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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.

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.

#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.

#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!

About David Huffstutler

David pastors First Baptist Church in Rockford, IL, serves as a chaplain for his local police department, and teaches as adjunct faculty at Bob Jones University. 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.