Where to Begin? How to Start Your Dissertation
Despite thinking about my dissertation for years before it was time to begin, and despite having several research experiences under my belt, I still felt an inexplicable block when it came to tackling the big D. Recently, a few friends in grad school were commiserating over these same anxieties on Facebook and seeking strategies to overcome this block. Don’t worry, you are not alone! This is a common experience in grad school. The first step is awareness of the problem.
The angst that precedes the big D manifests itself in several different ways.
Are you The Procrastinator, doing everything BUT starting your diss? You may have every intention to sit down and start writing, but other important tasks always seem to get in the way. Maybe you need to check your email (for the 100th time this hour) or update your Facebook status (for the fifth time today). Or maybe you’re procrastinating in the name of clearing your docket of all prior research projects in order to make space for the big D.
Or are you the The Queen of Denial, still basking in the glow of successfully passing your comprehensive/qualifying exam, even if it’s been months (or years)? We have all heard of the post-comps slump and ABD is a nice title, but maybe you are going to extremes to ignore the pesky thought that there is one more step to completing the degree.
Maybe you suffer from Fear of the Blank Page. (Google this and you’ll see that writers of many kinds are paralyzed by this fear.) You genuinely want to start the diss, but every time you look at the blank page, a fear of the vast unknown or dread of impending doom keeps you from conquering the blank space. Maybe you think of your dissertation as your Magnum Opus. This is an overwhelming thought, to say the least.
As someone who recently survived the process with Ph.D. in hand, I humbly offer a few helpful hints. I encourage other survivors to share your strategies, as well!
Prioritize it. There are innumerable other research projects and life tasks that you could be doing, but if you want to finish, you have to make the big D a priority. So, put aside those unfinished manuscripts or that conference presentation from two years ago that you want to write up (just for now!), and focus on the dissertation.
Outline it. If I have writer’s block, an outline of the flow of the paper almost always helps. After you have an outline, you can start filling in the blanks. If you’re still in procrastination or denial mode, however, your outline might take this less-than-helpful form.
Freestyle it. Just sit down in front of that blank page and start typing. One of my professors once gave the advice to “puke on the page” (figuratively, not literally, of course!). These words will most likely not be the ones you end up with, but this process can get your creative juices flowing.
Cut and paste it. No, I don’t mean plagiarize. If you have a relevant review paper you’ve written for a class, material from your comprehensive exam, or a grant application you wrote for your dissertation project (whether it was funded or not), there is no need to completely reinvent the wheel. Use these sentences or paragraphs as a starting point. This strategy works especially well when you are pursuing a cohesive line of work.
Schedule it. Set aside certain hours in your daily or weekly schedule to sit down and write. Don’t work on anything else during this time, and stick to your routine. It will start to feel natural after a while, and maybe you will even look forward to your writing day!
Downplay it. Your dissertation does not have to be your crowning career achievement or the best project you will ever do. If you go into a research or academic career, your dissertation will become a few lines in a long list of research projects and published papers. When getting started, downplay fears of expected grandeur and just work on producing a piece of research that you can proudly defend.
Block the rest out. Resist the urge to constantly check email, Facebook, or Twitter while you’re trying to churn out the big D. I know from experience that this can be hard. If you need help being disciplined, consider downloading free add-ons that block time-wasting websites. Most internet browsers offer these add-ons that block sites you specify during dates and times of your choice. Although I haven’t tried them personally, I have heard good things.
Remember that these strategies are not mutually exclusive, so try as many as needed to overcome the block. What strategies work best for you?