Name: Emma Frances Bloomfield
Year in program: 5th
Dissertation Title: “Rhetorical strategies in contemporary responses to science and modernity: Legitimizing religion in human origins and climate change controversies”
The time of a Ph.D. candidate is always in high demand. Even though the dissertation is the number one priority, many competing responsibilities creep into focus. From teaching to working on conference papers, attending talks to administrative paperwork, there are many tasks that demand attention, sometimes urgently. Because the dissertation is a large, nebulous project, I organize my daily and weekly schedule to break down the dissertation into manageable parts and protect dedicated time to work on it. Every dissertation is different and I believe that Ph.D. students should experiment with their writing and research habits to find the most efficient, sustainable methods.
I am a strong proponent of doing something for the dissertation every day.
There are only a limited number of days from when you start working to when you must defend, so each day is an opportunity to move forward. Whether that is researching, reading, collecting data, brainstorming, outlining, or actually writing, I try to do something related to my dissertation every day. I am most productive in the morning, so I try to “eat the frog,” as they say, and get the least palatable task out of the way first. When I get a few words down on the page, check off a research task, or even organize my references, I feel accomplished early in the morning. My weekly schedule makes room for about an hour of work on the dissertation each day before I go into the office. Working at home means that I am not distracted by anything happening on campus, during my commute, or waiting for me in my inbox. Three days a week, this hour in the morning is paired with a larger chunk of work time (3-4 hours) in the afternoon. These blocks of time are scheduled into my Google Calendar.
Emergencies notwithstanding, those blocks are nonnegotiable.
Keeping myself on a consistent working schedule ensures that I am making regular progress on the dissertation and that I have protected work time as a weekly habit.
In addition to making time every day to work and reserving large work blocks, I try to break the dissertation up into as many bite-sized tasks as I can. I designate certain chunks of time for specific types of tasks. For example, I have made Mondays reading days. I may read sample dissertations to get a feel for my writing and organization, read articles to help with my analysis, or read artifacts for my dissertation. On reading days, I take copious notes and copy over quotations I want to cite in the dissertation, but I do not open the dissertation document. Wednesdays have become writing days, where I open previous note files and begin writing or expanding the dissertation text. While writing, I try not to let any ancillary research or citations distract me from writing.
Instead of pausing to look up a citation or verify a quotation, I bold anything that I need to come back to and continue writing.
I’ve found that this helps me keep a writing flow where I forgo editing ideas during the writing process. On Fridays, I go back and fill in bolded sections, add to the references, and begin the editing process. Anything unrelated to reading or writing, but still related to the dissertation, also happens on Fridays. For example, scheduling interviews, answering emails, checking out/returning library books, applying for funding, and formatting are all Friday tasks. Splitting my work up over three days allows me to attack the dissertation in more manageable steps and avoid getting bored with any particular part of the process.
Writing a dissertation is a task that few people finish, so any strategy that makes this process easier is one worth trying.
In addition to these primary tasks, I encourage people to keep lists, make co-working dates, set deadlines with advisors, and work in whatever environment is most beneficial. With all of the many pieces of anecdotal advice available, my two primary strategies are to work on the dissertation every day and break the dissertation down into specific tasks.
Emma is a Ph.D. candidate at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. You can read more from her at her sites below: