Provost for Research and Dean of the Graduate
University of Minnesota)
- Write, either for your dissertation itself, or in a notebook about your research, every day. Use your writing to elicit thinking. If you write two double-spaced pages a day (about 500 words), you can write a 200 page thesis in about three months. Don't let yourself take years!
- Plan to write a fairly loose and fragmentary first draft, and revise later. Don't feel that you have to write straight through from the beginning to the end. Write a draft of the literature review when you're first exploring the field. Write a draft of the methods section as you decide what methods to use, and learn to use them. Write a few paragraphs about each experiment, as you're planning it and after you've completed it and tabulated/graphed/analyzed the results. Move the pieces around, write the transitions, and smooth things out at the end.
- Use your notebook not just to record data, but to analyze it and record your thoughts and speculations about your project. (Clearly separate speculations from conclusions.) Include enough detail that you, or others working on a related project, could go back and reproduce what you've done.
- If you have quantitative data, graph it frequently. You'll see trends, and identify outliers that may need scrutiny, much more readily than in a table of numbers.
- Present your ideas frequently, in a variety of venues: research group meetings, study groups, poster or platform sessions at professional meetings or locally, departmental colloquia, and to yearly or semesterly meetings of your dissertation committee. This will help you clarify your ideas, identify weak points, find the best ways to present materials, get useful criticism and new ideas from your audiences.
- Read a book (Joan Bolker's Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day Henry Holt & Co., 1998 is a good one), about writing generally and writing a dissertation. Come back to it every few months for ideas pertinent to your current stage of work, and to bolster your morale/enthusiasm/determination.
- Clarify mutual expectations between you and your dissertation advisor, about how often the two of you should meet to review progress, at what stages you should submit drafts, and what the delay time for comments on those drafts should be. You should make it clear to your advisor that you need and expect prompt, helpful feedback.
- If you're in a scientific field, your dissertation may be mainly a collection of journal articles turned into chapters. This is a good, sensible practice; but your dissertation should also have an overall introduction, detail about methods, and some overall summarizing unity that would be out of place in an individual journal article.
- Clarify in your own mind, and be able to express to others - your dissertation committee, other scientists or scholars, your friends, your parents - what your dissertation contributes to human knowledge. Be able to say not just what you did, but why it matters to your specialty and what are its broader implications. Aim to have an impact, and be able to articulate what that impact is.