Writing your thesis: Tips for successful, self-directed progress!

By Emily Elia: Words of wisdom about how to stay productive when your work schedule is self-directed.

hands typing on a white keyboard. A yellow wristwatch lies on a white table nearby.

For many Ph.D. students, the first few years of grad school look quite different from the last few years. In the beginning, grad classes take up a lot of time and structure much of the work and research. But Ph.D. students are not in classes throughout their entire degree. Eventually, you'll complete classes and focus solely on research. This change from more structured to less structured time can be difficult for many students. You know you are supposed to be working on your dissertation over the next few years, but how? When?

Without the more structured schedule of classes, managing time and staying organized can be difficult. However, this challenge is one that most (if not all) Ph.D. students have faced! There's a lot of advice out there about how to stay on top of your research and writing. Below, I outline some words of wisdom about how to stay productive when your work schedule is entirely up to you and undoubtedly daunting.

Some say to write every day.

No matter what field you are in, all Ph.D. students dedicate time to writing. We have to write in order to synthesize and convey our research to a larger audience, and we certainly have to write to produce a dissertation. Writing advice from all kinds of writers, from fellow academics to authors of novels, frequently includes this tip: work on your writing every day, even if only for a brief moment. Many writers state that they carve out a specific time in their day that is dedicated only to writing, and they commit to getting something down on paper during that time.

Pick a time during the day that you think is your peak time for writing. For some, it’s early morning right after they wake up. For others, it’s just before bed, or perhaps just after lunch. Whenever the time, dedicate it to writing every day. Of course, some days you will be writing far more, but on the days that feel especially sluggish, having this little bit of time tucked away for writing can help you chip away at your writing tasks, even if that chipping is miniscule. Remember that getting your Ph.D. is a marathon, not a sprint!

Also remember that writing every day does not mean you have to contribute to your research writing every single day. Writing other things (such as papers outside your dissertation, blog posts, notes for readings, etc.) can have a positive impact on your writing productivity in general. Writing skills are like a muscle; the more you work at them, the stronger they will become. Just as there are many different exercises that can help you build muscle strength, there are many different forms of writing that will help you become a stronger writer overall.

Take advantage of university resources!

The Center for Academic and Professional Communication at Rice is a great resource for all your writing needs. The CAPC offers various ways to help you improve writing and help you get your writing done. You can set up one-on-one consultations to go over your writing with CAPC staff and get individualized feedback. To help stay productive, you can go to the (virtual) Graduate Writers’ Lounge on Zoom for some writing group motivation, or even participate in more field-specific writing groups with other Rice grad students. If you want guidance about how to improve your writing as well as some helpful tools for staying on top of it, visiting the CAPC is a great place to start.

For more helpful writing guidance, check out CAPC’s resources page.

Figure out what motivates you to work.

Some people have no problem getting work done. They say they will do X and so they sit down and do it. Unfortunately, not all of us have that much laser-focused will power! Many of us need some kind of motivation to get our work done that goes beyond the sheer desire to get our work done. It may be a deadline, a reward for finishing a task, or social support, to name just a few motivators. Understanding what motivates you to work is an important step in being a better manager of your time. For example, if you know that deadlines do absolutely nothing for your motivation, then don’t think setting a deadline for that dissertation chapter is going to impact your progress significantly. In contrast, if you know external incentives are a big motivator, then commit to buying yourself a reward only when that dissertation chapter is finished.

Accountability groups can be a big help.

In the same vein as understanding your motivation, it is also important to understand how you best hold yourself accountable. Many people find accountability groups to be extremely helpful in staying on track with work. Having a tough time making yourself work on that paper? Get together with some of the students in your grad program to form a writing group. Pick a set time every week to “meet” (this could be virtually over Zoom!) to work solely on writing. At the beginning of each meeting, everyone in the group states what they are working on. After a set amount of time passes, everyone updates the group on the progress you have made. Nobody wants to be the person who says, “Actually, guys, I didn’t write anything during this past hour because I was scrolling on Twitter.” Accountability writing groups are a popular tool amongst writers of all kinds, and there is a lot of advice out there about how to set up a successful group. You can check out how to make a successful accountability writing group here, here, and here.

Make SMART goals.

Writing a dissertation is a daunting task. Writing one paper can feel overwhelming oftentimes! While the goal of “finish my dissertation” is well and good, it provides you with absolutely zero guidelines. Instead, break up your big goals into small goals that can actually be crossed off a to-do list frequently.

Many people swear by the concept of SMART goals. What are SMART goals? They are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

SMART goals can help you chop up big goals into smaller, doable pieces. Think of your goals like Russian nesting dolls. You have your big, main goal: finish your dissertation. That is a two or three year goal, but it isn’t a SMART goal. It contains no criteria that guides you on how to complete it. You have to store your SMART goals within this big goal—that is how the big goal gets done. So, within your big dissertation doll, you have a series of subsequently smaller dolls that represent SMART goals (that get SMARTer and SMARTer). Within that goal, you have your goal for this year: complete all data collection for the dissertation, for example. Within that goal, you have your goal for the next six months: run your first experiment. Then, your goal for the next few months, the goal for this month, the goal for this week…

Having big goals is important, but you need to have small goals that can actually get done. These are the goals that move you closer to that big goal! Making sure your goals are specific and doable will help you make progress. Like the old saying goes, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at time!

Take time off to recharge.

You know what is not good for your productivity? Working all the time! A lot of grad students believe that they must be working 24/7, but that mindset is not practical or healthy. That constant grind is also not inherently improving the quality of your work. In fact, taking time off can make you more successful at your work. If you sit down at your computer and feel only exhaustion and frustration, you may be burnt out and in desperate need of a break. Burnout will probably look a bit different for everyone, but here are some common signs that you’ve been burning the candle at both ends for far too long.

Make sure you allow yourself to step away from work, whether that be in the form of a vacation to a favorite destination, or long weekend visiting friends and family nearby, or a weekend where you do not touch your work at all (no, really -- hands off the laptop!). Combating burnout can also be helped by having a consistently structured work schedule that separates work time from relaxation time. However, even if you are somebody who does a good job of balancing work and play, taking a vacation every now and then can still help you feel recharged and recentered.

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About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a third-year Ph.D. student in political science. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2018 and currently studies comparative politics with a focus on Latin America.