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Tips for a Lonely Dissertation Writer... Anyone?

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  • Tips for a Lonely Dissertation Writer... Anyone?

    I was wondering if folks have tips for dissertation writers. Basically I'm mostly trying to organize this one big project. I think there's definitely something to be said for clearing away the open loops, and I'm doing that. My main concern is that I'm handling a lot of reference material. I'm curious to hear from other Grad students to see how they've successfully implimented GTD for this type of project. I'm not dealing with 300 emails, and the zillion calls of the business person. In fact, my phone rarely rings! And I've recently cured myself of a nasty email habit.

    What I'm finding is that I need files that are important in a rolling file, and I need to put my hands on them regularly, that is, review them and remind myself of their existence, or the existence of the ideas in them. The other thing that I'm experimenting with is a Read/Review folder for reading that requires immediate attention.

    I've also decided to break the project down into smaller projects. In some cases this is a particular theme that I'm researching. Obviously once I have a better sense than I do now, I can organize chapters as projects, since they're basically like writing self standing essays.


  • #2
    Originally posted by philosopherdog
    I think there's definitely something to be said for clearing away the open loops, and I'm doing that.
    Yes! Before I read GTD, when I sat down to work on a paper, I would be wondering if I had forgotten to pay a bill or some other urgent errand. GTD has helped me capture all that boring stuff, so that when I sit down to write, my mind is not distracted by what I might be missing.

    And "when I sit down to write" is probably my biggest tip. Set aside a chunk or two of time every day to write, the times when you have your best mental energy.

    Originally posted by philosopherdog
    My main concern is that I'm handling a lot of reference material.
    It's essential to use reference management software of some sort. I use BibTeX (along with LaTeX for typesetting papers). If you don't use LaTeX, you might want to use EndNote or ProCite or RefWorks. Your school may support and/or provide the software for you.

    I have developed a bibliography that uses the first author's last name and publication year as the naming convention I use to cite the papers. So I file them that way too -- alphabetically by first author's last name. You develop a memory for the papers using that author-year shorthand, and you will notice others using the same shorthand (e.g., "Dell 97"). (Pity the poor co-authors who end up with no recognition.)

    Originally posted by philosopherdog
    What I'm finding is that I need files that are important in a rolling file, and I need to put my hands on them regularly, that is, review them and remind myself of their existence, or the existence of the ideas in them.
    For notes and ideas about a paper I'm writing, I keep them in a folder and review them periodically. I have a "Review notes" action in my PDA that repeats routinely to remind me. A physical tickler file would also work. When some of the notes and ideas become obsolete as the research progresses, I move them to a subfolder called "Old." (Yes, I'm a packrat.)

    Originally posted by philosopherdog
    In fact, my phone rarely rings! And I've recently cured myself of a nasty email habit.
    At a time when I was really stuck in my research, I read some advice NOT to put all fun things in your life on hold while writing a dissertation (or completing any other large project). Ironically, I started making much better progress when I took this advice. Be sure to take care of yourself: exericise, eat well, and get plenty of rest. And maintain a social life and relationships and set aside some time for fun. Of course, you can't let certain time sinks get out of control, but I find if I schedule time for fun and relaxation, I'm much more attracted to my research when it's time for it.

    Originally posted by philosopherdog
    The other thing that I'm experimenting with is a Read/Review folder for reading that requires immediate attention.
    I'm not sure why the reading requires immediate attention, but I'm working a big paper right now and I have stuff to read in various piles on my desk. It's way too much stuff to fit in folders, plus I'm using this stuff much of the day, every day. In fact, while I'm working, lots of papers end up opened and bookmarked and spread out all over the place. Then I re-pile them to regain some desk surface. Pile 1 = must read in order to complete thoughts already written; Pile 2 = already read and wrote about; Pile 3 = material that may come in handy to develop an idea; Pile 4 = read carefully and think about deeply; Pile 5 = email the author regarding. . .etc.

