PhD Dissertation Help: 4 Proven Tips to Write Better

Ah, the PhD dissertation. It’s our academic Mount Everest. Our white whale. Our final boss fight.

Regardless of what tired metaphor you prefer, there’s no denying that writing a dissertation can be quite an endeavor. It is, after all, the last test before receiving your doctoral degree.

A dissertation also holds the rare distinction of being an academic achievement that is genuinely impressive and eye-catching to employers beyond academia. Even if employers don’t know/care about your topic, your ability to manage and complete a multi-year research project is no small feat.

So, if you’re looking for some concrete PhD dissertation help, this article offers several effective dissertation writing tips that have helped innumerable grad students over the years.

But first, a brief disclaimer:

Writing can be an intensely personal process. There is no one ‘correct’ way to do it. In the words of Helen Sword:

May I discover my own writing rhythms and develop my own writing rituals? Yes, you may. May I be released from the guilt of feeling “less disciplined” than my colleague in the office next door, who writes to a daily schedule and posts a weekly word log proclaiming his progress? Yes, you may. May I ignore the advice of all those productivity-pumping books, articles, and websites that tell me I should write in a certain way, at certain intervals, for a certain length of time? Yes, you may. Alternatively, you may choose a prescriptive formula and follow it to the letter, if doing so works best for you.

Hence, the following tips are not meant to be universal. Different people have (wildly) different work methods, and no single piece of advice will apply to everyone.

Instead, treat this article as a buffet: take what you like and leave the rest. If even one of these dissertation writing tips helps you climb that academic Everest and get your dissertation DONE, we’ll be more than happy.

What matters is that you write in a way that works for you.

Dissertation Writing Tip #1: Make a Schedule

For a multi-year project like a dissertation, proper time management is essential. Our first piece of PhD dissertation help is to make a schedule and stick to it.

Suppose you want to finish your dissertation in the next two years:

  • Plan to write four chapters, each taking approximately one semester.
  • Set aside time at the end of each semester to edit and revise.
  • Block out two months in the summer to write your introduction and conclusion.
  • Add one extra semester, just in case.

Now, you almost certainly won’t stick to this schedule perfectly. The future is yet unwritten, and stuff comes up. Your schedule will change. That’s okay!

The point is to have a roadmap for the future. To go anywhere in your academic work, you need some idea about where you’re going.

So, make a schedule and stick to it as closely as possible. When things change, modify your schedule accordingly. Always have a roadmap.

Dissertation Writing Tip #2: Break Up the Process

Writing a dissertation is a long, hard slog. That’s why it’s so important to add variety and break up the process wherever possible.

First, have multiple work locations. Do some writing in your grad-student office and some at home. Find a café or library or something (someday, when things finally return to normal!) and do some work there.

Seriously, if you’re experiencing writer’s block, it’s amazing how helpful simply going to a different room can be. The change in scenery helps your brain reboot itself. This is one of the best bits of PhD dissertation help we can offer.

Second, have multiple work activities. Do outlining on Monday, writing on Tuesday, editing on Wednesday, etc. If you’re stuck on one paragraph, go back and edit your previous paragraphs. If you get stuck on that, take a break and come back later. Don’t neglect work/life balance!

This kind of multitasking, where you seamlessly switch between tasks, helps get you ‘unstuck’ during difficult writing slogs.

Third, try writing at different times. Sometimes the craziest ideas strike you late at night. Other times, you need the clarity and focus that comes early in the morning, just after coffee. Some people have a fixed ‘dissertation time.’ But others write at all sorts of random hours.

Don’t bang your head against a wall (literally or figuratively). If you get stuck, do something different. Let your brain recalibrate.

Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.

Dissertation Writing Tip #3: Try Different Tools

Have you ever used a speech-to-text app?

Some people can express their ideas much better verbally than in writing. If you’re having trouble getting ideas down on paper, it may be just crazy enough to work!

Have you heard of focus apps?

These are apps that block distracting websites to help you focus on a task. They vary in intensity from ‘can be disabled if you need to check the news’ to ‘have to chew your arm off to escape.’

Do you use a citation management system?

Things like Endnote, Zotero, Mendeley, etc. These are great for streamlining your footnotes and generating a bibliography with one click. Truly life-changing!

As with all the tips and PhD dissertation help presented here, the idea is to experiment. Try different tools and see which ones work for you.

Dissertation Writing Tip #4: Find Friends

Academics, no matter their area of focus, have a dangerous propensity to become trapped inside their own heads.

What do we mean by this? Well, after spending months or years working on your dissertation, you begin to develop your own private ‘thought language.’ Your words acquire certain meanings and implications that are perfectly clear and obvious to you but unclear and unknowable to anyone else.

What’s worse, you often don’t realize this is happening until the peer-review hammer comes crashing down and your chapter or article is pulverized by critics (based on a true story!).

‘Thought language’ is mainly a problem in humanities and social sciences, where dissertations are written largely in solitude. STEM PhDs, who tend to work in teams and write with a much more precisely defined vocabulary, don’t struggle with this quite as much.

So, how do you escape the prison of your own head? By talking to people!

If you need PhD dissertation help, don’t ever be afraid to ask someone. There are several ways to do this:

  • Join a writing group. If your department doesn’t have one, start one!
  • Join a writing workshop. Ask other graduate students to critique your work. It’s a great way to get fresh ideas.
  • Ask your advisor to meet regularly to discuss your writing. If your advisor says no, reach out to other professors or your dissertation committee members. (Also, maybe get a new advisor.)

However you do it, find some way to talk about your work with others. It helps keep you on a schedule while keeping your internal thought language in check.

Conclusion

As you surely know by now, writing is a process of self-discovery.

You may need to experiment with a wide variety of different methods, techniques, and approaches. You’ll try a bunch of things that won’t work.

That’s the name of the game with experiments—most of them fail.

But eventually, you’ll learn to write in a way that works for you. That’s the key to completing your dissertation.

Looking for more writing tips and general PhD dissertation help? Check out Helen Sword’s insightful and meticulously researched book on how successful academics write.

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