Your dissertation is an important a rite of passage in your career. The fact that you have successfully defended your Ph.D. thesis is a sign that you are no longer a student but an independent scientist with a Ph.D. degree, capable of conceiving and executing a research project. I’m sure you cannot wait to see that day, and I congratulate you in advance for it.

But the road to this milestone can prove a bumpy one, fraught with hurdles, both anticipated and unexpected, or to borrow the famous words of a former American Secretary of Defense: "known unknowns and unknown unknowns.“

Having gone through the process of writing dissertations twice over in a manner of speaking—the first time a Masters’ thesis in microbiology and the second my doctoral dissertation in the history of science—here are some field notes on how to get one written and defended in a timely manner.

1. First rule: it is never too early to start writing : In my experience both as a student and as a teacher, graduate students tend to think of the dissertation as the last thing they need to attend to or something that can be quickly “written up” after the research when the “real work” is done.

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Immersed as they are in the day-to-day work in the laboratory—e.g., getting that experiment to run properly, confirming evidence, getting that last bit of data—science students are especially susceptible to procrastination when it comes to writing their dissertations.

However, while it is true that chronologically speaking, writing and defending are your last acts before getting that PhD degree, it is vital to realize that writing is a process. Like all processes, it is a cumulative process that begins long before you work on the actual product.

Just as you don’t run a marathon without having taken various preparatory measures—e.g., a short run, a long hike, sessions at the gym—you cannot plunge into dissertation writing without training for it.

Start preparing for writing your thesis from the very first day you enter graduate school. Every paper you write, ever presentation you give, and even every argument you hone is another tangible step toward that ultimate goal, i.e., it helps you tone and condition your writing skills.

So write often and as much as you can right from the get go because it will save you much time later. Save copies of everything you submit because you never know when or how you may find it useful.

2. Dedicate some time specifically for dissertation writing : Make writing a part of your routine. It doesn’t have to be a daily activity (though that wouldn’t hurt), but like a workout, it is important to get into the habit of regularity for better efficiency and time management in the long run.

3. Keep your advisor in the loop throughout the process : Communication is key for all aspects of your Ph.D., but probably nowhere more so than for getting your dissertation written in a timely fashion.

Most people—and I’ll confess to being of this party sometimes—are  sensitive about showing their written work to others until they believe it is “finished,” but this can be a big mistake.

Have regular meetings with your advisor about your work, its progress or the lack thereof. Do not be worried that you are wasting your advisor’s time with such requests. He or she—and other professors and mentors—are there to help you with different aspects of writing (and sometimes proofreading) as well as the science itself.

More importantly, such meetings make your advisor aware of what you are doing and thinking about, which is an important consideration given that you are likely not their only graduate student.

I can remember one occasion in which the lack of communication between a student and advisor until the eve of the defense resulted in a near rejection of the dissertation because the contents were so unexpected. Thus, it was back to square one or ground zero for the student. Granted, such a scenario is unlikely to play out in a science laboratory (as compared to a doctoral thesis in the humanities) because scientific graduate research is often a part of a larger project, but even so, you want your professors to know about your progress.

4. Maintain an annotated bibliography : In my opinion, this relatively simple practice is perhaps the single most valuable time-management device for a researcher, not only as a graduate student but throughout one’s career.

Much more than a simple reference list or bibliography of different readings, an annotated bibliography includes your personal commentary—call them reading notes—on each paper that you’ve read.

I will discuss different styles and strategies for compiling annotated bibliographies in a future article but will offer here an example of their considerable utility as a time-management tool:

Whenever I sit down to write a formal paper, I open up relevant annotated bibliographies. I maintain several for different subjects and projects in the background and use them interactively with my work in progress. Working with an outline of my idea, I patch in various useful pieces from my bibliographies—e.g., quotes, arguments, opinions—that I then fully flesh out with additional writing, such as commentary, updates, and references.

If you would like more information now on how to organize your bibliography, check out the article: Important English Academic Style Guides .

You can also read my article on the importance of citations: 6 Reasons Why Citation of Sources is Important When Writing .

5. Work on “stepping stone” assignments: In addition to the annotated bibliography, there are other types of articles that you should practice writing to prepare yourself for the longer task ahead.

In some universities, a PhD thesis in science is often a compilation of published papers bookended with an introduction and discussion. Even when it is not, a published paper is a great core on which to build a dissertation.

So, periodically write down evaluative reports of your experiments or groups of experiments, regardless of whether they succeeded or not. Indeed, writing about failures is important because they can provide fodder for evaluation and discussion (something to discuss in a future article).

Other useful genres to experiment with writing include literature reviews or bibliographic essays (where again the annotated bibliographies can serve as useful springboards), descriptions and evaluations of new methodologies and techniques, and even an occasional book review.

You will find these documents to be very useful time saving devices when you sit down to compose your dissertation, be it in a paper format or the full-fledged version.

6. Present your work at workshops, conferences and meetings : Take every opportunity to present your work at formal conferences, in less formal lab group meetings, and/or at graduate student conferences because each presentation entails a certain amount of writing that adds to your stockpile of raw material for your thesis or dissertation.

7. Join or form a dissertation writing group : Many universities have formal systems in place to gather groups of students in similar stages of their PhDs who meet at regular intervals to read and discuss each others’ writing.

If you have this type of access, waste no time in joining such a group, preferably with members that you do not socialize with. If no such service is available, try to round up other PhD students in related but not identical fields to form a group.

Although the idea of having more meetings (as if you don‘t have enough already with the weekly laboratory meetings and/or those sessions with your advisor) might seem like a waste of time and counterintuitive to efficiency just when are you supposed to get your experiments done, writing groups are extremely useful and ultimately save time.

It is true that such groups require more of a time investment in other people’s work than you might want, but like the aforementioned meetings with advisors, they keep you honest and on track with writing besides providing additional layers of revision and proofreading.

Other articles that may interest you:

Why Researchers Need an ORCID iD and How to Get One

Top 7 US/UK University Websites that Provide Academic Publishing Resources and Advice

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About the Author:

Neeraja Sankaran is a historian of science (Ph.D., Yale University, 2006) specializing in the recent history of biological and biomedical research. She came to this field with a background and experience in science writing (Grad. certificate, 1993) and microbiology (M.Sc., 1990). Author of two general reference-style books on the topics of micro-organisms and the human genome as well as numerous articles on science and scientists for general audiences, she has also published a number of papers in peer-reviewed academic journals on various aspects of the history of biology and medicine, including but not limited to, virus research, immunology, and origin-of-life theorizing. She is currently an independent scholar working on a scholarly monograph that is expected to be published in 2018 by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Topics : Scientific Writing Dissertation Time Management
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