    I have no trouble reading papers; I tend to read too much and not write enough. I also work as a consultant for a lab with computer science researchers who are just the opposite: it's impossible to get them to read. If you are more the latter (surely not if you're in philosophy!), schedule a chunk of time each day to read.

    One student in the aforementioned lab had a creative and bright idea. He implemented it and wrote up a paper for publication. As the last step writing the paper, he threw together a "Related work" section at the end of the paper. A quick web search found that someone else had already had this same bright idea and published it 20 years ago. You gotta read if you're going to do research!

    Originally posted by philosopherdog
    I've also decided to break the project down into smaller projects. . .I can organize chapters as projects, since they're basically like writing self standing essays.
    I'm not 100% sure this will work in your field, but it should: write the introduction now. And show it to your advisor. In fact, tell your advisor you will give him a draft of your introduction on such and such a date; and then just do it. You will automatically go off to read papers when you need to, and you'll retain more of what you read since you are reading with a specific purpose and processing deeply. The first draft may be quite atrocious, but you'll progress much faster if you try to express something, even horribly, than if you try to learn enough first to express something good. Trust me! And after that first draft, you'll have much greater focus for what you need to do next.


    • #3
      the references

      I wrote my dissertation long before people had data-base managers for bibliographies. Here is what I did. First I had an accordian file (A to Z) and I put articles in by order of authors' names with the title sticking up. I made sure that all the info I needed for the bibliography was on the first page of the article. I used a photocopy of the title page and table of contents for books and monographs. On the last page I made a note of where in my work I was probably citing the article (just in case there was a mix-up). If I had not read the item yet it had post it of a certain color on it, after reading the article, I noted right on the first page which part of my thesis I thought it would apply to (introduction, methods, analyses, etc.) I eventually outgrew the accordian file and went to a few file boxes with A to Z dividers.

      The main thing about dissertations is that they just need to get done. It is better to have something that needs revision than nothing. It can be a lonely time, but it is survivable. Put yourself on a schedule and once a week socialize with nice people and avoid people who might tear you down. If you have no nice people, join a church or temple with older folks and go to the weekly coffee hour. They will be very interested in your progress and you will give them some mental stimulation. Good luck!


      • #4
        Good book by Eviatar Zerubavel:

        The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books


        • #5
          I don't know that I can necessarily point to GtD techniques for helping me with my disseratation, but I did have a plan for the review of lit that I think is worth passing along.

          I made no notes on 3X5 cards nor did I ever have various sources scattered all over the floor. On my computer, I had a single file that I had named something like "Lit Review." It really amounted electronic 3X5 cards.

          I would read a particular source (article or book) from beginning to end and take notes on screen. I would putt a couple of line breaks between each entry I used. At the end of each entry, I referenced the page number. If I had quoted anything, I used quotations right then and there so that later on there would be no doubt about what had been taken word-for-word and what I had paraphrased. When I finished with that source, I put the bibliographical entry for that article or book. Then, I would begin reading and taking notes from the next source.

          When I felt like I had read everything of value and was "done" researching, I started at the end of my notes and "copied" the last bibliographical entry. I then pasted that bibliographical entry at the end of every single citation from that particular source. I then continued that porcess throughout the entire set of notes. When I finished, bit of information was tagged with a page number and complete bibliographical entry.

          As I put together the review of literature, categories began to emerge. My next step was to begin cutting and pasting all of these bits of information so that like info was together. (This would be just like taking a set of 3X5 note cards and sorting them in the order you want to use them in your paper.)

          When I finished with this process, I basically had my review of literature organized. From there, it was a matter and creating the wording that would link these ideas and help the whole thing flow. The process also entailed cutting the bibliographical entries and pasting them in the bibliography. That insured that I had not left anything out of the bibliography. It also ensured that I had not included anything in the bibliography that had not actually been used in the paper.

          When people ask me how long it took me to write the dissertation, I always say 6 months, 2 years, or 4 year, depending on how you look at it. I had the original idea when I was working on a paper for an earlier degree (which is what I mean by the 4 year part).

