Staying on Track with Theses and Dissertations

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Managing long-term projects like theses and dissertations can feel daunting, particularly as graduate students are often working to complete these culminating projects while also juggling teaching, research, and applying for jobs. Consequently, for many grad students, staying on track with long-term writing can pose challenges, including making time in their schedules to write, as well as figuring out how to get started, how to organize their ideas, and how to translate their ideas effectively in writing. Feel free to read on for a myriad of strategies to help you stay on track with these long-term projects or watch the video below to hear our Director, Carolyn Wisniewski, discuss how to stay on track with theses and dissertations.

What IS a Thesis or Dissertation?

When you begin to write a thesis or a dissertation, you might find yourself wondering: What is a dissertation? What does it look like? How do I organize it? Where do I start? The answer to these questions might look very different depending on your field. To help you envision what your final product might look like, it can be helpful to:

      • Talk with your advisor about the overall structure of your thesis / dissertation
      • Use other scholarship as models to help you contextualize and situate your work
      • Find and read others’ theses / dissertations written in your department / field

Staying on Track With: Research and Organization

Our research and writing processes are interconnected, so set yourself up for success by developing effective habits for managing your sources and data, such as:

      • Start using citation managers early in your process to keep track of your sources as you conduct research. You can also attend a “Savvy Researcher” workshop on campus to learn more about how to use these resources.
      • Take careful notes as you read, keeping track of key ideas, key quotes, and relevant page numbers.

Staying on Track With: Prewriting

Early on in your process—and at multiple times throughout your project—you might find prewriting useful to help you generate ideas and begin to consider how you’ll organize ideas in your project. As you begin to prewrite, ask yourself: What can I do with what I have at this point in the process? What strategies work best for me to brainstorm ideas?

Additionally, your strategies for prewriting and planning might vary depending on the kind of writing project you’re working on. For instance, if you’re getting started on a project, you’ll likely begin by thinking through big picture ideas, especially the overall structure of your project. In contrast, if you’re preparing for a two-hour long writing session, you might begin by focusing on a specific section or with a smaller, concrete goal in mind.

PowerPoint slide listing prewriting strategies that are also outlining in the text below

Prewriting For a Writing Project

      • Create a concept map
      • Brainstorm ideas
      • Outline your ideas
      • Talk with others
      • Review and organize your research notes

Prewriting For a Writing Session

      • Review your notes, previous drafts, and / or feedback
      • Freewrite without stopping for a certain amount of time
      • Write down the key points you’d like to make in the section you’re working on
      • Outline or reverse outline your ideas
      • Set a goal for your writing session

Staying on Track With: Drafting, Feedback, and Revision

Frequent writing sessions keep the project fresh in your mind so that you don’t have to spend valuable time reacquainting yourself with your project. These sessions also help you by breaking up your long-term project into smaller, short-term goals that are concrete and manageable. Remember that making progress on your draft might not involve putting words on a page—rather, it might mean looking back at your data or sources, annotating an article, rereading what you’ve written, reviewing feedback on your draft, and anything else that helps you move forward on your project. During this process, you might find it helpful to:

Keeping a Writing Log

One simple way to start building up your writing habits is by keeping a writing log, an ongoing project memo / calendar / journal where you set daily goals, assess what you accomplished, and record key decisions about your text. A writing log can help you reflect on your writing, revisit your plans regularly, identify patterns and habits, ease your transitions into and out of writing, and track (and celebrate!) your progress.PowerPoint Slide showing an example writing log template, including the project title, day, writing time, daily goal(s), accomplished tasks, and looking ahead.

Finally, remember that many scholars will revisit their thesis / dissertation in the future or after they graduate, so while these culminating projects represent a particular “ending” point in the process, you can still return to or revise your work for publication in the future. Progress does not mean perfect!PowerPoint slide with big picture revision questions: Who is the audience for your work? Who will benefit from your research? How do you work best with revision? What can you do in the time you have? What are your priorities as you keep working? Return to your research questions.


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