Rites of passage are an unavoidable part of life. Sometimes they are pleasant (getting married, having children) and sometimes they border on the traumatic (experiencing puberty, having your heart broken).
Graduate student life is full of rites of passage, which can range from presenting at your first conference to leading a class for the first time. One of the most important—and arguably the scariest—is writing a thesis or dissertation, an assignment which inspires dread and foreboding in many students.
But does it have to be this way? Can writing a thesis or dissertation be enjoyable—or, at the very least, a tolerable experience?
Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) students and alumni believe the answer to this question is a resounding “yes!” and in this post they share practical ways to make it through the thesis or dissertation process with one’s sanity intact.
No Time Like the Present
Much like a political campaign, writing a thesis or dissertation can be a long, drawn-out affair. And in either case, whether it’s drumming up support from voters or penning chapter one, it’s imperative that you get started as soon as possible.
“Propose your dissertation idea as early as possible,” said Patricia Allen, a GSAS psychology student whose dissertation is titled Effects of Dietary Creatine on Depression-related Gene Expression and Behavior: Implications for Sex-specific Differences. “You want to make sure you have enough time to meet the committee’s expectations. Also, the meeting is a contract of sorts. Once your committee members agree to your proposal, it would be unreasonable for them to object to anything later on if you fulfill your end of the agreement.”
“From the beginning, speak to as many people as you can,” said Agans, who successfully defended her thesis, Trajectories of Participation in Athletics and Positive Youth Development: The Influence of Sport Type, in April 2012. “Talking to friends and family— many of whom are unfamiliar with your topic and the academic jargon you use—will improve how you articulate your topic and ideas; speaking with colleagues and professors will ensure that you’re on the right track and have an appropriate plan for your data analysis.”
Mind Your Data
There are few thesis- or dissertation-related activities more bothersome than searching for the critical information you need. This frustration—and hours of wasted time—can be avoided by knowing, from the outset, how you will organize your research.
“Keep well organized notes, and use keywords to refer back to the literature,” said Jacqueline Furtado, a GSAS urban and environmental policy and planning graduate student whose thesis is titled Front and Center: Examining Frontline Service Delivery in the Family Self-Sufficiency Program. “Years ago, people used index cards for this. The cards would have key terms and the names of authors written on them so the information would be easy to find. I use Microsoft Word to organize this info; it’s just a simple document with information on all the material I have read for my thesis.”*
There are also a number of software solutions graduate students can and should use.
“Use a reference manager program like Refworks or Endnote,” said GSAS biology graduate alumna Jenny Lenkowski, G10, who is a research fellow in the Raymond Lab at the University of Michigan and whose dissertation was titled Exploring the Effects of the Herbicide Atrazine on Tadpoles in the Model Amphibian Xenopus laevis During Organ Morphogenesis. “Additionally, learn how to use Cite While You Write (which is a feature offered in Endnote) and find out how your word processing program formats things like section breaks and indexing figures; knowing this before you start writing will save you a lot of time when you need to insert references and create a table of contents.”
Have A Plan and Stick With It
Graduate students, like many kids, are seriously overscheduled. Along with their coursework and research responsibilities, many students work full- or part-time (as teaching assistants or as employees of outside organizations) and have other responsibilities that demand their attention (spouses or partners, children and families). Because of these demands, finding time to work on a thesis or dissertation can be a challenge, but one that can be addressed with help from a well-developed plan.
“It was helpful to plan out my writing time each week, especially in the beginning when I was transitioning from preparing for my comprehensive exam to beginning my dissertation,” said Nicole Flynn, an English GSAS student whose dissertation is titled Modern Times: Temporality and Genres of Interwar Modernism. “On Sunday nights, I would print out a blank schedule for the week, and black out the times when I was teaching or had appointments. I would then highlight the hours I planned to work on my dissertation. This helped me see how much time I actually had available during a given week.”
Added GSAS drama alumna Jenna Kubly, G10, whose dissertation is titled Vaudeville and the American Experience of the First World War as Seen by Variety. “Be disciplined. Write even when you do not want to write. Find a routine and force yourself to stick with it. For example, plan to write every day from 9:00am to 3:00pm at a specific spot.”