          When I started the doctoral program, I knew I was going to be writing a paper for every class, so I found some way to work my eventual dissertation topic into the requirements for every one of those papers, so that I was constantly feeding the dissertation. From the time I entered the program to the time I defending the disseratation was 2 years and 2 months. I would recommend to ANYBODY starting a doctorate to spend considerable time getting at least a general idea of what they want to write the dissertation on BEFORE you start classes. Otherwise, you find yourself up to your ears getting through one class after another and no time to step back, look at the whole program, all make all the parts work together.

          I sat down with my chair on morning to hammer out a title, a hypothesis, how I would conduct the study, etc. One hour later, our meeting was done. Six months later, I defended the dissertation. The subject? Time management practices of Alabama pricipals.

          Hope this is helpful.


          • #6
            also a lonely dissertation writer

            Hi, i'm a lonely dissertation writer myself, just starting on gtd when i decided my current system (i.e. none) wasn't really working to manage my work. Don't have anything particular to say except: i'm glad to see other dissertation writers found/have found gtd useful....!


            • #7
              Not lonely, but a writer

              This is a very good topic. However, let me be brief and show you my strategies. “Andersons” post from above is great advise! I can recommend three other tools to do your work.

              1. A program like Biblioscape is for paper references and organizing citations. There are others on the market as well.


              2. I use a program called The Literary Machine that can help building/writing papers. It is an Electronic note system, etc.


              3. I’m a big believer of the use slips, or a small paper cataloging system. A small 4x6-paper slip system is very valuable and can be used in conjunction with full size manila folders. You can also carry a small notepad and record random thoughts/ideas and catalogue them later for your paper. (extremely valuable concept).

              The power of slips:

              Once you know how the tools work, it is ‘relatively’ easy to build a dissertation from the ground up, with a little help from your mind. Proper organization helps a lot. In writing, it is always better to have "too much" than not enough in your project. The project will organize itself with the increase of material, which will have to be organized and catalogued into topics, sub-topics, etc. Bingo!
              Last edited by arthur; 10-29-2005, 05:05 AM.


              • #8
                I've been thinking about how GTD applies to academic work (a dissertation, a textbook, a course, a paper) from a slightly different perspective.

                The idea here is that an 'argument' gets things done. This is 'argument' in the following sense (from the Oxford English Dictionary) 'A connected series of statements intended to establish (or subvert) a position; a process of reasoning.' Also in traditional Logic 'the middle term of a syllogism.' I love this: 'a process...', 'the middle term...'. You have a premiss; you have the conclusion you intuit or conjecture or are sure of; but what is your next action? Your next stepping stone? Your argument?

                I strongly suggest that you have a look at one of the greatest textbooks of the modern era in any field, "Molecular Biology of The Cell", by Alberts et al, from a GTD perspective. Just go to the university bookshop or library and look at it. I opened it at random, and here are is a slice of the the section headings of 'Chapter 6: How Cells Read the Genome: From DNA to Protein':

                RNA Polymerase II Requires General Transcription Factors
                Polymerase II also Requires Activator, Mediator, and Chromatin-modifying Proteins
                Transcription Elongation Produces Superhelical Tension in DNA
                Transcription Elongation in Eucaryotes is Tightly Coupled to RNA Processing
                RNA Capping is the First Modification of Eucaryotic Pre-mRNAs

                No waffle, it just gets it done. Abstracting away from the details of the field, we have:

                A Requires B
                A also Requires C, D, and E
                F Produces G in H
                F in I is Tightly Coupled to J
                K is the First Modification of Ls

                Each heading is a declarative statement, which one could easily characterize as the 'bottom line' or 'take home message' of the section.

                But now think about the process of writing this... for each well-defined declaration, there is a well-defined question:

                What does A require?
                What else does it require?
                What does F produce, and where?
                When in I, what is F linked to?
                What is the first modification of Ls?


                These are the next actions that the researcher has to perform in order to push the argument forward. In research, the argument (process of reasoning) is the 'project'. And THE argument (next term of the syllogism) is the next action in going forward.

