With any major writing project, motivation is a key factor in determining whether or not you will finish. With your dissertation, your motivation is, ostensibly, to finish so that you can graduate. However, most PhD programs require you to start writing more than a year in advance of that date. When your deadline is a year or more off, it can be hard to manage the task of writing. Furthermore, the task of writing a dissertation is often intended to prepare you for writing your first book, so now is a good time to practice self-imposing deadlines so that you learn to keep yourself motivated.
Getting over blank page syndrome is the first step toward finishing your dissertation. But it’s one thing to say to yourself, “today I will begin my dissertation,” and quite another to actually do it. The problem is that no matter how many reports, conference presentations, and seminar papers you’ve written, no writing task up to this point has prepared you for such a massive undertaking. So take a deep breath. It’s ok to feel overwhelmed.
Step one is to stop envisioning your dissertation in its entirety. A dissertation is typically written in chapters, so the first step is to forget the dissertation as a whole and focus on its parts. Most programs require a dissertation prospectus, which forces you to break your dissertation down into components. Some disciplines have fairly rigid requirements for these components, while others do not. Either way, before you begin writing you need to decide what each chapter will accomplish.
Then, decide approximately how much time you can devote to each chapter. Some will inevitably take longer than others to write. Set a realistic deadline for your first chapter. Most graduate students say the first is the hardest. Once you’ve written one chapter, your fear of the task will likely diminish, and the next chapter will be a little bit easier to undertake.
Once you’ve gotten over the hurdle of the first chapter, you’ll also be able to set your own pace. Depending on your program’s requirements, you may have all the time in the world to write or you may be under the gun to finish before your funding runs out. Either way, you can still set manageable deadlines for yourself. The longer ahead of time you can set these, the better off you’ll be. That way you won’t be stressed out by the sudden realization that your experiment needs more data, or that you need to do archival research in another country before you can finish. The longer ahead of time you can plan for contingencies, the less stressful the task will be.
It’s also important to set both short- and long-term goals. Your short-term goal might be to write 2,000 words this week, while your long-term goal might be to finish a chapter by a certain date so that you can use it as a writing sample for a fellowship application. I find that setting daily goals is most effective for me, but everyone is different when it comes to deadlines, so find out what works for you.
Finally, make working on your dissertation a part of your daily routine, just like walking the dog or cleaning up the dishes. Take away its mystique. Leave it open on your computer so that you have to see it every time you walk by. Learn to live with it. It may sound counterintuitive, but the sooner you turn your dissertation into just another daily task, the sooner you’ll be on your way to finishing.