Dissertation spreadsheet

Using a dissertation progress tracking spreadsheet

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In my last post, in which I talked about the different methods I am using to keep myself accountable in my dissertation writing, I briefly touched on the progress tracking spreadsheet that Ashley and I are collectively using.

What it is

Our tracking spreadsheet is a Google Docs spreadsheet that we created to share our progress and to help keep each other on track. Each of us has our own sheet to keep track of our individual efforts toward our dissertations. My spreadsheet is divided up into weeks and days. The rows represent all of the weeks between January 1 and August 31, and the first seven columns are one for each day of the week (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc.). At the end of each day, in the cell that corresponds with that day, I input the number of words I wrote toward my dissertation. I count only words that make it into the dissertation document and no brainstorming, outlining, or references. While these items all count toward dissertation progress — and indeed are important steps toward completing! — I want to keep honest track of much writing toward the final product I am doing. I can read, browse, and crunch data all week, but when it comes down to it, I also need to be putting words on paper (well, on the screen) if I am going to finish in a year. In the columns after the days of the week, I total the number of words I have written for that week in one column and have another that has the total number of words I set for my goal to write that week.

Dissertation spreadsheet
The first portion of my dissertation spreadsheet with rows for each week and columns for each day of the week. See the “Chapter 2 done” date? I’ve actually beat that deadline!

Thoughts so far

Overall: I love the spreadsheet. People who know me know that I am by nature highly-organized and goal-oriented. This spreadsheet allows me to be both in dissertation writing: it forces a daily attention to the spreadsheet, constant tracking of my progress, and allows me to celebrate little victories when I meet the weekly goal that I set. I am eternally grateful to my colleague Ashley for introducing this to me and for coming up with the idea for us to use this to track our progress and keep each other motivated.

I realize this might not be a good idea for everyone. This spreadsheet works particularly well for me and my working personality: I look forward to the end of the day (or my writing session) when I can eagerly input my total word count for the day and watch the numbers add up for the week. It’s like a little shot of confidence that I can do this big, HUGE project because I’m doing so one small chunk at a time.

Trouble spots: The spreadsheet has highlighted for me the days and/or times that I struggle to write. You’ll notice that I have a big fat “0” for three of the four Thursdays in January. Well, that’s because those days I teach and have meetings about the conference that are hosting this spring. These two things end up taking up most of my day, and by the end, I don’t have the brain energy to tackle my dissertation in any meaningful way. I’ve identified that. But I have an entire semester’s worth of Thursdays, and I can’t afford to not write at all on those days if I’m going to finish this year. So I have decided now to make Thursday my “clean up” days: Any new references that I need to put into my bibliography, I note them all week, and on Thursdays, I format them properly into that document. Bam – I can APA format articles in my sleep, so that’s perfect for Thursday. Most importantly, I’m not losing an entire day: I’m making it work for my schedule.

I also made an effort to insert comments into the spreadsheet when I had particular thoughts about the day that I wanted to remember, such as a day with a low total word count in my document but during which I had completed the entire IRB application for my dissertation — a big, important step. Perhaps by the end of the diss I’ll have enough data to write an article on dissertation writing, or to give a workshop to other grad students at this stage of their degree … who knows!

Timeline: After using this spreadsheet for the first month of the year, I have done a little thinking about the timeline that I am on for writing and how well I’ve been able to meet my daily and weekly writing goals. It has even given me the confidence to up my daily writing goal by 82 words, taking my weekly word count goal from 1946 to 2450. This will result in an entirely complete first draft of my dissertation by August and will give me the entire fall semester for revisions, which I think is a reasonable and achievable goal. I’ll write another update post (maybe end of next month?) to report back on how my new elevated word count goal is going.

Do other folks use a system for keeping track of progress on big projects, like a dissertation? If so, what do you use? How does that work for you?

Dissertation writing: Holding a writing group for accountability

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January 1, 2013 marked the first day of my dissertation writing. New year, new project, and new work habits to help me accomplish the final and largest hurdle for my doctorate. I am currently starting the 6th semester of my 8 semesters of funding (middle of my third of four years), so I have approximately one year and a couple of months to write, revise, and defend my dissertation. Challenge accepted.

I’ve asked a lot of others about their strategies for writing, researching, and overall finishing their dissertation and am using several of these strategies with my own writing. Here’s what I’m trying my hand at:

Daily writing goal 

One of the greatest challenges to writing a dissertation in 12 (14?) months is the sheer volume of writing and research that has to be produced to even generate a full first draft, not to mention a final version that the school’s ETD system will actually accept. So, my New Year’s resolution was that every day — every day — I would do something toward my dissertation, specifically enough work that would generate one page’s worth of words for my first drafts of my chapters. So, my daily goal is to write 278 words toward my dissertation (the approximate number of words I chose to represent one page’s worth of writing, since I don’t always just write one page straight through, but jump around between sections). So far, of the 12 days of January, I have missed my goal one day, so the system isn’t perfect. (Would anyone be surprised that the day I didn’t meet that goal, I was teaching and had meetings to plan a conference we’re hosting?) But otherwise, I’ve been steadily writing my chapter, and in a week and a half, I’ve made a lot of progress. So far, this is working really well for me, but obviously, as the semester progresses, this may change.


Along with my daily word count goal, I have a layer of accountability. It’s no secret that Ashley and I work together on a lot of projects, and in the dissertation writing stage, we are trying to support each other’s writing experiences so that we can successfully finish. We hold each other accountable to our daily writing goals through a shared spreadsheet that is set up as a spring semester calendar with daily and weekly writing tallies. Each day after I’ve completed my daily writing, I put into my sheet in that day’s cell the number of words I wrote (today, 484). Ashley has her own sheet, also as a calendar set up with a cell for each day, that she also puts her daily writing totals into. Having a shared document with our own writing tally sheets means that we can see what each other has done — and in many cases, seeing Ashley’s daily word totals has motivated me to write for another 30 minutes to get just a little bit more done. Later into the process, it might help us identify when the other is struggling, which will also be helpful for us to be there for one another.

Writing group

Finally, we have a small writing group of peers who are also working on their dissertation. We meet weekly to discuss our progress and to do peer review of each other’s work. Three or four days we meet, we exchange drafts electronically, and then the day that we meet, we discuss what we thought about each other’s work, suggestions, etc. We review a range of each other’s work, too — whether it be chunks of a dissertation chapter, grant applications, journal article manuscripts we plan to submit, proposals for new courses in the department, etc. The feedback from writing group participants has been so helpful, and I’ve learned a lot not just from what they’ve said about my work, but also from me reading theirs. I have some very, very smart colleagues. Not to mention that having a group of people who expect something from me every week is pretty good motivation for having substantial enough material for them to review.

What else?

Obviously, there are just three strategies that I’m attempting, and this is only the very beginning of my dissertation writing process. I’d love to know what other strategies folks have used to help them power through this and finish — please share!