                You can set up an outline, in which specific questions are the next actions, and where the process of completing an action is turning the questions into statements. The text of the dissertation is the support for those statements.

                Don't hesitate to work on a question and conclude, for the time being, 'It is not clear what F produces in H', as long as you site the pros and cons.

                When you go do dinner with friends, and they ask what are you working on, you need to be able to give two answers (i) the project in the widest sense 'how cells read the genome' and (ii) (even if you don't say it out loud) the next action in the most specific sense you have identified, 'and right now, what is the first modification of Eucaryotic Pre-mRNAs'.

                A question at that degree of specificity is what you should be faced with when you get to work in the morning. Set things up like this, and it will (seem to) write itself.


                • #9
                  Originally posted by mikebb View Post
                  These are the next actions that the researcher has to perform in order to push the argument forward. In research, the argument (process of reasoning) is the 'project'. And THE argument (next term of the syllogism) is the next action in going forward.
                  Thank you, thank you!! I think this is just what I needed. I've been really struggling with how to convert something like "write final paper" into manageable next actions. I will be trying this on my very next paper. If I sure hope it works – that thesis is coming up way faster than I would like.


                  • #10
                    Robert Boice

                    I just skimmed, in the last half hour, a wonderful book: Robert Boice's Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing.

                    Published in 1990, it long precedes David Allen's GTD. But I find it notable that even the subtitle of Boice's book echoes David's GTD subtitle: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Boice does recommend the time-management techniques of Alan Lakein's How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, which is a fine book but which has been made obsolete by David's GTD.

                    What is nice to find in Boice's book is data. He has done some empirical research on which methods work and which do not. Boice's approach combines behavioral, cognitive, social, and time-management techniques to get people writing. Although this book is targeted at professors with writing block, his methods have much broader application. They can be generalized to anyone who wants to write and then they can be generalized again to anyone who wants to get anything done.

                    The parts of his method that are specific to writing rely heavily on the work of Peter Elbow, whose books I strongly recommend to anyone who is looking for help writing. The genius of Boice is that he takes Elbow's specific writing techniques and embeds them in an overarching life system. This is why I find that his approach resonates so nicely with David Allen's GTD.

                    As I said in the first sentence, I've only spent 30 minutes on this book. It remains to be seen if I can use it to enhance my creative output. When I first read GTD, I didn't know whether it would work or not. But reading Boice, I already feel that it can't help but work, especially since he has the data to prove it and he uses methods that I have already seen work in other areas.


                    • #11
                      Two Related Threads

                      There are two related threads that may also be very helpful over at



                      These are excellent threads!!



                      • #12

                        If by chance you happen to be using a Mac, I would highly recommend giving Scrivener a try. Of the many writing software packages I have tried, nothing comes even close to this and, as an added bonus, it is relatively cheap (free to try, $35 to buy). Scrivener's creator has really thought through the whole process of writing--including working on a large project like a dissertation--and it has come up with something that is relatively easy to use, genuinely useful, and full of features that--once used--you can't believe no one has done this before. Programs like Word, Apple's own word processor, Word Perfect and so on are exposed for what they really are--advanced typing machines. By contrast Scrivener is part of a new wave of programs that actually facilitate and support the creative process.

                        Weaknesses: Well, if you don't own a Mac you can't use it. The biggest problem I have with it is the way it deals with footnotes. The implementation of this feature is far from elegant and ruins the great aesthetic that makes the program so easy on the eye. Another potential problem is that it is a work in progress and so some of the glitches are still being worked out. This cuts both ways, though, as the designer is very responsive to input from users and has proved quite adept at making changes quickly. Imagine Microsoft fixing a bug in Word in a few days to a week!

                        Despite the weaknesses I've noted (and I suspect there are others), I still think this is one of the most significant advances in Word Processing programs since...well, since, they were first invented.



                        • #13
                          What Jim said. Scrivener goes a long way to justifying the Mac switch all by itself. You'll also find very active user forums, with lots of discussion about integrating Scrivener into your workflow.