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?

Collaborative writing with Google docs

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In my last post, I discussed the benefits of doing collaborative research in grad school. With the brilliance that is Google docs, team writing is a smoother process than ever. I know that some have been using Google docs for years, for both collaborative writing and their own personal work, whereas there are many who have yet to try out the feature. (If you fit in the former category, some of what I’ll review here is pretty basic, but I encourage you to read through and comment to add any functions or perks that I’ve missed here.)

How I use Google docs & my favorite features:

  1. Writing text: Obviously, a main function of Google docs is that you can write within a window just the same way you could within a word processor. You can change the text style, size, color, and more similarly to a word processor. It has less features – fewer font options and no text boxes, for example – but offers many of the basic functions you need. I use the word count tool a lot! 
  2. Exporting: When you need to finish something off in Word (or put it in a .doc format to send off somewhere) you can easily export the document as a Word file, or even a PDF or RTF file. 
  3. Collaborative writing: The main advantage Google docs has over a word processor is the facilitation of collaborative writing. As you type, others who are viewing the document (or “in the document) can see what you are writing in real time, and vice versa. I can immediately edit a word someone else has written, we can cut and paste each other’s writing – it’s all real time. Which is connected to the awesome feature for group projects of – 
  4. Everyone is immediately updated: When you open the document, everyone who has permissions to it all have the same, most up-to-date version. No more sending around docs and keeping track by having “GrantAppVersion02Edit34.” Work on it in Google docs until everyone is done and then download it in whichever file format you need. 
  5. Chat function: Within the document, if another writer is also viewing at the same time, you can chat with your collaborator about the project (or anything else, for that matter). It’s helpful for discussing the plan of attack, setting a schedule, etc. all while you are working on it. It also helps save valuable in-person meeting time. (Edited to add this item post-publication – I forgot in my haste to get this posted!)
  6. Flexibility: With a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentations, you can create a doc for pretty much anything you need. I’ve got docs for essays, group projects, as well as lecture notes, reading exam lists, and Christmas present budget for last year. 

Clearly, I’m enamored by Google docs, but I don’t think it’s perfect. I find the “filing” system a bit clunky – like Gmail, you can tag things, but creation and maintenance of the folders is not so easy. The apps for your smart phone aren’t perfect and make it difficult to edit a doc on the go (if you think that’s what you will mainly use it for. That’s not a primary need of mine, so this isn’t a big problem for me, but others tend to prefer something like the Evernote app over the Google doc app). Finally, when you download a doc as a Word file, the formatting does not export as cleanly as I’d like – I tend to spend 15 minutes tidying up the spacing, adjusting the rules, and formatting the font to make it the professional document I need it to be.

    Regardless, Google docs is still a great new(ish) tool for PhD students. How do you use Google docs? Any cool ways to use them that I haven’t mentioned, or additional concerns I haven’t thought of? 

    Why all grad students should do collaborative research

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    This spring, I undertook two collaborative research projects with a colleague of mine in the CRDM program, Ashley R. Kelly. It was the first time I had ever done a seminar paper collaboratively (other projects, certainly, but never the largest one for the course). While at first I was not quite sure how we would manage it, once we got started things really took off and I never once wondered about project management. Overall, I have to say that I really enjoyed the two collaborative projects that we did and would absolutely recommend doing that for at least one of your courses if you are pursuing your PhD.

    First, why I loved it: it may be that my research partner was fabulously on the ball, but we were both highly motivated to do well and to both hold up our end of the deal to contribute as much as we could to the project. Having a research partner held me accountable to all of the progress (and occasionally, lack of progress) that I was making. It made me think about the projects more often; gave me frequent deadlines throughout the semester to meet, and alleviated the last-minute crunch that everyone faces at the end of the semester. We toiled diligently through February and March, making the end of April much more pleasant than normal. Of course, you’ve got to choose a collaborator wisely: don’t pick the student who consistently procrastinates! You don’t want to resent your partner for not completing tasks in a timely manner. We also had an unofficial “open-door” policy for talking about our projects: we did not hesitate to speak up, disagree, or call each other on something we didn’t like/see as valuable for the project. These conversations were professional – not personal judgments of our own ability – so they were productive and did not create any resentment between us. I think this is extremely important for teamwork!

    Now, why I think all PhD students should do this at least once while in school: collaborative writing is more and more prominent in academia and better mimics some of the group tasks you’ll have to do once you are faculty member. It seems now that any time I get an alert from a journal I’m following, six out of the seven articles in a new issue are co-authored pieces. Web projects are also highly collaborative; case in point, the project I’m working as a research assistant for this summer. It’s great professional training in a lower-stakes setting that also allows you to develop connections with those whose research interests align with yours; I know many faculty who still co-write articles or books with those they wrote with in grad school, even though they are now at different institutions. It could also allow you to supplement any of your own weaknesses and learn something new from someone who has perhaps more experience with a certain methodology or theoretical background, helping fill in scholarly gaps you might have.

    Overall, collaborative research was a great experience for me this spring, and Ashley and I are continuing on some projects collaboratively, some of which I hope to share with you in the coming months. Next up: how Google docs (and spreadsheets, and presentations) can make your joint research and writing project a success.

    Have you ever completed a collaborative project? What advice can you add to the ideas I’ve got here?