I have been a dissertation consultant at University of Maryland for sometime now, the creator of TA-DA!Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished and the CEO of PhdCompletion.com. If there is one piece of advice I would give to first year students is to use every course to become the expert you want to be. When you applied to graduate school you had to write a Statement of Purpose that described your research interest. Don’t just take courses just because they are required; make these courses work for your benefit. For example, if you want to become an expert in Gender Studies you should use every course where you have to write a paper to explore the topic. If you have to take a required seminar on Demography or Architecture you might consider writing a paper that explores gender differences in demography or architecture. Thus, by the time you get to write your thesis or dissertation you will have covered much of the literature on gender. You will know where the gaps in the literature are. These gaps provided the basis for new research for either a Master’s thesis or a doctoral dissertation. Simply put, this is a way to make a connection between your coursework, research, and the doctoral dissertation.
If you are in a lab, beyond keeping a meticulous lab notebook, you should get in the habit of writing up a summary of all of your experiments even the ones that did not work. When experiments do not work, that information provides valuable insight for subsequent experiments. When you try something new, it is because you are building on previous work. It’s important to keep track of that previous work. It is better to keep track on paper than in your head. Clear your head for new ideas rather than mulling over what went wrong. In sum, make your academic courses work for you and your long-term goals. Don’t just take a course just to get an A. Write your papers as if you were going to submit them to a journal–your professors will be impressed.
FOR ADVANCED STUDENTS (ABD):
The other piece of advice for advanced students is to work on your thesis and dissertation everyday. You should wake up everyday and ask yourself, “what can I do today to move my dissertation forward?” No task is too small. Keep in mind that when writing your dissertation there will be good days and bad days. There will be days when you will be smart, intelligent and productive; those are the good days. In contrast, there will also be more days that you will struggle to put a coherent sentence together. On those days, the trick is to create a list of things that you can do despite the struggle. Break tasks into manageable bite size pieces, that is create tasks that take 12-15 minutes to complete or tasks that can be done while watching television. For example you can:
1. Create your cover page, acknowledgement page, committee signature page…
2. Add 5 citations to your bibliography
3. Write an introduction for each chapter
4. Download important deadlines and put them into your calendar
5. Download your university’s dissertation or thesis template or create your own with the correct margins, font size, etc.
6. Create a table and write one paragraph which explains the table
7. Create a figure and write one paragraph which explains the figure
8. Outline the chapter, create a Table of Contents
9. Create a list of figures, or tables…
10. Download a journal article and summarize it