Note: This article was first written in Chinese on January 27, 2016 and translated into English in 2022.
People say that writing a dissertation is a very dreadful, if not the most agonizing, stage. Let me share some of my thoughts on the process with you.
In the United States, many PhD candidates compile the papers they published during their PhD studies and make that their dissertation. Although I have published a few papers during my PhD studies, my dissertation is entirely new. Originally, I was planning to graduate in August, but my graduation date was advanced to May because I will be starting my new job earlier than I had anticipated. Under such great pressure, I am glad to find that I have not fallen behind. In fact, I am in an excellent mood every day despite the pressure, so I would like to share some useful tips on how I am able to do so. It is my hope that everyone can write their dissertations efficiently and happily!
1. Setting realistic goals for yourself is very important
I am very determined to graduate on time because of various life pressures. This, in combination with my personality, makes me avoid resorting to delaying my graduation as a backup plan. Knowing myself, I can only focus on one single thing at a time, so I’ve paused all of my other ongoing projects (including a ‘revise & resubmit’) to not overwhelm myself. I created larger goals (like finishing a certain part before a given month) as well as smaller goals (like writing 700-900 words per day). As long as I complete a daily goal, I can be satisfied with my progress even if I have wasted some time here and there. If we write dissertations while working on other projects in addition to balancing family demands, it’s easy to burn out mentally and physically.
2. Documenting progress helps you gain a sense of accomplishment and remain in high spirits
This point somewhat ties into my first point. Every day, I document my progress on Weibo (a China-based microblogging platform similar to Twitter). Doing so not only spreads positivity to those who see my posts but also holds myself accountable. I’ve even developed somewhat of an urge to post something every day as a way to report my progress to my followers. This gives me a sense of security and at the same time, it makes me feel more accomplished. Consequently, I can focus better while I work to complete my daily goals. Meanwhile, don't be too harsh on yourself. There is no need to criticize yourself for writing too slowly or not getting anything done; life already comes with enough pressure as it is, so treat yourself gently!
3. Just sit down and write; don’t judge your writing
It takes me hours to get into the flow when I write on my computer. I always take my time, fixing things here and there. When I plan out the day, I like to take into account this warm-up period. Another key point is to write shamelessly. Oftentimes when I am writing I’m slow as molasses and the quality of my writing is simply appalling. But after you have a draft, you can take your time to edit it, and the quality will only improve from then on. Sometimes, I’m also not the most objective person when it comes to judging my own writing. For example, I was really displeased with my second dissertation chapter (update: this chapter has been published in Journal of Marriage and Family) no matter how much I edited it, but when my mentor read it, he remarked, “I enjoyed reading the chapter. It is well thought out and well executed. The writing is good and easy to understand. Great job!” As the saying goes, a good dissertation is a done dissertation.
4. Find a source of entertainment
Don’t make your life revolve around your dissertation because then you’ll start to feel lifeless. For instance, I always dress up before heading to the office to work on my dissertation. I also have peers who envision themselves to be bestselling authors writing a novel; this is actually quite helpful for writing the introduction because in essence, we write papers to sell our ideas to the audience. Apart from that, I also have to teach while working on my dissertation. Even so, teaching is a relief for me because I have the opportunity to interact with others.
5. Rest, rest, rest!
Generally, I concentrate on my work for 4 to 5 hours, and spend another 2 to 3 hours on campus dealing with other tasks and doing some errands. When I get home in the evening, I stop working altogether and don’t even think about anything work-related, and I don’t feel guilty about it! This makes it so I wake up in a good mood every morning because I feel energized and ready to take on the day. In the late afternoon, I’m still in a good mood because by then I will have ended a day of hard work, and I can look forward to the evening which is my self-care time. Also, I try to get at least 8 or 9 hours of sleep each day. If I sleep later, I would also accordingly wake up later the next day. This way, I can maintain mental clarity in the mornings and head to work fully recharged. I don’t do intense physical activities like running or aerobics, but I do make sure I go on a walk for 30 to 60 minutes on every work day. While I walk, I’ll listen to music, people watch, or space out.
These are some tips I have summed up as of now. Hopefully, you’ll find them useful. Once I finish defending my dissertation, I’ll revisit these points and see if I have any new insights to add. You’re also welcome to add to the list. Be open-minded to trying new things and find what works best for you. At the end of the day, finding strategies to work efficiently is also a part of figuring out who we are!
The original article in Chinese is "如何高效、快乐地写博士论文？." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Doris Li for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
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Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia