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10 Best Practices for Writing Your Dissertation [Infographic]

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    This post explores the best practices to follow when writing your dissertation. It includes tangible steps to take as well as modern research on productivity while writing. You can scroll down for the infographic or view the post as a presentation on Slideshare.

    A dissertation is a major research based paper (unlike a traditional research paper) that the student has to write at the end of most advanced degree programs. This is where the student, after spending so much time and energy learning about his/her chosen subject, is given the opportunity to finally produce new knowledge of his/her own on that subject. As exciting as writing a dissertation can be, though, it can also clearly be a daunting task.

    Usually, writing one's dissertation is a project that takes up an entire school year or even longer than that. This is because in order to produce quality work, the student must immerse herself in researching the subject, and then figure out how to go about actually writing the dissertation itself. Difficult as it can be, though, most students who have completed dissertations will probably tell you that it was a worthwhile and creatively fulfilling process, and that there is a lot of real pride to be taken in the achievement. That’s why it’s important to consider some best practices for writing a dissertation before you even start.

    The Dissertation Writing Problem

    The main question you may have in mind, though is: how are you supposed to go about actually writing a dissertation? Of course, you can search this question on Google, and you will receive a lot of information on the subject—in fact, too much information. If you're working on a dissertation, then you should be spending your time doing research for the dissertation itself; you probably don't have time to also do research on how to write a dissertation or find best practices. And that's where this present guide comes into the picture.

    This guide on best practices for writing a dissertation will provide you with a list of 10 tips that you can put into action today. The information here has been culled from both other sources available on this subject and from the experience of Ultius dissertation writers. After reading this guide, you should know everything there is to know about how to write a dissertation, and you shouldn't have to look to any other source for any further help. 

    If you don't feel like reading the entire post, that's ok. We have created a handy infographic that summarizes the 10 best practices for you as one big image. You can even download it in PDF form for future reference. 

    10 Best Practices For Writing a Dissertation - An Infographic PDF Download
     
    Visual steps and tips for crafting your master's dissertation.
    10 best practices for writing a dissertation - an Infographic

    Dissertation Tip #1: Correctly Choosing Your Topic

    To start with, then, in order to successfully write your dissertation, it is very important that you begin on the right foot by choosing a good topic. You should make sure that you choose a topic in which you actually have real interest: remember, you're going to be living with this project for a long time. If you don't like your topic, the odds that you won't complete your dissertation all the way (Komlos, paragraph 5). The dissertation writing process can often get frustrating, and you need a topic you care about if you are going to get over the inevitable hurdles (like writer’s block) that will emerge. 

    Past liking your topic, there are two other factors that you should keep in mind when choosing a topic. The first is that the topic should be original, but also based on research that has been done in the past. If you are not sure how to select such a topic, then it may be a good idea to ask professors or advisers in your field for options: after all, they are experts in the existing research within the field, and they may thus have a good idea of what gaps or questions in the field could be addressed by a new dissertation.

    Secondly, you want to make sure that your topic is adequately narrow and not too broad. This is important not only because it will help guide your thinking and research, but also because if your topic is not narrow enough, then it would be almost impossible for you to address everything that needs to be addressed. For example, you can't just write a dissertation on Greek mythology, as such: the subject is enormous, and you wouldn't even know where to begin. In fact, you couldn't even just write a dissertation on one mythological figure, such as Orpheus. An example of a workable topic may be: 

    What is the psychoanalytical significance of the descent of Orpheus into the underworld?

    That topic is very specific, and it narrows the field to an extent that is workable for a dissertation. The example also points to the fact that the best dissertation topics are usually framed as specific questions. 

    Narrowing Down Your Dissertation Topic - Example
     
    Choosing a narrow topic within Greek mythology.
    Narrowing down your dissertation topic - example

    Dissertation Tip #2: Knowing the Structure of a Dissertation

    A dissertation is an academic document with a well-established formal structure; there is no need for you to go reinventing the wheel. Understanding the structure of a dissertation can make the process of writing the dissertation far less daunting: instead of a single 100-page space in front of you, you will be able to see the project broken up into far more manageable blocks. It will thus be appropriate to lay out the basic structure of a dissertation for you. This structure varies a little depending on whether your dissertation is in a scientific field or if you are working within the humanities: 

    The Strcture of a Dissertation - Humanities vs. Sciences Source: Bolton
     
    See which chapters are commonly required.
    ScienceHumanities
    1. Preliminary material1. Preliminary material
    2. Introduction2. Introduction
    3. Literature review3. Literature review
    4. Methodology4. Body chapters 1, 2, 3...etc.
    5. Results and discussion5. More body chapters
    6. Conclusion6. Conclusion
    7. References7. References

    "Preliminary material" refers to the stuff that goes at the beginning, such as the title page, acknowledgements, formal declarations specified by your school, and the abstract. The thesis of your dissertation, or the main question that is being asked, is always supposed to be placed at the end of the introduction.  

