Writing your PhD thesis is the most rewarding accomplishment of your education. It’s what allows you to call yourself “Doctor”.
One problem: it’s hundreds of pages long and writing anything of that length can feel like climbing a mountain, even if you’ve written papers for your coursework. You promise yourself you’ll get started next week. Or you enjoy a few productive weeks and then you can’t seem to keep going.
Then the deadline grows shorter. You start to worry, “I’m so far behind. Can I ever catch up? I’m a good student. So why haven’t I been more productive?”
What’s causing the delay is nothing other than PhD writers’ block — something every professional writer (and yes, every professor) has experienced. So how are they still churning out articles and books at a prolific rate and you can’t get past five pages?
The difference is, they don’t stop writing. They’ve learned a few ways to trick their writers’ block into a burst of creativity.
Below we present 7 ways to beat writers’ block and become a highly productive writer. You won’t just finish your dissertation on time. Your life will become less stressed and you’ll have plenty of time to get everything done.
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1. Write every day
Some people prefer to work according to a set time frame. They’ll write for 30 or 45 minutes each day.
Others prefer to count words, setting the bar as low as 300-500. That’s the length of a long-ish email to a good friend. Once you’ve written your 500 words you get to stop, whether you need fifteen minutes or a whole hour. The key is, you can keep going as long as you like. But the next day you still have to write 30 minutes or 300 new words, or whatever target you have set yourself.
Don’t worry about form or style. It’s much easier to edit than to start from scratch. Just keep the words flowing and avoid skipping even one day. When you do, the next day will be even harder.
2. Can’t figure out what to write?
Imagine you’re typing an email to a good friend. Write about why you’re not writing, such as:
“I’ve got these five variables in my model. How I will measure X1, X2, X4 and X5. X3 is a challenge. How can I figure out how to measure X3? Ask my advisor? Research to see what others have done?”
Let’s face it: you know what your dissertation’s going to be about. What’s scary is putting it into a form you can send to your advisor.
So start with this chatty format. You might look up two hours later to find your coffee has gotten cold and you’ve drafted the entire proposal — or chapter — in one sitting. You won’t be the first.
3. Find your writing nook
Find a place where you can write, you’re free from distractions and where you aren’t tempted to do anything else.
Very quickly you’ll start to associate this place with writing. Your thoughts will automatically turn to your dissertation and you’ll be able to jump right in.
If you’re assigned to share an office with one or two other students, you’ll probably find that’s not a great place to write. You can’t control distractions. If you or your office mates also serve as teaching assistants, you may also get students showing up at all hours.
Some doctoral students set up a home office, even if it’s a corner of their living room or kitchen table. Others actually find a home in the local coffee shop. Some get assigned to a library carrel; you’re not alone but nobody’s allowed to talk.
A few graduate students join co-working spaces — places where you rent a desk by the day or month. You’ll need to shop around for a co-working space that fits your style and budget. A big advantage of this approach is that everyone in the room works really hard. You’ll feel social pressure to keep working. Best of all, the other members understand if you’re too busy to talk. You feel more like a grown-up with a job, so you’re likely to take the whole thing much more seriously.
5. Build in some down time
When I was writing my dissertation, I was teaching full-time at a state university. I would teach, deal with students and enjoy some downtime. In the evening I’d go to my office and work on my dissertation for three or four hours, almost every night.
The toughest part was getting home after midnight in a college town: the campus police would escort me to my car and every so often I’d meet a smirking student with that “what did you do?” look.
Nevertheless, my dissertation got done ahead of schedule and I got to say “I told you so” to all the nay-sayers who proclaimed, “You’ll never finish if you teach.” The key is to set a firm schedule that will be a non-negotiable. You never think, “Should I start working now?” You just go.
It’s also important to choose a time that harmonizes with your natural rhythms. At that time, I liked working late. As a bonus, there were no distractions: nobody else was around.
Some of my colleagues would rise early, begin work at 7, and end their day around noon. They’d take the entire afternoon and evening off without a single twinge of guilt.
Best of all, you create a habit, just as you did with your workspace. When your work time rolls around, you’ll automatically tune into your dissertation. As you make progress, you’ll actually look forward to each work session.
6. Set up a supportive accountability buddy or hire a coach
Find a classmate — not necessarily in the same department — who’s also writing a dissertation. Some buddies meet weekly to share what they’ve done. Some have daily telephone check-ins. What matters is that you’re comfortable with the arrangement so you’ll be motivated to keep going.
Set the ground rules: no judgment, no scolding, and no false praise. You’ll want to look forward to each meeting.
You might decide to ask each other questions, but you might just report progress. Consistency is more important than format.
If you can afford the fees, it’s not unusual for doctoral students to hire a life coach or career coach to stay motivated. Hiring a coach can be a good move if your advisor isn’t particularly helpful, if you’re experiencing an unusual amount of stress or if your department is so lacking in collegiality that you can’t find a buddy.
You call your coach three or four times a month to report progress. Coaches are trained to offer encouragement without hype. You may find yourself experiencing personal as well as professional growth.
7. Promise yourself a meaningful but completely realistic reward.
I began planning my graduation party long before I finished writing. Some of my classmates planned travel, reunions with family, or even weddings. Knowing you’ve got a light waiting at the end of the tunnel does two things: you get motivated and you keep things in perspective. This is just one blip in your life. There’s no need to stress over it.
The end is closer than you think …
Don’t wait! Once you get momentum going, you’ll start to feel rewarded as you pass each milestone. Believe it or not, many PhDs carry happy memories of writing their dissertations. It’s a rare chance to focus on one significant research problem. You’re learning skills you will use throughout your career, especially if you engage in research. And you’ll never forget the moment when you walk across that stage to claim your degree, and someone calls you “Doctor” for the very first time.
If, in spite of these seven tips, you’re still unhappy with what you’re writing and how you’re writing it then get in touch. We’re the foremost PhD writing experts. We won’t write your thesis for you, but we can help you to present your writing in the best possible light.
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