Writing a Dissertation: What They Don’t Teach You in Grad School

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Tools of the dissertation writer’s trade. (All photos author’s own.)

This week Erstwhile editor Sara Porterfield shares what she wished she’d known before starting her dissertation and what she’s learned from the writing process. 

Until it came time to write my dissertation, graduate school kept me on a schedule with measurable goals and milestones around which I could structure my days and schedule. Once I defended my dissertation prospectus, however, that structure disappeared. All of a sudden I found myself faced with what seemed like an almost insurmountable task—writing what is essentially a book—that my training hadn’t really prepared me for. Yes, I knew how to research in the archives; yes, I knew how to write a well-crafted and convincingly argued seminar paper. But I didn’t know how to put together an argument over 300 pages, or even what tools to use for researching and writing such a project.

Over the past few years I’ve learned how to muddle through this process through a lot of trial and error. I’ve tested many different tools and work strategies, from the software I use to organize archival research and write my dissertation to the time management strategies that keep me on track, and I’ve found what works for me. I wish I’d had someone to tell me what his or her process had been like when I started in on my dissertation, and so I’ve gathered here the things I would have liked to have known, the tools I use, and the strategies I employ to keep myself (mostly) focused and moving my dissertation along. Let me emphasize, however, that this is what works for me—I picked up many of these tools and strategies from reading other peoples’ blogs and adapted it for my own work, and I hope that this post might help you find what works for you.

What I Wish I’d Known

It’s going to take time to figure it out—all of it

From your daily schedule to your favorite word processing program to your dissertation’s argument, it’s all going to take a while to figure out. And that’s okay. It took me a few months to settle on the research management software I wanted to use and more than a year to figure out how and when I work the best. I’m still figuring out what exactly my dissertation is arguing, despite having written 75% of it. This is part of the process, and you don’t have to have answers to any of it immediately. Your research, schedule, work mode, argument, and sources will change and evolve, and that’s normal.


Me, 99% of the time.

Dissertation work is isolating

I’m an introvert, through and through. I love spending time with my friends and have an active social life, but I recharge the best on a long run with my dog or cooking an involved meal by myself. That being said, working alone, all day, on a project that no one else really knows anything about is extremely isolating. It’s not unusual to have days that I don’t leave my house except to exercise and only see my husband and roommate. And when I do spend time with other folks—even academics—there’s no way they’ve thought as much as I have about, for example, how late-nineteenth-century American imperialism created the context for the era of big dam construction in the United States. When I’m feeling like I’ve been a recluse I make an effort to schedule a hike or happy hour with friends outside of academia to remind myself that being a doctoral candidate is only one part of my identity, and that there’s a lot of ways to connect with people that don’t involve reciting the details of a letter you found in the archives that day.

It’s all a draft

One of my biggest barriers to writing is, as I imagine it is with many people, getting started. I often find myself hindered by a desire to write the perfect sentence or paragraph the first time I put pen to paper. It’s easy to stare at a blank page trying to come up with the flawless opening sentence that will captivate the reader and convey your argument succinctly and be a work of literary art. But those kinds of sentences only come with writing and rewriting and rewriting not-so-great sentences. I’ve learned to make myself just start writing—I’ll remind myself that it’s just a draft, and I can delete or edit anything I want later.

This also applies to chapters you send on to your advisor for comment and the dissertation as a whole. Your advisor is there to help make your work better, and it’s okay to send him or her something that isn’t “perfect.” Similarly, a dissertation, as my accountability partner reminded me recently, is a demonstration of original scholarly research—not a publishable book. Sure, we’ve all heard of those academics who “just wrote the dissertation like a book,” but they’re few and far between and—hate to break it to you—chances are you’re not one of them (I know I’m not). The realization that everything I write is a draft has freed me from trying to write that perfect sentence or paragraph or chapter, and therefore has made me more productive.

Tools & Strategies I’ve Found Useful

 Organization & Time Management: Give Yourself Structure

I’m a planner by nature and do best when I have structure. But structure isn’t (generally) something that comes with an academic schedule, especially this year while I’m on a writing fellowship. Since I’m not teaching this year, my schedule looks incredibly open and unscheduled. This is dangerous for someone who lives near Boulder’s open space and likes hiking, and who is really good at productive procrastination (I might have done all the laundry and cleaned the kitchen, but written nothing for that chapter). Because of this, I’ve found that I have to make a schedule—and stick to it—to give myself structure.


Passion Planner in action.

To help with this, I’ve recently started using the Passion Planner, and I’m a huge fan. The weekly layout that has each day broken down into half-hour blocks lets me schedule exactly when I’ll get that conference abstract done and when I’m going to take two hours to write about Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan’s irrigation history (fascinating, I know) for Chapter 2. The planners also have monthly overviews and helpful goal setting prompts, which I’ve found particularly useful as I schedule out the final year of my PhD. For days that I’m having a hard time concentrating, I use the Pomodoro Technique to break my work into hour-and-a-half to two-hour chunks, with those further broken down into 25-minute stretches of full attention on work interspersed by five-minute breaks. I also always turn my phone to airplane mode and close my email when I’m not doing administrative tasks—i.e., when I’m reading, working through archival sources, or writing. I schedule those administrative tasks into my day so I don’t take a five-minute “break” to check email, only to end up spending an hour responding to messages that could have waited. Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s blog has a ton of useful time management and organizational tips and tricks as well, and it’s where I’ve found much of the information and techniques I use.


