Dissertation Hints

by Dr. Kim Nixon
(Ph.D. Neuroscience, 2000; Abram Amsel and Steven Leslie, Supervisors)
Postdoctoral Fellow
Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies
UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine

Kim NixonWriting your dissertation is your job, if you treat it as such - take it as seriously - then writing is not as lengthy of a process as you would imagine. And think about it; this is your first opportunity to shine as an academic. Blow everyone away by your thoughtful insight and statements about your work. You did not make it this far without having a shred of goal achievement strategies and/or time management skills. So USE them! Perhaps these suggestions sound redundant, and if they are, that means they must have worked for others besides me.-


1. Buy whatever tools you need to organize your papers, data, etc. Create whatever environment you need to do your best work. For me, this meant borrowing my brother's huge folding table and putting alongside my desk on campus. This also meant a trip to the local office supply store for various organization folders. Take the time to stay organized, it will mean less time lost to find that article or that piece of data.

2. Borrow a few dissertations from successful recent graduates in your department or area of work. Evaluate what you like and don't like and use those points accordingly. Ask your mentor AND OTHERS what makes a well-written dissertation (regardless of your data). You may even wish to have this discussion with the most difficult members of your committee.

3. Outline. Have a plan for what you want to say and the order you think you want to say it in. The dissertation is merely a long story--.how do you want to tell it and how will it make sense to a new reader. Include in the outline the points you want to make about that particular work, that data, or that graph. Perhaps list the citations you plan to discuss. I do not typically write outlines, but for the dissertation, it really helped my organization.

4. Set deadlines and stick to them. Don't worry; I know--.I do not stick to self-imposed deadlines very well either. Allow me to share my tricks:

  • First, be realistic. Don't say, I will write all of chapter one by the end of the week (unless it is feasible). Break up your work into achievable portions. A day or two spent organizing how you are going to approach this beast will be days well spent.
  • Force yourself to meet deadlines by planning a meeting with a reader. Having to show what you have done to someone else, and be accountable to someone else, helped keep me on schedule.
  • Write your goals and deadlines on a calendar. Have daily, weekly, and monthly goals. For me, I had the daily goal of writing 5 pages a day (or 30 a week). If you think about it, that is 200 pages in less than two months.

5. Reward yourself for achieving your goals. Was it all you could do to get those five pages out? ...then stop. Feeling motivated? --then by all means keep going and maybe take a day off on the weekend.

What to do when you feel stuck

1. The best advice I ever received: never start writing at the first sentence. It is too daunting! I wrote by sections and not in order. One day I wrote results, then next maybe a particular topic in the introduction. This works if you have a clear outline and already have a feel for how the topics will flow (see organization point #3).

2. Do something that moves you forward in the task:

  • Write a detailed outline of a future section.
  • "Mind dump" on paper. (You can always go back and edit).
  • Write in a new section.
  • Really stuck? Do something else to achieve the goal. In the case of science dissertations, there are figures to be done, data to work on, or a section that needs editing.
  • Start on that bibliography (or download into your citation software), read those new articles or run to the library for that ancient paper.
  • Try reading a review article in your area of interest. For me, this would often stimulate new thoughts to put on paper. Figure out what works for you.

3. Try writing in a different environment. Try a quick break but return to your task, don't procrastinate. Most importantly--and in the words of the no-need-to-be-named corporate sports giant--just do it. Procrastination is your biggest potential problem. If you sit down and do something toward the goal, you should feel confident that you have made progress and perhaps you will be motivated to start it again tomorrow. Set aside a prescribed amount of time each day where you will focus and will accomplish something. I have always believed that if any of us sat down and fully focused on a task for 6 hours (no email, no phone, and minimal breaks), that real work will be accomplished.