along the way. When you meet a writing goal, reward yourself with something you normally wouldn’t have or do–this can be anything that will make you feel good about your accomplishment.
Make the act of writing be its own reward. For example, if you love a particular coffee drink from your favorite shop, save it as a special drink to enjoy during your writing time.
Try giving yourself “pre-wards”—positive experiences that help you feel refreshed and recharged for the next time you write. You don’t have to “earn” these with prior work, but you do have to commit to doing the work afterward.
Commit to doing something you don’t want to do if you don’t achieve your goal. Some people find themselves motivated to work harder when there’s a negative incentive. What would you most like to avoid? Watching a movie you hate? Donating to a cause you don’t support? Whatever it is, how can you ensure enforcement? Who can help you stay accountable?
Build your confidence. It is not uncommon to feel “imposter phenomenon” during the course of writing your dissertation. If you start to feel this way, it can help to take a few minutes to remember every success you’ve had along the way. You’ve earned your place, and people have confidence in you for good reasons. It’s also helpful to remember that every one of the brilliant people around you is experiencing the same lack of confidence because you’re all in a new context with new tasks and new expectations. You’re not supposed to have it all figured out. You’re supposed to have uncertainties and questions and things to learn. Remember that they wouldn’t have accepted you to the program if they weren’t confident that you’d succeed. See our self-scripting handout for strategies to turn these affirmations into a self-script that you repeat whenever you’re experiencing doubts or other negative thoughts. You can do it!
Appreciate your successes. Not meeting a goal isn’t a failure–and it certainly doesn’t make you a failure. It’s an opportunity to figure out why you didn’t meet the goal. It might simply be that the goal wasn’t achievable in the first place. See the SMART goal handout and think through what you can adjust. Even if you meant to write 1500 words, focus on the success of writing 250 or 500 words that you didn’t have before.
Remember your “why.” There are a whole host of reasons why someone might decide to pursue a PhD, both personally and professionally. Reflecting on what is motivating to you can rekindle your sense of purpose and direction.
Get outside support. Sometimes it can be really helpful to get an outside perspective on your work and anxieties as a way of grounding yourself. Participating in groups like the Dissertation Support group through CAPS and the Dissertation Boot Camp can help you see that you’re not alone in the challenges. You might also choose to form your own writing support group with colleagues inside or outside your department.
Understand and manage your procrastination. When you’re writing a long dissertation, it can be easy to procrastinate! For instance, you might put off writing because the house “isn’t clean enough” or because you’re not in the right “space” (mentally or physically) to write, so you put off writing until the house is cleaned and everything is in its right place. You may have other ways of procrastinating. It can be helpful to be self-aware of when you’re procrastinating and to consider why you are procrastinating. It may be that you’re anxious about writing the perfect draft, for example, in which case you might consider: how can I focus on writing something that just makes progress as opposed to being “perfect”? There are lots of different ways of managing procrastination; one way is to make a schedule of all the things you already have to do (when you absolutely can’t write) to help you visualize those chunks of time when you can. See this handout on procrastination for more strategies and tools for managing procrastination.
Your topic, your advisor, and your committee: Making them work for you
By the time you’ve reached this stage, you have probably already defended a dissertation proposal, chosen an advisor, and begun working with a committee. Sometimes, however, those three elements can prove to be major external sources of frustration. So how can you manage them to help yourself be as productive as possible?
Managing your topic
Remember that your topic is not carved in stone. The research and writing plan suggested in your dissertation proposal was your best vision of the project at that time, but topics evolve as the research and writing progress. You might need to tweak your research question a bit to reduce or adjust the scope, you might pare down certain parts of the project or add others. You can discuss your thoughts on these adjustments with your advisor at your check ins.
Think about variables that could be cut down and how changes would affect the length, depth, breadth, and scholarly value of your study. Could you cut one or two experiments, case studies, regions, years, theorists, or chapters and still make a valuable contribution or, even more simply, just finish?
Talk to your advisor about any changes you might make. They may be quite sympathetic to your desire to shorten an unwieldy project and may offer suggestions.