Dissertation therapy.

I’ve learned that I write the best first thing in the morning, and that I need a longer break after about three hours of work. I also need to exercise in order to maintain the sanity I have remaining (grad school is rough, y’all), so I build my schedule around these things. I usually wake up at 5:30, get coffee, let the dogs out, and sit down at my desk by 6 to write—and no checking email until I’ve worked for at least two hours so that I stay focused. After a few hours, I’ll make sure that I have a longer break to run, ride the horses, or go to yoga. Then I’m back at it for another two to three hours of intensive-focus work (research, reading, writing) before taking another longer break. When I’m in dissertation-writing mode, I’ve found that I can expect to do about five hours of productive (writing, research) work per day, after which I’ll switch to more administrative work and/or intersperse these low-brainpower tasks between longer chunks of focused work. Again, this is what works for me—find your own most productive time and work style and use it to your advantage.

Accountability Partner

My close friend and Erstwhile co-founder Alessandra Link and I are accountability partners, and this is hands down the most useful, effective “tool” I use. We check in via phone—she’s in Kentucky, I’m in Colorado—once a week about our work and goals. Every week we give each other a list of tasks we want to complete or goals we want to reach over the next week, and go over each other’s tasks and goals from the previous week. Knowing that Ali’s going to expect a conference paper or a draft of a chapter from me holds me far more accountable than if I had given only myself a deadline; I know that she’ll badger me if I haven’t finished, and I’ll do the same for her. We also read and give feedback on each other’s work, which gives me space to test out ideas or information before I submit whatever I’m working on to my advisor or give a paper at a conference. It’s also incredibly helpful to have someone to talk to, once a week, who is in the grad school trenches with you. Our conversations cover not only challenges we’re facing with our dissertations, but also job applications, professional development opportunities, and life in general from someone who’s in the same boat.

Another strategy I’ve employed to similar ends is a dissertation writing group. There are many resources for starting such a group (here and here, for example). Groups like this come with the added benefit of gathering together grad students who are likely outside of your area of expertise and who can help ensure you’re not making assumptions about outsiders’ knowledge of your topic.

Tools of the Trade

It took some experimenting for me to find the right combination of tools I use to do the actual work of dissertating. In the archives, I use the TurboScan app on my iPhone to take pictures of documents in the archives and upload those .pdfs to my computer. It can be a bit buggy if I’m using it for, say, a 150-page document, but overall it’s worked well. For organizing all those documents after I’ve left the archive, I use DEVONthink Pro Office. The interface lets me nest folders into folders, which works well for my visual brain, as it essentially mimics the structure of an archive’s collection-box-folder system. It’s a little pricey ($150), but there is a student discount and you can download and use it for 150 hours free of charge to see if you like it. I tried all three versions and went with the Pro Office version since it offers OCR (Optical Character Recognition) capabilities. (You can find posts on how historians use DevonThink here, here, and here. Some of them are a little older, but I still found them useful.) I use Evernote for secondary source material, which I like because I can tag a document or .pdf with the subjects it covers and the chapter I’m using it for. I store article .pdfs here as well as notes on monographs.


Scrivener in “Draft” mode.

For writing, I use the word processing program Scrivener, which I can’t recommend highly enough. The program has a “Research” and a “Draft” section, and under these you can nest any number of folders and documents. I collect notes from primary and secondary sources into documents organized by subject in the Research section, then make an outline from that information in a separate document, then write about that subject in the Draft section. I really like that you can move the subjects around, so if I decided that I should talk about the historiography of Hoover Dam in the introduction of Chapter 2 rather than towards the end of that chapter, I just drag the document containing Hoover’s historiography up to the Intro.

I’m perpetually terrified that my computer will crash and I’ll lose everything I’ve written ever since that happened my junior year of college just as I was starting a major project. To allay my fears (and save my work), I back up both my laptop and desktop computers to the cloud storage service Backblaze, which once you set up you never have to think about again and only costs $5 per device per month. I also have an external hard drive with Time Machine backups for my desktop, where I do most of my work.


I hope this helps those of you who are starting—or are in the thick of—your dissertation project. Got tips and tricks of your own? Please share in the comments below or tweet at me (@ParadoxofPlace) or Erstwhile (@ErstwhileBlog).


3 thoughts on “Writing a Dissertation: What They Don’t Teach You in Grad School

  1. This may be the best blog post I have read in a long time. I use the DreamBook Planner for my personal life, but have been thinking about trying to find an awesome U-planner for a while. Great tips

    I dissertated back in the 1990s, wrote my first few books the old way (notecards and actual folders) because few anything electronic was available. Now that scanners/copiers save as PDFs, I was trying to reinvent the wheel. Embedding these links to folders in my work this year (sabbatical) for my next few books will be a much easier task, thanks to you and not having to reinvent the wheel. I already use Evernote (minimally, I know the forms by heart now), DropBox (1T/yr shared by all devices for $99 is cheaper since I use about six devices), and backup religiously (I have had two computer crashes, including my first, an 8088 back in the early 1990s!).

    Thanks so much!!!


  2. Thanks for this post!
    I am writing my dissertation on environmental history and the information I collected during my research semester is driving me crazy.

  3. Reblogged this on Educating Professionals and commented:
    This blog post describes useful ideas and tools for those working on dissertations and other long writing projects. It is written from the vantage point of historical work, but has much to offer social and psychological science scholars, as well. — Edprof

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