Tips for surviving your dissertation

"Do or do not. There is no try."

There are many "worst" things about tackling the challenge of writing a research dissertation (as opposed to a taught Master's degree). On this page I'll list some of mine and give strategies on how to overcome or survive them. I will update this page as more ideas come to mind.

Please feel free to add your tips and/or comments in the comments section.

Everyone writes alone
Logically, you know that other people have gone through the arduous task of writing dissertations and theses. You know that your supervisor had to have gone through the process to be in a position to supervise you. Still, you feel completely isolated and alone when you sit down, look your word processor in the eye and battle to get your thoughts structured. When you stare long enough at the dissertation, the dissertation stares back. I often don't like its expression.

Tip: find like-minded individuals
Find others who have to go through the ordeal. I've discovered a lovely community of dissertation and thesis writers. If you are a member of the PhinisheD online community you can struggle with your chat window open and commiserate with fellow sufferers.

In my experience it is best to get support from someone who's been in the same situation.

Common addiction: procrastination
The problem with studies is that there is always some "real life" thing that you could be doing instead of struggling or just working on your dissertation. Some of the real life things are essential: sleeping, eating, washing and even getting out of the house to socialise. If you have work it is also easy to decide to do work (even if it is after hours) instead of working on the dissertation.

Tip: handle procrastination like an addiction and tackle one day at a time
A friend of mine went to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)*. I'm not sure about the steps, but the last step is to pass on the knowledge (or in this case a small card "Just for today") on to someone else. Some of the gems in there have kept me going when all seemed lost.

There are quite a few points, so for the whole list you can read the pdf version of the Just for today card. My favourite is the first one.

"Just for today I will try to live through this day only, and not tackle all my problems at once. I can do something for twelve hours [in the case of a dissertation a year or so] that would appal me if I felt that I had to keep it up for a lifetime."
* A real person whose name I'm not dragging through the mud.

Milk will be spilt
There's no use crying over spilt milk.
There's no crying over spilt milk - Annia Harrup Photography

 Inevitably things will go wrong. 

The worst spilt milk (the kind that goes off really quickly) is when electronics eat your dissertation, research, notes and so on and so forth. The only way to deal with this is to be a paranoid back-up artist. 

Tip: back up your work on the internet
Thus far, I have printed versions of my work and I also upload the chapters (or bits of chapters) to Google docs. There have been instances where all the backup disks fail - having a purely electronic backup on the web does help to give the persevering student courage to go forth and write.

Another kind of spilt milk is the missed deadline.

Tip: do not panic if you don't make a deadline
By this tip I do not suggest that you should ignore deadlines. In my experience you just end up wasting a lot of time panicking if you miss a deadline. The time could be used to do the work and ensure that you do eventually  finish the dissertation.

Dealing with everyone asking how far you are 
 Everyone that has taken on a big project knows how it is. You are exited about the project. You share your dreams and aspirations with the world. You do the planning. You start the work. Milk is spilt. Your friends, family or co-workers  are blissfully unaware of the problem or had to listen to you ranting. Inevitably, at some point when you are stuck, someone will corner you and ask how the "writing is going".

Tip: start a blog 
I still get questions about my dissertation,but not as frequently as before. Knowing that other people know about the project also forces you to be productive. You cannot keep writing updates about doing nothing.

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