Need to finish your dissertation? Protect your time!

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With the start of school less than two weeks away here at N.C. State, I’m getting ready to kick off our new programming here at Thesis and Dissertation Support Services. Part of the services will include blog posts all about the global process of writing a thesis or dissertation, our events, and other graduate school-related issues. Today’s post is geared toward students writing their dissertation and a common obstacle for many doctoral students.

Protect your time

A few days ago, I tweeted: “An important lesson for #diss writers: Protect your time. Others don’t care if you finish. But it matters if you do!” The tweet quickly received some retweets/replies and seemed to resonate with folks, and rightly so. Time is one of the greatest challenges for doctoral students. There’s never enough of it with everything that competes for your time (lab work, more articles to read, extracurriculars, family, teaching, conferences–the list is long and different for everyone).

So how do you finish? Protect your time. Easy to say, but harder to do. Completing your degree is more important to you than anyone else. That is, others will ask you for your time, need you to do things, assume you have some availability, etc. They won’t first think: “Well, so-and-so needs to finish her dissertation.” That will NEVER happen.

People will always be asking you do things. You will always need to do many things. But you need to put your dissertation first. A dissertation requires many hours. One dissertation guide (Foss & Waters’ Destination Dissertation, 2007) estimates 1,078 hours. That’s nearly 7 months of working at it full time (40 hours/week). Not many doctoral students can dedicate that much time a week for a dissertation. At 10 hours/week, that means it would take over 2 years to complete the diss. Maybe you’re aiming somewhere in between? Then you need to find about 20 hours per week to work on your dissertation. Between lab time, teaching, department meetings, and job applications–20 hours can be hard to find.

Or can they? The key is not to have to FIND time. The key is to PROTECT your time so that you always have 20 hours per week (at least) available to work on your dissertation. Here are some strategies for doing this:

Schedule out your working hours for the week, including dissertation time. Twenty hours per week is 4 hours each weekday. One strategy would be to block off all your mornings each weekday for dissertation writing. 8am-12pm = dissertation time (or whatever chunk of time works best for you. Know when you work best!). Block it off in your Google Calendar. Close your email. Turn off Gchat. Be dressed, have coffee in hand, and ready to go at 8am. Work until noon (with bathroom, snack, stretch breaks, of course). Don’t commute to school during this time. Don’t meet a friend for coffee. Use all four hours. Do this every day you have it scheduled, and you will be incredibly productive! Having a habit means you’ll be ready to write when it’s time. No “waiting for inspiration.” No one has ever finished a dissertation using the working method of “waiting for inspiration.”

Dissertation time is for nothing else. Block off your calendar every weekday from 8am-noon from now until Christmas. And stick to it. Meetings, student conferences, fun time, anything else that you have to do must be scheduled outside of your dissertation working time. Do not give in! Don’t attend that job talk at 9:30 am in your department. That’s your dissertation time. Don’t meet with a student at 10am. That’s your dissertation time. This is what it means to protect your time. Other people will not know it is your dissertation time. You do. Ask for meetings in the afternoon. Schedule office hours in the afternoon. Whatever it takes!

People will understand when you tell them. They know it’s your job to finish your dissertation! But there’s no way for them to know your schedule. So when something comes up at 10am, just decline with a friendly note that you have a dissertation session that day and time. It is your right to do this. It is your job to finish your dissertation. Stick up for yourself! Protect your time. No one else will do this for you.

Occasionally things will come up. That’s OK. But making exceptions to your M-F, 8am-noon working schedule (or whatever hours you’ve chosen) should be an absolute exception and not the norm. You might have a Skype interview and the faculty can only do it in during your dissertation session. That’s OK. But then you need to make up for the time that’s lost: where can you get back the 2 hours that you were doing other things? Add it in somewhere else, even if that means turning something down in a generally open time. Dissertation time comes first.

Weekends will be nice rewards–or bonus working time. If you put in all your 20 hours during the week, weekends can be a restful, relaxing time without worrying about making progress on your dissertation, because you’ve done that all week! The end of your degree can be a stressful time as a graduate student: finishing a diss, applying to jobs, teaching, caring for family, etc. So it’s important to take care of yourself and give yourself a break, such as on the weekends (or even just on one weekend day). Alternatively, if you’ve gotten on a roll during the week and want to do more, then weekends become bonus time where you get additional work done (and possibly finish your dissertation sooner).

Now, I realize these suggestions (or at the very least, the example of 20 hours per week) probably work best for full time students. Part time students who work a different job full time may have fewer hours each week to work on their dissertations, but the concept of protecting your time still applies. Maybe even more so. The time that you do get for dissertation work, even if only 1 hour per night and a few hours on the weekend, becomes critical for you to use and to protect. Carve out that time on your Google calendar, and apply the same ideas: protect the time. Only very rarely allow exceptions. And make up for lost time when you do.

Protect your time and you will have the time to finish your dissertation. That’s your number one goal as a doctoral student, so why let other things derail that progress?

What strategies do you use for finding time–making time–to complete your dissertation? Share in the comments!