Conquering Dissertation Writing: A Goal Without a Plan Can Be Disastrous

Fail to plan, plan to fail! This phrase applies equally to business planning and doctoral dissertation planning. Taking the time upfront and investing in the development of a plan for completing the dissertation will generate a return on investment that can be measured in both tangible and intangible factors.

In terms of time and effort, planning and writing a blueprint for success is similar to redecorating or painting your home. Let’s substitute pen for paintbrush! All the real work takes place during preparation – this takes time but makes for an easy unproblematic final paint job. Addressing the pitfalls and planning to set time aside to fill in the cracks and sand down the edges will not only save time towards the end of the process, but will also provide an intimate understanding of potential problem areas and how to address them in much the same way assumptions and limitations can be controlled and minimized as far as possible by drawing upon additional resources and help from a mentor and committee members.

Planning also helps keep the dissertation and progress towards completion on track – as the management guru Peter Drucker commented, “without measurable goals, there can be no progress”. So set goals for even the most trivial tasks in the dissertation plan. Performing tasks to achieve small goals are like low-hanging fruit that can be picked off easily for sustenance when a learner lacks the strength, or ambition, to climb to the top for the juiciest pick of the day. As any non-traditional learner is aware, motivation, focus, and energy levels fluctuate daily and the trick is to keep going no matter what. With a plan in place, it is easier to write even a single sentence or research one article in the college library if it is easy to see how such small activity contributes to the final picture. Such tasks may also keep a learner on the correct path towards the doctoral degree by enabling her or him to self-assess progress and areas of concern.

Here are several keys to success that I have found to prove beneficial in moving learners forward:

Use and build a strong open relationship with a mentor, or chair. The mentor and the chair can be one and the same. Sometimes the chair is selected for the learner. Like any population, not all chairs and learners are equal in experience and skill but most fall within two standard deviations above or below the mean in terms of performance! Try to match skill and expertise by topic and methodology. Build the relationship early on and maintain it through regular meetings in person, by webinar, or simply by telephone.

Time management. It is very easy to fall prey to procrastination during the writing process. Up to this point, the university has contributed to self-assessment of progress through structured term courses with set deadlines for submission of assignments. Perhaps the greatest difference in the dissertation phase is that the learner is in charge of personal progress and should have a firm grip on the steering wheel and accelerator. This means the learner needs to find time to assess progress and monitor activity. The learner is fully accountable for personal progress and may need to examine the plan for writing or gathering data and to control as far as reasonably possible for lapses in writing due to uncontrollable life events.

Planning ahead. Time management and planning ahead go hand in hand. Perseverance is part of the course. At the very beginning of the writing process the learner should present a plan to the mentor outlining expected progress with identified milestones and mini-goals. As Aesop's fable, "The Tortoise and the Hare” has shown us “Slow and steady wins the race” and this applies to the dissertation process too. Look ahead, plan for the unexpected and stay focused.

No one said this is easy, but having a plan is a critical tool for helping manage the risk and worry.

Thoughts? What recommendations do you have as a doctoral advisor, professor, or past/current doctoral learner?

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