“It’s important to have a concrete timeline with realistic goals,” said Dukes, whose dissertation is titled Afrocentricity and Perceptions of Black Women. “For example, set a goal of writing your introduction or writing chapter one. It’s important to have tangible goals on a weekly and even daily basis. Also, set up a daily writing time, maybe an hour or two hours a day, where you sit down and do something related to your dissertation. But make sure to protect this time like it’s the most precious thing in the world.”
Find Inner Peace…or At Least A Quiet Place to Work
Distractions—from Facebook to the latest episode of Mad Men—are everywhere. The pull to send a few tweets or check out the latest videos on YouTube can turn what was supposed to be day of writing into hours of wasted time. Therefore, it’s critical to find the right physical space to work on your thesis or dissertation.
“As much as you love being home with your pets or roommates make sure to get away,” said Patricia Allen. “Otherwise you will procrastinate. Make sure to turn your cell phone off, too, and don’t go on the Internet unless it’s related to your research.”
“One of the biggest challenges I faced was outside of school,” said Langsner, whose dissertation was titled Impossible Bodies in Motion: The Representation of Martial Arts on the American Stage. “I was living in proximity to some very toxic people during the early stages of my Ph.D. and into the first year of my dissertation. Changing my living situation improved everything about my Tufts experience.”
Also, when it comes to finding the right place to work don’t be afraid to experiment like Jenny Lenkowski did.
“I found it helpful to pick a single topic or section of a chapter that I wanted to write about and then go to a café to work for a few hours; this was the most productive approach for me,” said Lenkowski. “I encourage students to try places like the library, your home, or a park until they find the right combination.”
Help is Closer than You Think
Home field advantage—whether it’s Lambeau Field for the Green Bay Packers or Citizens Bank Park for the Philadelphia Phillies—matters. At times, conditions on the field (during a 2008 playoff game in Green Bay the thermometer read -1 degree at game time) or in the stands (fans of the Phillies are some of the loudest in baseball) can be the difference between hoisting a championship trophy and spending the postseason playing golf.
Graduate students also have a home field advantage, most notably in the different types of support available at their university or college. And while these advantages may not show up in a wins and losses column, they can make a big difference when writing a thesis or dissertation.
“The Tufts Academic Resource Center’s (ARC) Graduate Writing Exchange was great!” said Jen Agans. “It really helped to sit in a room filled with other people who were writing. This forced me to keep going. If I had been at home, I would have gotten up to take a break and would not have been as productive.”
Nicole Flynn agrees, noting that the thesis or dissertation process doesn’t have to be a solitary affair.
“Try to build some support systems for yourself,” said Flynn, who is also a writing consultant at the Academic Resource Center. “Stay in touch with your advisers. Form a writing group with your departmental colleagues to talk about work and to exchange drafts. Also, the ARC will set students up with a personal consultant who will work with students throughout the writing process. Additionally, the ARC offers a Graduate Writing Retreat each winter and summer. It’s easy to feel like you’re alone when you’re writing a thesis or dissertation, but there are many students who are going though the same thing.”
Be Good To Yourself
It’s a good bet that Steve Perry, former front man of the band Journey, wasn’t thinking of graduate students when he penned the song “Be Good to Yourself.” But he could have been, since much of the song relates to the graduate student experience, including writing a thesis or dissertation.
“Make time for yourself, your friends, and your family,” said Patricia Allen. “Don’t tell them you’re too busy! Exercise often—I do this at least three times a week—and eat your fruits and vegetables every day. Happy and healthy graduate students make for more prolific dissertation and thesis writers.”
Adds Meron Langsner, “Make sure you eat right and exercise. I participated in the Tufts Marathon Challenge, which was great. It also seemed metaphorically appropriate and helped me structure some of my writing and research days.”
Treating yourself well also includes celebrating victories, both big and small.
“Students should take time to celebrate their accomplishments,” said Nicole Flynn. “At every stage of a thesis or dissertation, there’s going to be more work ahead. But if students only focus on this they will always feel like they are behind. Whether a student stayed in front of the computer for hours or sent a chapter draft to his or her professor, these are goals that have been met. Students should mark these occasions, and reward themselves by catching a movie or going out for dinner.”
By Robert Bochnak, G07, senior writer/communications manager, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences
Did we miss any best practices when writing a thesis or dissertation? Are you a graduate student interested in sharing his or her experience? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below
*More information on organizing your research is found in The Craft of Research, 3rd edition” by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams.