Project Managing Your Dissertation 101

Everybody has a different dissertation journey, there is not a single “right” way to get done. Most of my advice came from creative humans, but as a structural being I found that none of them really worked for me. Try different ways until you find one that resonates with you, and most of all… Good luck! Here is my journey, I hope you find something in here that helps:

Walking out of my final dissertation formulation class I felt elated: I had a solid idea that I was excited about; this dissertation process was going to be a piece of cake. My over-inflated sense of confidence assured me that there was no way this was going to take me two years to complete. Fast forward six months; I had a desk filled with neatly stacked books and printed copies of articles with colored tabs that marched across their pages in intricate designs. Half the inventory of Office Depot sat on the shelves above, organized and reorganized into an efficient system worthy of a NASA seal of approval. Yet despite all this work, I still hadn’t written a single page. As my clock ticked away it became more and more obvious that I was creating busy work as a symptom of my denial and the honest truth was, I didn’t know how to start the writing process.

Finally biting into that bitter realization made me admit I needed a new strategy. This dissertation process was overwhelming me, and I needed to regroup. I thought about my previous life experience; I’d had a successful career as a project manager for 15 years before I decided to go back to studying, and it was something I was really good at; my projects always made it over the line on-time and in-budget. I decided to try and modify the proven project management strategies I used to keep my projects in-line into something that would work with the dissertation framework. Finally, I had found a method to start writing and ultimately finish with time to spare.

The biggest enemy to any project is scope creep, and this applies to dissertations too. Scope creep is where your original idea starts to widen and consume other ideas until you are left with a bloated manuscript and your original argument is lost in the swamp. There are so many fabulous obliquely tangential pieces of evidence, anecdotes, arguments or quotes that you will find during your discoveries that you will be tempted to include, but the harsh reality is that you can’t include everything. Many of these, no matter how great they are as individual pieces, will ultimately be detrimental to both your final manuscript and the time you have on your clock.

One of the best ways to mitigate the risk of scope creep is to rank all your pieces with a priority as you gather them.  Are they vital arguments, primarily supportive, secondary supportive, or just nice to have? Be clear about their role in your central arguments and ruthless in your analysis. Put all your ideas on sticky notes or on a pin board as you go, make a movable system that can be later imported into another strategy: the carpark.

The idea of the carpark is used by many project managers to sort and organize tasks and can be adapted to the dissertation process. To do this imagine the pieces of ranked evidence from the previous step are cars and your dissertation is a multi-story carpark where each body chapter (chapters other than the introduction and conclusion) are the different parking levels. Now say, for example, you plan on splitting your work into 8 body chapters; then you have 8 levels on which to park your cars. Next work out how many cars you can fit on each level. Following on from our example let’s say the end goal is 200 pages, split between the 10 total chapters that leaves about 20 pages on each level. Designate an average of two pages per car and assume for this example 10 cars will fit on each level. Now you can start parking your cars.

Start moving your ranked pieces on sticky notes into the garage and see how they fit. Make sure you prioritize by ranking as you move over; the vital cars get parked first and move down from there. Eventually you will start to see how many free car spaces you have for the lower priority vehicles. Once you’ve filed your carpark evaluate the structure; the best design will have vital pieces evenly spread throughout the levels. Re-evaluate if a level is filled with nice to haves. Does that chapter really belong in your dissertation, or would you be better served eliminating that level and dispersing the extra spaces into the remaining levels?

Don’t despair over all the excess cars that there isn’t room for. As you write each chapter up you might find that the two-page average for each piece was overly generous; you can always add more pieces to each chapter later if there is space. Alternatively, you can think about how you can use these pieces to support your work. Remember, your dissertation is what you are going to be known for and, especially if you plan to try and publish it into a book, these extra cars can be saved for later. Most of them will be the nice to have pieces, meaning they are only tangentially related to your central topic. Can you organize them into a stand-alone piece or blog article that you can publish at a later date and use as a platform to advertise yourself and your work? Your dissertation is not going to be the last piece you ever write on any given topic, so save some ideas for later.

Now, with carpark in hand, the writing process can begin. Another popular project management strategy is the idea of sprints. Like in running, a sprint is a short burst of furious energy across a short distance, and it is a completely different mindset to running a marathon. Don’t set yourself up for failure; even with years of dedicated training behind them, marathon runners often collapse and fall by the wayside. Sprinters have a much better chance of making it to the finish line; so, divide the work into a series of sprints with rest periods in between. How you structure your sprints will ultimately need to fit in with your lifestyle, but I found that dividing my time into weeklong sprints with three-week rest periods in between was optimally productive for me.

Treat each chapter as a sprint cycle. Spend the first three-week rest period to re-familiarize yourself with the material you are going to use. Sit with it, meditate on it, and prepare yourself to race. When race time clicks over focus your sights on the finish line and knock it out as fast and as hard as you can. Push yourself and watch those pages fly past! Once you hit that finish line, stop. Do something fun; spend time with your family, reward yourself in celebration.  Go back to rest period mode; it doesn’t mean you need to stop working, you have the next sprint coming up so immerse yourself into the next chapter’s material and recharge yourself for the next race.

Think about the way your academic career has been before the dissertation process. Each semester was learning the material followed by a push for that final paper or exam at the end, and a celebration as each semester closed. This is a familiar cycle; you’ve been doing it for years and years before you got to the dissertation phase, and you’ve successfully finished each time. You can do this. You’ve done it before.

2 thoughts on “Project Managing Your Dissertation 101

  1. I love the detailed plan you’ve outlined for anyone working on their dissertation. And although I still have two more classes to go before I start officially begin the dissertation phase, it is time to start plan because I will begin the literature review soon. Thank you for this timely post.

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