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11 Considerations for How to Write a Dissertation

2014.10.31 - boy studying from 1924I recently had a friend ask for advice about writing during the dissertation stage of a Ph. D. program. I thought I’d include this advice here for any it may benefit. As a disclaimer, please remember this is not necessarily expert advice but simply one man’s experience.

#1 Before You Do Anything Else
Once you’ve picked your topic and done a good bit of research, sit down with your major professor or academic mentor and map out your entire dissertation. This planning meeting was by far the most helpful thing I could have ever done at the outset of the writing stage of my dissertation. I knew exactly what I was going to do all the way through and was able to plan practically as a result. Along with this planning, outline your dissertation to be seven levels deep for every chapter. Once you’ve thought through your content that thoroughly, it’s pretty easy to start typing and filling in the content.

#2 Have a Weekly Routine
I tried to make my schedule so that I basically wrote a page a day on average, though that’s never quite what it looked like in actuality. A typical week looked like this:

  • Do research on Mondays – I would drive to the libraries at TEDS or Wheaton in the Chicago area, take a lunch, stay all day, read, take notes, etc. That gave me 10-12 hours of research to write from for the rest of the week. (Keep in mind—you don’t know what or how to research well without the initial dissertation-planning phase.)
  • From that research, I would typically write for 1-2 hours each morning (usually 5:30 to 7:30 AM), Tuesday through Friday.
  • I would write from 5:30 AM to 12:00 PM Saturdays and give the rest of the day to family. There is no substitute for large blocks of writing time. These Saturdays were crucial to pumping out the pages to complete the chapters and eventually the dissertation.
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This said, a given week was 15-25 hours of research and writing. I wrote my dissertation in about a year, so this time could be less if you’re planning to spread your writing out over a longer period of time. Also, this schedule is a general guide. Holidays, life events, church schedule (especially for pastors) regularly disrupted this schedule.

#3 Give Yourself Time to Edit
I tried to get a chapter done a week before its deadline. This gave me time to let it sit for a day and then come back to edit it. It also gave time to let my wife and the SBL reader give it their own comments and corrections. For your own proof-reading, there is no substitute for printing out a rough draft to edit with red ink on paper. Editing from a computer screen will always miss many mistakes.

#4 Stick to Deadlines
Don’t miss deadlines, period. Once one deadline slips, the snowball is set in motion, and other deadlines may be missed in turn because you’ve placed yourself in the death-cycle of always try to catch up. A crisis or unexpected event will be the straw that breaks this camel’s back. Long-term results could be that you have to move defense dates and even graduation. Financially, you may have to pay for continuation fees or reschedule flights for new defense and graduation dates. Moving deadlines is also frustrating for readers who are planning according to the schedule given to them. For me personally, I knew our third child was on the way and knew life was going to get even busier. Those were all motivations for me to stick to my schedule.

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#5 Work in the Morning
Personally, I work best in the morning when my energy is at its peak. My mind is usually too tired at the end of the day to get anything done that is worthwhile. Sometimes, though, the evening could be used to format footnotes and other mindless things.

#6 Get Your Sleep
I tried to jealously guard my sleep time – too little sleep will easily stifle ability to concentrate for research and writing. One typically needs 7 to 8 hours of sleep, as tempting as it is to steal from sleep to get more work done. The long-term results of getting work done with little sleep will easily lead to burnout. Again, let your deadlines be the exception, but don’t let the exception become the rule.

#7 Make Time for Family
I also tried to not let the dissertation eat into family time. At the same time, when deadlines approach, extra time may be needed to make sure you meet the deadline. From my weekly schedule above, if one rigorously sticks to getting things done in the morning, evenings and a half-Saturday give ample time to relax and breathe and catch up.

#8 It’s Not the Mona Lisa
I remember one professor saying about the dissertation, “Just get it done. It’s not a work of art.” I repeated that saying to myself all the time, especially when I wanted to touch up a chapter or paragraph when it was already satisfactory. The dissertation can be consuming, but it is not an end in and of itself.

#9 Learn to Say “No”
My brother did a Ph. D. and gave me some good advice. You will have to say “no” to many social engagements, and people will simply not understand the level of work it takes to get a dissertation done, whether family, friend, or acquaintance. It’s not fun, but there is no easy way to do this.

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#10 Eat the Elephant
My brother repeated to me his own Ph. D. director’s advice. He called writing a dissertation “eating the elephant.” You can’t eat an elephant all at once, but you can do it a little bit at a time over a long period of time. I repeated this saying to myself all the time as well.

#11 Don’t Give Up
There were times I hated the dissertation and wanted to give up because it was so much work for such a long period of time. At the same time, I would remind myself what I and my family and churches had invested in the program, and that it would be a waste of resources to give up and cash in for a Th. M., an option for some Ph. D. programs when students have done the classwork but want to drop out at the dissertation stage. (Except for academians, nobody typically even knows what a Th. M. is anyway!) Not many have the privilege of Bible college, let alone seminary, let alone a Ph. D., and let alone one from a good seminary. I would also remind myself that teaching as adjunct or full-time faculty anywhere had limited possibilities at best if I didn’t have the Ph.D.

PS For a twelfth consideration, don’t think a completed Ph. D. makes you anything special. My wife read through this post and found four typos!

David Huffstutler

About David Huffstutler

David pastors First Baptist Church in Rockford, IL. David holds a Ph. D. in Applied Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His concentration in Christian Leadership focuses his contributions to pastoral and practical theology.

4 Responses to 11 Considerations for How to Write a Dissertation

  1. This advice is great.

    Related to number 8, I had a friend helpfully remind me that “the best dissertation is a done dissertation.”

    I’d add that at some point is best to simply write. Sometimes the endless rabbit trails of research can keep one from doing the essential thing: writing.

    Earning a Ph.D. requires more work than brains.

  2. Great advice, David. I admire your discipline. I was told that the dissertation wasn’t my “magnum opus.” It was an academic exercise—the crowning one, one which should be publishable (or contain publishable material), but still an exercise.

    I also found it invaluable to have in-laws who allowed me to hole myself up in their basement at two key times in the process, keeping my small children at bay and supporting me with their prayers and interest. I never wanted to quit, because I loved my topic too much (that in itself may have been a problem!), but I do regularly marvel that the Lord brought my wife and me through. I learned a lot, and the issues I explored have become foundational for all my theological writing.

    At BJU the PhD students got together for a few meetings toward the beginning of my program, and I took notes on the presentations—mostly from guys who had just finished the program and wanted to give us advice like yours. Here are my notes from those meetings:

    http://byfaithweunderstand.com/2010/02/12/notes-for-ph-d-students-at-bob-jones-seminary/

  3. Mark – what a helpful link. Thank you.

    I should qualify that I loved my topic as well (pneumatology) – it was the time away from family that was discouraging. My love for the topic kept me going as well.

    From the article you linked, one of the helpful comments was to write papers on your topic during your classwork. I did this and had roughly 25% of my dissertation completed by the time my writing stage officially began. Excellent advice. Along with this, I had the Ph. D. director as my academic mentor, which gave me helpful advice ahead of time for what turned into my topic for dissertation.

    Also like you, my wife was part-and-parcel with the dissertation. She proofed every chapter, and it took a handful of hours together to go through her comments. Sometimes that was the most time we would sit together on a given day or week. True love!

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