    In general, the structure of a scientific dissertation is very rigid, and deviance from that structure is not recommended. After introducing your topic, you should proceed to discuss the research that has already been done on your subject; then you describe the design and methods used for your own original research; then you lay out the results of your research and discuss their meaning and significance; and finally, you tie it all up with a summary of the main points made by the dissertation. The structure of a humanities dissertation is somewhat more flexible and dependent on the nature of your selected topic: after the literature review, you are expected to develop body chapters that are logically based on the argument you are trying to make or the question that you are trying to explore. 

    Dissertation Tip #3: Creating an Outline

    When you're writing your dissertation, creating an outline can be hugely helpful with regard to getting your mind on the right track. This may be especially helpful if it's a humanities dissertation, given that in the humanities, you are usually responsible for breaking up the main body of your dissertation into chapters that correspond to the main lines of inquiry that you will be following. Let’s return to the example research question about the psychoanalytical significance of the descent of Orpheus into the Underworld: the student would need to figure out exactly what avenue of approach s/he is going to take to this question. This would be one possible breakdown of body chapters for this subject:

    Sample Outline of Body Chapters

    1. Accounts of the legend; 

    2. Orpheus and Rilke; 

    2. Freudian interpretations; 

    3. Jungian interpretations; 

    4. Modern applications

    This is just an example off the cuff; it is only meant to give you an idea of how your main topic can be broken down into subtopics. And of course, the outline can go into much further detail as well: the second part, for example, could include an analysis of individual poems by Rilke. Again, it is important to remember that while the dissertation itself may be a large work—indeed, probably the longest thing you've ever written in your life—it is also a work with a rigorous structure, and this structure can help you imagine the large work as more of a series of smaller works. Aside from improving the logical flow and coherence of the dissertation as a whole, thinking of your dissertation in this way can also help you address any anxieties that you may have about how the sheer massiveness of the project (click here to read more information on getting dissertation help).

    Dissertation Tip #4: Doing Research Correctly

    The hard part of writing a dissertation is not the actual writing itself. Rather, it is all the research that lies behind the writing. For a science dissertation, this will include both reviewing other studies in the body of literature and conducting one's own empirical research; and for a humanities dissertation, this will involve reading many, many books in order to more effectively formulate one's own ideas. Indeed, on the basis of the experiences from Ultius dissertation writers, it would not be a stretch to suggest that for every one hour of actually writing of your dissertation, you will probably be doing about three hours of research. See below for a breakdown of the time allocation:

    Dissertation Time Allocation - Research vs. Writing
     
    How much time to spend on each portion.
    Dissertation time allocation chart - research vs. writing

    In general, there are three main sources of research for a dissertation. The first consists of actual books that address your selected subject matter. The second consists of scholarly articles, which can be retrieved through academic databases that should be available through your university's libraries. (EBSCOhost's Academic Search Complete is an especially thorough one, and JSTOR is indispensable for research in the humanities.) And the third consists of your own empirical observations and findings (generally found in the dissertation results chapter) , if your dissertation as this kind of research component built into it, as do virtually all science dissertations. Exploring these various sources of research is the most important and time-consuming part of the dissertation process. If you do this right, then the actual dissertation should almost write itself. 

    Types of Sources for Your Dissertation
     
    See where to find your sources while doing research.
    TypeLocationExample(s)
    BooksCampus libraryN/A
    Scholarly articlesOnline databasesEBSCOhost
    JSTOR
    ProQuest
    Google Scholar
    Internal researchStudiesN/A

    Dissertation Tip #5: Compile/Track Your Sources Efficiently

    At the end of every dissertation will be a reference list (or works cited page, or bibliography—it's called many things) that contains the relevant citing information for all the sources used within the dissertation. If you want to make life easier for yourself, then you should definitely make a reference entry for a source as soon as you encounter a source, and as soon as you know you will be using it within your own dissertation. It can be very difficult to go back and find a source later, if you fail to make a note of it; and anyway, doing it in real time will save you the tedious trouble of having to compile all the references at the very end of the process. 

    There are several different citation styles. The most popular ones are APA for the sciences, and MLA or Chicago for the humanities. Your adviser should make it very clear which style will be required for your own dissertation. Purdue Online Writing Lab has an excellent website that provides thorough examples of how to cite various kinds of sources across several different citation styles. This is a resource regularly used even by professional academic writers (such as the ones at Ultius), and it can be strongly recommended that you make use of it as well when writing your dissertation. Here's a citation for this source, in MLA style: 

    Purdue Online Writing Lab. "Welcome to the Purdue OWL." Author, 2016. Web. 22 Jul. 2016. <https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/>.

    You should also develop some kind of system to keep track of which references you have and have not already used in your dissertation. This can be especially helpful when writing your literature review, for example: you'll need to be able to tell what sources you have and have not already included in the review. You can keep make as sophisticated or as simple as you want. For example, you could develop some kind of spreadsheet; or, you could simply make a mark next to each source on your list after you have used it. 

    The Notecard Method

    One method that Ultius recommends is the notecard method. This method is effective for saving sources on-the-fly and being able to reference them later. The format is simple. For every source you find useful, collect this information:

    • Article title
    • Author name
    • Year
    • Journal of Publication
    • Other reference information
    • What information you plan to use

    When you have all of this information, make a single notecard per source (using the correct citation style) and save it in an alphabetized order (by letter) on book rings. See an example of a notecard using a 3 X 5 index card below:

    Sample Source Using the Notecard Method
     
    See an example of how a completed notecard for a source looks like.
    Sample Source Using the Notecard Method

    The notecard method may be tedious, but rest assured that it is a thorough method of cataloging your sources. You can also save them in a digital format for easier search and indexing. Finally, make sure to save quotes that you can later use in your research. Find the most compelling ones you can and store them on the back side for later usage. Ultius writers generally also create annotated bibliographies for dissertation sources as well.

    Dissertation Tip #6: Manage Your Time Wisely

    In order to successfully work on and complete your dissertation over the long run, you will have to develop time management skills. Your dissertation is not something that you can just pull off overnight, and you surely cannot put it off until the last minute (even with the help of our dissertation writing services as we have deadline restrictions for sample work). Rather, it is a prolonged process, and the final product will the result of consistent work done over time. As Matthews, Debolt, and Percival have suggested, time management requires discipline and mindfulness: you will need to think about exactly how you're spending the hours of your day, and whether this schedule will enable you to get all the work for your dissertation in a timely way. Sometimes, you may well need to become a recluse and refuse to see anyone until your specific goals have been met (but try to avoid working only at night as it causes health problems). 

    Think about it: your dissertation may be a 100-page document; but if you produce even just 1 quality page a day, the whole thing will be written in just a little over 3 months. If you start writing on January 1st for a May 1st deadline according to this schedule, your progress would look something like this: 

    Dissertation Page Completion Chart
     
    See how tracking your progress per page results in getting it done within four months (100 page example).
    Dissertation Page Completion Chart

    So, if you effectively manage your time and make sure that you make consistent progress on your dissertation, then the magnitude of the project will clearly begin to feel less and less daunting. 

    Dissertation Tip #7: Overcoming Writer's Block

    Even the best writers sometimes struggle with writer's block. According to Jennifer Haupt in Psychology Today, writer's block actually is a real phenomenon, and at least part of it may have to do with your personal temperament—for example, whether you're a morning person or a night owl. Some people really are more creative at certain times of the day than others. So, when writing your dissertation, it may be helpful for you to figure out what specific creative schedule works for you, and then adjust your lifestyle to fit that schedule. This is acceptable, since when you're working on your dissertation, it should in fact be a fundamental priority within your life as a whole. 

    It is also the case that sometimes, you may just need a break; you may need to take your mind off the work so that it will feel fresh again when you return. This dovetails the point that has been made above regarding the importance of time management. When planning your schedule for working on your dissertation, you should keep in mind that you will probably get writer's block every now and again, and you should incorporate this fact into your schedule itself. If you push yourself to work too hard when the ideas and the flow just aren't there, then you will probably end up producing low-quality work as a result (Lam, paragraph 8). It's important to find a more natural rhythm for getting the work done. 

