Speaking a few weeks ago with a friend who is working on his doctoral dissertation, had a chance to think through many of the factors that have contributed to my successful completion of a master’s thesis. I don’t mean to brag–no one is more surprised than I am–but I completed a 51,000-word thesis in less than 7 months of writing.
My hope is that some of these ideas will be helpful to fellow students working on theses or dissertations.
1. In the time/planning/scheduling realm…
- I made a general plan for my chapters, and scheduled them at intervals so as to complete a first draft of the completed project three weeks before the deadline to defend and graduate. My advisor wanted to see the chapters as I wrote them, and he has been wonderful in providing feedback, encouragement and further research avenues.
- I made a target page count, higher than final target of approximately 100-120 1.5-spaced pages (40,000-50,000 words), in order to account for final editing. Then I scheduled these pages per week, about 5-6 pages (2000-2400 words).
- I made a chart for hours spent reading/writing. My goal was to spend 2.5 hrs reading and 7.5 writing every week. This was a reasonable target for me, since I work full time and do ministry. I thought about it this way: two hours after work each weekday, plus a lunch hour, plus a long Tuesday evening while Corrie teaches lessons, adds up to 17.5 hours. I was certain that I could make 10 of those hours productive, and then my weekends and other evenings would be free for my family.
- I chose my own schedule as 7:00-3:30, so I was finishing my research by 5:30 and usually home by 5:45. Early on, I tried to get up early and do research before work, but that does not work for me. My job requires so little thought and gives me so little stress that I’m usually ready and rarin’ to go by 3:30. During work I’ll often listen to the texts I’ll be studying, or lectures on the texts/topics. Afternoon works for me, but it might not be for everyone.
- Once I’d written my target amount for the week, I’d enjoy myself. I would sometimes work extra and get ahead if I felt inspired, but I try to make sure to rest and reward myself. I read economics for fun; I played with Daniel, played in the band, watched football, etc.
2. In the academic/intellectual/creative realm…
- Besides a chapter schedule, I made a list of propositions and structured my argument. I had four main chapters in addition to an introduction and a conclusion, but I wrote out 11 propositions and listed them briefly in my introduction. Some propositions were so well-established in the literature that I would simply need to summarize and apply that literature. Other propositions I had to prove by my own research in the original texts. Structuring the argument gave me direction, and each chapter contributed (more or less) to prove one or several of my propositions, building upon the other chapters/propositions.
- I kept writing, even through the fog. The foggiest times were when I would start afresh at the beginning of a chapter cycle (6 weeks). I found it difficult at first to remember and creatively activate the kernel of thought from which I had intended the chapter to sprout. The best way to work through it, I found, is to trust my grand plan (affirmed by my advisor), put my head down, and write through it. The fragments began to come together by the second week each time around, and by the sixth week I was finishing off a chapter of 8,000-11,000 words.
3. In the practical, hour-to-hour, Sitzfleisch realm…
- I found I can’t spend long hours working–two or three (max) hours at a time is best. One could perhaps do two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, but whenever I had a larger chunk of time, I had to make a plan for those hours, or else I would end up stretching out a two-hour goal into five hours.
- I didn’t spend long hours in the library; I tend to go on research bunny trails, which are deadly. I used JSTOR and Google Books to read and preview articles and chapters to make my library time short and productive. Without those online tools, and easy access to Westminster’s library, this would have taken much longer to complete.
- I found a quiet, consistent, non-fun place I can study, and I pretty much just go there. For me it was at the office; I cannot study/write at home. Sometimes I’ll go to a coffee shop to get out of the house, but it becomes inconvenient if I need a lot of books–I keep most of them at the office.
- Two or three days out of seven, I felt like I wouldn’t be able to complete the thesis, or I would hit a creative wall. I would simply tell myself, “You can do it,” and push on through those days. One of the books I read on thesis-writing put it this way: think of all the people who are smarter than you who don’t have a doctorate, and then think of all the people not as smart as you who do have doctorates. There are plenty of each; the difference is perseverance. The thesis doesn’t have to be perfectly publishable, just passable.
I hope my experiences proves to be helpful for you. If you’ve completed a long project, perhaps you’d share what sorts of things kept you on track.