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5 Tips for Writing Your Ph.D. Dissertation


By SMU Graduate Studies on March 28, 2019

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Somewhere around the end of the first year of your Ph.D. program, you will probably start (or have already begun) thinking about your Ph.D. dissertation — that all-encompassing body of work that is the pinnacle getting a doctorate.

Your Ph.D. dissertation can seem intimidating. After all, it is the culmination of years of sacrifice and dedication and something that is a representation of those efforts. But, rest assured, with a well-thought-out plan, ample time, a strong support system, and some effort and determination you can confidently write a dissertation to be proud of.

To help you along the way, we’ve put together five tips for writing your dissertation. Read on to get started!

If you are still applying to graduate school, download our digital resource: " Choosing, Applying for, and Thriving in a Ph.D. Program" to help with your  search! 

Plan WAY Ahead: Develop A Dissertation Timeline

The whole Ph.D. dissertation process can vary greatly from person to person, depending on the topic you have chosen, your writing abilities, and the number of drafts and revisions you have to do. Typically, after 1 to 2 years of coursework, Ph.D. students are able to complete their dissertations in an additional 3 to 5 years.

One of the best ways to ensure that you will cross your dissertation finish line is to develop a plan to get there. From the very beginning of your Ph.D. program, outline a tentative timeline that will take you from the start of your topic search, through the end of your dissertation defense. Although you might deviate from your schedule, planning far in advance will ensure that you don’t get too far off track.

For example, here is a rough outline of what students need to accomplish every semester in order to complete their dissertation in 4 years:

  • Semester 1 — Acquaint yourself with your school’s resources, databases, and libraries.

  • Semester 2 — Begin looking at topics that interest you and reading the relevant literature.

  • Semester 3 — Continue with your review of the literature, while you search for and choose a dissertation topic.

  • Semester 4 — Search for and choose an advisor/committee.

  • Semester 5 — Develop your topic, meet with your advisor, and craft your proposal.

  • Semester 6 — Defend your proposal and make edits if necessary. Begin conducting research.

  • Semester 7 — Analyze the data and begin drafting and revising the dissertation. Consult with your advisor and ask for feedback.

  • Semester 8 — Finalize the dissertation and defend it.

Don’t live and die by this timeline. This is just an example. If your research takes you two semesters instead of one, that is okay! If you are able to complete your review of the literature over the summer, that’s fine too. Develop a schedule for yourself, but also be flexible and understanding if things don’t move at the planned pace.

Meet with Your Advisor (Then Meet Again, and Again)

Your advisor is your best friend throughout the dissertation process. You have never written a Ph.D. dissertation before, but they have! A great place to start is to begin by reading (or skimming) their dissertation. This will give you a good idea of what they will expect from your body of work.

It is easier to seek advice and counsel at the beginning of the writing process (and at several check-points throughout) then to charge ahead unguided and have to make major course-corrections in the final stretch of your degree. Plan a few meetings a year with your advisor and stick to them. You don’t need to update your advisor every step of the way, but it is good to check-in at regular intervals.

Don’t be afraid to look to them for advice, but do be mindful of their time. While they are here to help you, your dissertation is not their only responsibility. Be sure to give them enough time to read your work and provide feedback, and ask questions that are direct and specific so they know exactly how to help you.

Write the Easiest Sections First

Not all sections of a dissertation are created equal — there are some that are more challenging to write, and several that are easier because they require less in-depth analysis. The sections of a dissertation can vary greatly based on your field and subject, as well as your school’s procedures. It is best to determine with your advisor what sections are expected of you at the beginning of the dissertation process. Here are the most commonly required sections of a Ph.D. dissertation:

  • Abstract

  • Introduction

  • Literature Review

  • Methodology

  • Chapters/Articles

  • Conclusion

  • Bibliography/Works Cited

Among these sections, you should start by writing the methodology section. This is the easiest to write and the quickest to finish. Accomplishing this section will give you a confidence boost to dive into more challenging writing. Similarly, leave editing your abstract for last. The abstract is the section that provides an overview of your entire body of work, so it is simple to finalize once the major writing and organizing is complete.

Write Small Sections Every Single Day

Writing a little every day is a much better plan for success then cramming thousands of words into a few short months. It takes discipline and dedication, but committing to writing a small portion of your dissertation every day will not only strengthen your writing skills, but it will also help you avoid writer's block and keep you from feeling overwhelmed as your deadline approaches.

Another tip is to break each of the larger sections of the dissertation into smaller, more manageable pieces. Staring down the nose of a 20-page literature review is daunting and discouraging, but break that into 10 two-page chunks and suddenly that you can accomplish one in an afternoon.

Take Criticism Constructively and Learn from It

Finally, ask as many people as possible to read pieces (don’t give them the whole thing at once) of your dissertation and ask for their honest feedback. Employ the help of not only your advisor but your study and research partners, family and friends, and other professors within your field. The more people you can get to look at your dissertation, the better.

Also, don’t be discouraged by the feedback you receive in your formal committee reviews. Rather, take it as an opportunity to improve and learn from the best and brightest in your discipline. Your dissertation committee wants you to succeed and to help you produce your best possible work.


Your Ph.D. dissertation is an opportunity to showcase the work that you have done and highlight how your contributions have furthered the limits and understanding within your discipline. It is a great opportunity to present your best efforts for recognition, so don’t let the gravity of the document deter you. With a solid plan, a thorough understanding of what is expected, and people to support you, you are well on your way to succeeding!

Learn more about earning your Ph.D. by downloading our Guide to Choosing, Applying for and Thriving in a Ph.D. Program! 

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SMU Graduate Studies

Written by SMU Graduate Studies


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