    Steps to Overcoming Writer's Block
     
    Learn what to do (and what NOT to do) when dealing with writer's block.
    Steps to Overcoming Writer's Block

    As shown from the picture above, here are some proven things you can do to overcome writer’s block (as well as things you shouldn’t do).

    Things to do:

    • Take breaks every fifty minutes. An article published by The Atlantic outlined that in order to be productive you should take regular breaks that fit around your day (like lunch or coffee sessions). This will help ensure that you don’t get overloaded and tired from reading/writing too much. 
    • Remove distractions. Removing distractions ensures you don’t get interrupted. After all, distractions require you to multi-task, which is a proven way of being less productive. Do one thing at a time and put your phone on airplane mode to ensure you don’t get distracted from your smartphone. 
    • Listen to music. Music is a great way to relax your mind and collect your thoughts. You only have auditory stimulation and this lets your other senses free-float for a few minutes. We recommend listening to positive, up-lifting music such as classical or other genres that are proven to improve your spirits.
    • Go out. Yes, you read that correctly. Go out with friends, have a beer (if you are old enough and can do so responsibly), and talk with people. This will distract you temporarily in a positive way.

    Things NOT to do:

    • Avoid writing. Don’t avoid writing as it will inevitably create a negative relationship between you and the project. You will probably end up procrastinating if you do this enough. Even worse, you may develop feelings of anxiety when you sit down to write later.
    • Self-pity and anguish. Don’t be hard on yourself. Remember that many other people have gone through the process before you and had to cope with the difficult internal struggles that come with it. Focus on having positive feelings and don’t engage in self-loathing. 
    • Watch TV.  That’s right, stay away from the television as it can distract you in ways that are not going to be productive for you. Consider how research has shown that TV can be bad for you in general. 
    • Wait for ‘inspiration.’ This is a big one. If you wait for the right moment to start writing, you may never get there. Inspiration does not come from waiting; instead, it comes from being engaged in the process of critical thinking.

    Dissertation Tip #8: Finding the Right Help and Having a Support System

    Your advisor should, of course, be a fundamental source of support for you over the course of your entire dissertation process. You should take care to select one with whom you are temperamentally compatible, and who has a fundamental personal interest in the subject that you are researching (Komlos, paragraph 5). Again, writing your dissertation will be a long process, which means that you will be in a long-term relationship with your advisor. From personal experience, the point can clearly be made that this could eventually get unpleasant, if you find out that you and your advisor cannot stand each other or that he fundamentally does not have a personal interest in the nature of your work. 

    Aside from your advisor, your university probably has several writing related resources, such as writing labs, that are specifically designed to help you produce high-quality research work. If you are not already aware of these resources, a quick search of Google—or just a couple words with a professor within your field—should point you in the right direction. In short, you are never the only one working on a dissertation; rather, universities are designed to produce research work. If you are struggling with your project, there will surely be help available. 

    Start Early!

    Consider building a support system of people before you start your dissertation. Here are a few great options:

    1. Family. Tell your loved ones ahead of time that you are working on a major milestone and need their support.
    2. Friends. Make sure that your friends respect your time, life choices and overall commitment to getting the work done.
    3. Advisers: Your adviser has been there before and knows that to do/say if you get stuck and need help.
    4. Professors: Professors can give you both practical advice and emotional support. Lean on them when you have to.

    Dissertation Tip #9: Getting Good Feedback

    One of the last things you want would be to make considerable progress on writing your dissertation—only to realize that for one reason or another, you'll have to backtrack and do it all over again. You can avoid this unfortunate situation by making sure that you consistently get feedback on the work that you are doing, both from your advisor and from others. It may be a good idea to not be shy and to actually talk with others about the work that you are doing, even showing them samples when appropriate. No matter who you turn to - whether it's a local resource or a dedicated Ultius dissertation editor - you will want to get solid feedback as you move forward.

    Aside from the pragmatic advantages of doing so, this could also give you a sense of emotional support, or the feeling that you are plugged into a kind of intellectual community. As Flaherty has reported, professors tend to spend a lot of time alone; this is somewhat emblematic of the aspect of loneliness inherent in pursuing a life of the mind. Working on your dissertation will probably also require you to spend a good deal of alone time, and if you're not used to this, it could potentially get to you. Consistently asking for feedback on your work would be one way to offset this danger. 

    Here are some sources of getting feedback as you work on your dissertation:

    Dissertation Tip #10: Keeping the Passion Going

    This last tip on writing your dissertation is somewhat more subjective than the others. At the same time, though, it also circles back to the very first tip about selecting your topic. If you do not genuinely care about your topic, it will be almost impossible for you to successfully complete your dissertation; and if you do not remember why you care about your topic in the middle of the process, this can also be dangerous in terms of successful completion (Komlos, paragraph 5). 

    In short, a dissertation clearly involves a great deal of intellectual work; but it is also fundamentally a work of passion. You need to know your reasons for committing to and investment your life in this long-term project, and you need to take ongoing pride in the valuable work that you are doing. It is common for this passion to fade out every now and again over the course of the dissertation writing process, just as it is also common to sometimes experience writer's block (this happens to writers who work for Ultius as well). Successful completion, though, will require you to fundamentally feel passionate about your work at the bottom of it all (see Kierkegaard). 

    Steps to Keeping Your Passion
     
    Simple, proven steps to reigniting your passion when you feel down.
    Steps to Keeping Your Passion

    So, when you feel like your fire has burned out, try these positive and healthy coping mechanisms:

    • Find a mentor. You should already have a mentor, but if you don’t then now is a good time to find one. Find someone that you respect and reach out to them ahead of time to secure inspirational support when the going gets tough. It may even help to read some of their sample work (if you can't find any, the Ultius blog has sample dissertations).
    • Remember the ‘why.’ Remember why you picked the topic and talk yourself through the reasons why you need to persevere. It may be corny, but self-affirmations have been scientifically proven to be effective in reducing stress and getting better outcomes.
    • No comfort zones. Get out of your comfort zone and avoid doing repetitive, monotonous work. It will ensure that you are challenging yourself and that challenge will ultimately push you towards completing important milestones.
    • Have fun. This last one may seem obvious, but try your best to have fun. You will probably only do this project once in your lifetime so you better enjoy it. After all, you are probably paying out of pocket for it (unless you have a scholarship or research grant).

    Conclusion and Action

    In summary, the purpose of this guide has been to provide you with comprehensive information on the best practices for writing a dissertation (if you choose not to buy a dissertation as a sample beforehand). This guide should be all that you need in order to successfully work on your dissertation; there is essentially no valuable information on the process that has not been included in this guide (we think). So, now you can dedicate your research attention to your dissertation itself, and not waste any further time on looking on tips on how to write a dissertation. The recommendation can be made that you refer back to this guide as often as you'd like over the long course of writing your dissertation. In conclusion, good luck, and we hope this guide has been useful to you. 

    Works Cited

    EBSCOhost. Research Databases. Author, 2016. Web. 22 Jul. 2016. <https://www.ebscohost.com/academic/academic-search-complete>. 

    Flahert, Colleen. "So Much to Do, So Little Time." Insider Higher Ed. 9 Apr. 2014. Web. 22 Jul. 2016. <https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/04/09/research-shows-professors-work-long-hours-and-spend-much-day-meetings>. 

    Haupt, Jennifer. "Writer's Block: It May Not Be All in Your Head." Psychology Today. 26 Jul. 2013. Web. 22 Jul. 2016. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/one-true-thing/201307/writers-block-it-may-not-be-all-in-your-head>. 

    Kierkegaard, Søren Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1992. Print.  

    Komlos, John. "How Does One Choose a Dissertation Topic?" Stanford University, 2001. Web. 22 Jul. 2016. <http://web.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/Tomprof/postings/352.html>. 

    Lam, Bourree. "The Wasted Workday." The Atlantic. 4 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 Jul. 2016. <http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/12/the-wasted-workday/383380/>.

    Matthews, Joe, on Debolt, and Deb Percival. "How to Manage Time with 10 Tips that Work." Entrepreneur. n.d. Web. 22 Jul. 2016. <https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/219553>. 

    Purdue Online Writing Lab. "Welcome to the Purdue OWL." Author, 2016. Web. 22 Jul. 2016. <https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/>.

    Rilke, Rainer Maria. Sonnets to Orpheus. Trans. Daniel Joseph Polikoff. Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015. Print. 

    University of Bolton. "Structure of a Dissertation." Author, n.d. Web. 22 Jul. 2016. <http://www.bolton.ac.uk/bissto/Writing-a-Dissertation/Format.aspx>. 

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