Writing a Dissertation: Lessons Learned & Best Practices

I’ve been an English as a Second Language instructor since 2015, and I’ve been working on my PhD since 2016. No, I didn’t leave my job to become a doctoral student; rather, I decided to dedicate my “free time” to advancing my studies (i.e., writing a dissertation).

I’ve always had an appetite for higher education. I’ve always liked school; I’ve always liked learning. That’s why, during my fourth year of undergraduate studies at the University of Iowa, I decided to apply to do my MA in Theoretical and Applied Linguistics at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain.

This accomplished two goals for me: (1) be the first of my family to earn a graduate degree and (2) live in Spain for a minimum of one year. I did both of those things. When I graduated from Universitat Pompeu Fabra in 2015, I took my current job at the University of Iowa. I was happy for my first year—just being a teacher—but I wanted more. I didn’t just want to be an ESL teacher; I wanted to be a linguistics professor.

So, I’m pursuing a doctoral degree; and, for me, this is a personal adventure, a challenge to myself. I enrolled in the English Linguistics doctoral program at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Fall 2016, and due to the kind of program I’m in, I’ve basically been ABD (“all but dissertation”) since I started. This means I’ve essentially been working on writing my dissertation the whole time.

In September 2020, I submitted my dissertation to L’Escola de Doctorat at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. It was a lengthy, 4-year process to get here, but now I’m ready to share what I’ve learned.

To Isolate or Not to Isolate

I’ll take your cheapest write wine, please!

In Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, he says, “For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction.” To be honest, this worked for me—in the beginning. In the first year or two of my PhD, I thrived in a quiet environment with little to no distractions. 

But as time went on, I began to feel isolated. 

I found myself procrastinating out of boredom. I couldn’t believe it. Not to mention, when I would spend time in Barcelona, I found myself just lying in bed to avoid doing work! Not. Even. Sightseeing. Again, crazy! 

Now that I’m ending my third year of my doctoral studies, I’ve found I work better in places with some kind of ambiance (e.g., a café, a bar, a busy library). When trying to find a location, you must make your selection carefully, as there are many things to consider. 

Here are just a few:

  • Reliable Wi-Fi?
  • Coffee?
  • Snacks?
  • Background noise?
  • Wine?!

Of course, Wi-Fi and coffee. And, yes, wine. But I’ll come back to that one.

There are a number of good cafés in my hometown, so I’m always happy to go there in the morning. Not to mention, once you establish yourself with the barista, there are perks. For instance, your latte could be a nice flower, signaling spring is in bloom, or a thundercloud, giving the day’s forecast.

For me, coffee always motivates me to get started, and some cute latte art definitely helps!

Photo: A “Purple Latte” from Caffe Cream in Corallvile, Iowa.

And the wine? That’s for after lunch.

Being as I am a teacher, I get time off during the summer. I am also fortunate enough to have a screened-in porch at my house. Do you see where I’m going here? I’m not good at math, but I’ll try.

summer weather + screened-in porch + wine = very productive writing

In other words, find yourself a nice outside location to work, too. You don’t always want to be cooped up indoors, especially when the weather is nice. So, go grab a bottle (or two or three) of your favorite white wine and throw it (or them) in the fridge. Chill it (or them). Set up your writing space outside (or as close as you can get). Pour yourself a glass of wine and keep the writing going. 

If you are anything like me, though, you need to be careful. After two or three glasses of wine, there will be some editing to do once you’re sober again. 

But who knows, maybe you’ll write 1500 amazing words a little tipsy and even like it in the morning!You never know until you try!

Writing is a process.

You learn to write. You write to learn.

Organization is key but writing isn’t always a linear process. The first chapter I ever wrote was my methodology chapter. This ended up being Chapter 5 (out of 9) of my dissertation. Yes, that’s right. I wrote the middle chapter first. I first wrote my methodology chapter in 2017, three years before I wrote the final chapter of my dissertation. As you can imagine, when I revisited that chapter when I was compiling and editing my dissertation, it was nearly unrecognizable.

In my early writing days, the first (very rough) draft that I would send to my supervisor often came back with “This is disorganized—very academically immature.” These kinds of messages can be disheartening in the beginning, but they foster growth. Some of my best writing came after receiving harsher criticism from my supervisor. All of the feedback and rounds of revision of every piece and chapter that I wrote were completely worth it.

There was a particular turning point in my writing, when I was writing the final literature review chapter, when my supervisor acknowledged how far I had come with my writing. It wasn’t something that I had noticed, but when she pointed it out, I was ecstatic. It’s hard to believe how much my writing grew over a few years of dedicated work.

I’ll never forget the feedback I got on the final paragraph of my dissertation.

Beautiful ending! :) Well done!

I had written the entire thing. Writing the final paragraph was one of the most emotional points in the writing process. To give some context, I had a very negative interaction with a researcher at a research seminar in May 2019. A researcher openly criticized my work and tried to tell me that I was not working within the correct framework and paradigms. After that happened I was scared to proceed with my work. Instead of giving up, I took notes on what that particular researcher said and responded to it in the final paragraph of my dissertation.

In short, take your time, don’t be afraid of revision, and let your writing develop and flourish throughout the years that you’ll work on your project.

A Note on Formatting & Organization

It’ll all come together in the end.

I’m obsessed with formatting . . . ask anyone that knows me! (Jessica? Chelsea? Sarah?) Don’t get me wrong, I love for my documents to all look professional and coherent, but this can also be a hinderance. 

For example, before I began writing my first dissertation chapter, I spent a week formatting files and documents for each chapter and appendix so they would match. I even made a title page. A title page that I recently had to modify from “June 2019” to “June 2020” and eventually to just “2020”.  

This formatting, though, helped me with my organization. I was able to see what I wanted the dissertation to look like. For example, I didn’t want to spend three years writing in Calibri if that wasn’t the font I wanted to use. (I don’t like Times New Roman, either!) So I chose Garamond. It’s a favorite serif font for me. 

Once I established how I wanted my dissertation to be formatted in draft form, then I was able to focus on the content. For each chapter, I put in general headings to organize my reading and writing patterns. It was through this process that one chapter I wrote actually became two! You never really know what’s going to happen until you get started.

To facilitate and organize my writing throughout the process, I had a series of folders that included the number and name of the chapter. Check out the picture below.

Photo: The organization of chapter folders in my “Dissertation Writing” folder for my PhD studies.

For each document name, I included the number of the chapter first, followed by the title of the chapter, followed by a code for the version. Here’s a picture of one of my most-revised chapters.

Photo: A list of more than 14 versions of my Chapter 8, Discussion, from my dissertation.

Yes, you see that correctly. The discussion chapter for my dissertation underwent more than 15 versions of revision. It was completely and entirely necessary, though.

Over the course of three years, I wrote all of the chapters individually for my dissertation. At the end, I began the real formatting, which included me establishing a Microsoft Word Template–complete with headings, table formatting, and EndNote settings–that I could then apply to each chapter. Once I began to apply the final template, the chapters underwent a “final read” before I sent it for proofreading. (SHOUT OUT: Check out JEK Proofreading & Editing — YOU WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED!)

The final look of my dissertation–take a peek below–was beyond anything I could have imagined in the beginning. While I spent a lot of time getting basic templates down for the writing process, the final touches of formatting came at the end. That was the fun part!

Photo: Slide the bar to see how the original “template” for my dissertation chapters was updated in the final stages of formatting.

Let the writing develop. When the writing is done, break open your creative mind and design the final product.

But I Digress…

Take your time. Take a break. Shoot, even take a full-on hiatus at some point!

When I started my PhD, I made a timeline—3 years and done. Well, here I am, at the end of the third year and applying for an extension. 

There’s no shame in taking your time to work on a meaningful project. I mean, they’ve been building the Sagrada Família for over 130 years. (No, the original architect is not still working on the project.) If you ever get the chance to see it in person, you’ll see why they’re taking so much time. It’s an impressive building that has many intricacies in its design.

Don’t spend 130 years writing your dissertation.

Sure, it’s totally kosher to take a hiatus once in a while. After spending my normal 3-4 weeks in Barcelona in 2018, I took a 2.5-month hiatus. I had done a research stay during the spring semester and then turned around and immediately went to Barcelona for my academic work. I was overwhelmed. After setting some deadlines, I decided to take some time off and distance myself from my PhD.

This was one of the healthiest decisions I could have made. 

In October, I resumed work collecting data and writing my dissertation with a newly refreshed motivation and more positive outlook.

Taking breaks may seem unnecessary or that they are setting you back, but they are completely deserved and necessary. Do it. A break is from your dissertation and research is healthy for you. It’s healthy for your partner. It’s even healthy for your dissertation. Just be sure to message your supervisor occasionally so they know you’re still alive!

Paper Clip Broke: Take Two

Fix the paper clip: it’s not just important–it’s imperative to include the attachments.

Regardless of what you do, don’t forget to update your supervisor on your progress. Being as I live in the USA and do my studies through a university in Barcelona, it’s imperative that I send regular updates on my progress. 

I often send my emails in the evening before I call it a night. That way, my supervisor sees these messages in the morning and can send me a quick reply if needed. Buuuuuut, if I had a dollar (or euro) for every time that I didn’t attach the file, I’d be one rich doctoral student. 

I don’t really know how many times I’ve forgotten to attach the important documents to my emails. This often delays my work by a few days due to the 7-hour time difference between my supervisor and me. 

Remember, You’re Avant-Garde or MIND THE GAP

Take a leap of faith. Do the thing that’s going to make the project really feel like it’s yours.

From early on, one of the most important things that you have to work on is finding how your work will fit into the greater scheme of existing academia. Sure, as you read, you’ll think the field is crowded and that there isn’t any room for you.

That’s not true, though.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had when I was working on my MA thesis. My supervisor at the time told me, “Find the research gap.” Every subsequent meeting included her emphasizing “The Gap” and reminding me to keep it in mind.

I now let The Gap lead my research planning and writing. 

In working on my dissertation, I’ve always known what The Gap was that I wanted to address. What I didn’t know was how to fill that gap. It wasn’t until recently, in reworking my research questions, that I really realized the potential impact of my work.

In giving my third seguimiento (annual update on my progress), I presented updated research questions and hypotheses to my committee. At the time, I felt good about my research questions, but I wasn’t sure how they would be received. 

After briefly discussing the research questions, I pointed out which one was my “favorite.” In that moment, one of my committee members made it a point to say, “This is an important question. It’s a clear favorite because this is the question. This is the question that will anchor your name in the field. Whenever any research wants to approach this topic, they will have to mention your name.”

That was an amazing moment for me. I suddenly felt like a trailblazer. I felt avant-garde. 

It’s All Worth It

In the end, ever tear shed, hair lost, and bottle of wine finished was completely worth it. On September 9, 2020, I officially submitted my dissertation to L’Escola de Doctorat at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Below, you can find the original cover and finished cover of my doctoral dissertation.

I now find myself with a strange amount of free time as I wait until December to hold my dissertation defense (hopefully) in Barcelona! While I wait, I plan to continue to develop my blog here on A Cuppa Wug and start taking some online courses through Coursera or EdX.

Photo: Slide the bar to see before and after photos of my dissertation cover.

This is an updated version of Oh, So You Want to Write a Dissertation, which was originally published on JEK Proofreading & Editing on July 7, 2019.

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