Look at other dissertations from your department to get a sense of what the chapters should look like. Reverse-outline a few chapters so you can see if there’s a pattern of typical components and how information is sequenced. These can serve as models for your own dissertation. See this video on reverse outlining to see the technique.
Managing your advisor
Embrace your evolving status. At this stage in your graduate career, you should expect to assume some independence. By the time you finish your project, you will know more about your subject than your committee does. The student/teacher relationship you have with your advisor will necessarily change as you take this big step toward becoming their colleague.
Revisit the alliance. If the interaction with your advisor isn’t matching the original agreement or the original plan isn’t working as well as it could, schedule a conversation to revisit and redesign your working relationship in a way that could work for both of you.
Be specific in your feedback requests. Tell your advisor what kind of feedback would be most helpful to you. Sometimes an advisor can be giving unhelpful or discouraging feedback without realizing it. They might make extensive sentence-level edits when you really need conceptual feedback, or vice-versa, if you only ask generally for feedback. Letting your advisor know, very specifically, what kinds of responses will be helpful to you at different stages of the writing process can help your advisor know how to help you.
Don’t hide. Advisors can be most helpful if they know what you are working on, what problems you are experiencing, and what progress you have made. If you haven’t made the progress you were hoping for, it only makes it worse if you avoid talking to them. You rob yourself of their expertise and support, and you might start a spiral of guilt, shame, and avoidance. Even if it’s difficult, it may be better to be candid about your struggles.
Talk to other students who have the same advisor. You may find that they have developed strategies for working with your advisor that could help you communicate more effectively with them.
If you have recurring problems communicating with your advisor, you can make a change. You could change advisors completely, but a less dramatic option might be to find another committee member who might be willing to serve as a “secondary advisor” and give you the kinds of feedback and support that you may need.
Managing your committee
Design the alliance. Talk with your committee members about how much they’d like to be involved in your writing process, whether they’d like to see chapter drafts or the complete draft, how frequently they’d like to meet (or not), etc. Your advisor can guide you on how committees usually work, but think carefully about how you’d like the relationship to function too.
Keep in regular contact with your committee, even if they don’t want to see your work until it has been approved by your advisor. Let them know about fellowships you receive, fruitful research excursions, the directions your thinking is taking, and the plans you have for completion. In short, keep them aware that you are working hard and making progress. Also, look for other ways to get facetime with your committee even if it’s not a one-on-one meeting. Things like speaking with them at department events, going to colloquiums or other events they organize and/or attend regularly can help you develop a relationship that could lead to other introductions and collaborations as your career progresses.
Share your struggles. Too often, we only talk to our professors when we’re making progress and hide from them the rest of the time. If you share your frustrations or setbacks with a knowledgeable committee member, they might offer some very helpful suggestions for overcoming the obstacles you face—after all, your committee members have all written major research projects before, and they have probably solved similar problems in their own work.
Stay true to yourself. Sometimes, you just don’t entirely gel with your committee, but that’s okay. It’s important not to get too hung up on how your committee does (or doesn’t) relate to you. Keep your eye on the finish line and keep moving forward.
Graduate School Diversity Initiatives: Groups and events to support the success of students identifying with an affinity group.
Graduate School Career Well: Extensive professional development resources related to writing, research, networking, job search, etc.
CAPS Therapy Groups: CAPS offers a variety of support groups, including a dissertation support group.
Advice on Research and Writing: Lots of links on writing, public speaking, dissertation management, burnout, and more.
How to be a Good Graduate Student: Marie DesJardins’ essay talks about several phases of the graduate experience, including the dissertation. She discusses some helpful hints for staying motivated and doing consistent work.
Preparing Future Faculty: This page, a joint project of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, the Council of Graduate Schools, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, explains the Preparing Future Faculty Programs and includes links and suggestions that may help graduate students and their advisors think constructively about the process of graduate education as a step toward faculty responsibilities.
Dissertation Tips: Kjell Erik Rudestam, Ph.D. and Rae Newton, Ph.D., authors of Surviving Your Dissertation: A Comprehensive Guide to Content and Process.
The ABD Survival Guide Newsletter: Information about the ABD Survival Guide newsletter (which is free) and other services from E-Coach (many of which are not free).
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License.
You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill