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Dissertation Work Plan

You're looking at the title of this document and thinking, "What does that mean --'Designing a Workable Plan'?" And the answer is, "whatever it takes to help you write yourmagnum opus with a positive attitude and on schedule." This can include time management, financial planning, effective interaction with an advisor and committee, and management of dissertation activities. Under ideal conditions, you will facilitate your own progress if you can lay out a written plan for your work, much as a professor writes a course syllabus including specific dates and the work planned for those dates. This gives your work a structure that can serve as a guide. Even if unforeseen trouble arises - your own illness or a family member's, a job change, etc. --you will still have a concrete, written plan to return to.

A plan for time management is an excellent starting point, something you can do even as you are refining your proposal. More often than not, students seriously underestimate the amount of time required to complete a thesis or dissertation. You'll find it helpful, therefore, to make specific time estimates of various stages of your work, even if your estimates are subject to change. You may also find it helpful to discuss time management with other degree candidates to grasp more clearly how much time may be required.

First, the gross time estimate:

Page length225
Total effective work months from topic search
to acceptance

Breakdown by work months:

- Topic search & proposal3
- Search prior research1
- Research & analysis5
- Writing, editing, proofing5
Elapsed time, allowing for delays, in full-time work
- from topic search to acceptance16
- from approved proposal to acceptance12

Next, gross time, broken into component parts:

  • Refining of dissertation structure (This can include preparation of
    revised proposal and a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline of your
  • Further search of the literature for prior research (broken down by
    journals, books, other dissertations, government documents, etc.)
  • Research activities (make a list as specific as "preparing instruments"
    and "testing instruments")
  • Writing, editing, proofing (each chapter)

All of this will also help you to visualize the task that lies before you. But breaking the whole down into its parts allows you to see how you can approach it.

The final stage: scheduling activities and assigning dates:






1. Refining Dissertation structure




2. Literature Review




Dates may change, but plan on some major review points that you can schedule ahead with your advisor. Meeting these deadlines will help keep you focused and on schedule.

(Thanks to Davis & Parker)

# # #

On to financial planning! Even if you're on a grant, you'll usually have to cover many costs on your own. These can include postage, telephone, copies, data conversion expenses, typing, and so on. Set up a pool of savings so that these costs (which can exceed $1000) will not represent an unpleasant surprise.

Working with an advisor and a committee can be a tricky business. Every student would like to think that all will go smoothly, and occasionally perhaps it does. But you are dealing with human beings who are usually exceptionally busy, whose time is constantly in demand, who have likes and dislikes - and lives - of their own. Much can happen, and you cannot realistically expect to control events. You can, however, attempt to behave in a professional manner and treat everyone concerned politely and pleasantly. Such behavior is usually beneficial to your ultimate success. What follows is a list of suggestions of aids that might encourage effective interaction with an advisor and a committee. Only you can judge whether one or more of these suggestions could be appropriate to your situation.

  1. Take notes from your meetings with either your advisor or committee. Then summarize them, including any conclusions or decisions reached, type them, and send a copy to your advisor and if desired, to your committee members. This will ensure communication among all participants, even if it means a little extra work for you.
  2. When you hand in a substantial chunk of writing, or an entire chapter,
    consider providing some useful attachments:
      • a note that identifies your materials, along with a reminder (gentle) of the date by which your advisor/committee has agreed to return comments.
      • a brief statement that tells the contents of your materials and
        earmarks any particular sections where you would especially
        welcome comments.
      • an outline of major chapter headings; perhaps also an outline of all chapters to provide a context.
      • Be certain you have a control copy for yourself (always double-spaced and typed).
  3. Try to get everyone to plan ahead and schedule necessary meetings in
    advance. An easy way is to schedule the next meeting at the end of the
    current meeting, so all involved can work out schedule conflicts on the spot (ideally). Send a separate reminder notice of each meeting (yes indeed, committee members have been known to forget!).
  4. Some people advise writing a short agenda for each meeting, stating the
    objectives, then having the advisor approve it and including it with your
    reminder notice.
  5. If there is any possibility that meetings may not occur for an extended time, sending periodic progress reports is highly recommended! Do not allow yourself to fall into the category of "out of sight, out of mind"!

Finally, to management of dissertation activities (used in the generic sense). The detailed specifics of how to organize your work is very much an individual matter, but a few important generalizations still apply.

Number One Rule: Never trust your memory when you're doing research! Keep accurate and complete records of everything you read and do. An excellent tool is an "investigator's journal" which over time will form a chronological diary and record of work you've done, along with ideas, suggestions and comments about your work. These entries will form the basis for the written communications you'll be sending periodically to your advisor/ committee. They can also answer any questions that may arise.

Number Two Rule: Early on, establish an efficient, expandable coding and filing system for keeping all your work in order. At the minimum, keep materials divided according to chapter, then according to subtitles within the chapter. Use sturdy file folders. Clearly label all information as to source and date you obtained it, and note which file it belongs in. Sometimes color-coding is especially helpful.

Number Three Rule: Keep a back-up copy of all drafts of all chapters in a location separatefrom the rest of your records. Fires do happen!

Some additional tips:

  1. Remember that schedule of proposed activities you constructed? Pin it up in an obvious place and use it! Structure your work schedule so that each day you have a sense of routine. Begin each week with a planning hour and establish goals for that week. Stick to them. 
  2. From the beginning, know what bibliographic and reference style you'll be expected to use. It's a lot easier to set it up right the first time than it is to change it later! Also decide on an acceptable format for chapter headings, and various subdivisions. Follow your pattern consistently (or instruct your typist to do so).
  3. Outline each chapter before you write. You'll find your writing will be more coherent and cohesive. Remember that a first or even second draft won't be perfect, and that's ok! Just get started, and edit later.
  4. Rest, eat well, relax periodically. It's not a "waste of time"! Your work will progress as you thrive, and only then.

A dissertation requires solid organisational skills and effective time management in order achieve a high standard, so we’ve put together a list of some of the best free tools available to make the planning stages of your project easier.

Choosing a Topic

Before you even get near your research proposal , you need to have a topic in mind. Mind mapping is a great way to organise and visualise your early ideas when developing your dissertation topic.

Mind42.com 's mind mapping tool allows you to collaborate with colleagues online, which could be useful for sharing with peers or your project supervisor.

Mindmeister.com also features collaboration and boasts mobile access with it’s free iPhone app, whilst Bubbl.us focuses on speed with it's handy keyboard shortcuts .

Evernote provides tools for your computer, mobile device, or web browser which capture your ideas, notes, and inspiration wherever you are. This free toolset lets users save text notes, web pages, photos, and screenshots with a comprehensive search feature so that you can retrieve your ideas quickly and easily.

Reading and Research

Using Google Scholar you can search a large index of scholarly articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions. To get the most out this research tool check out Google’s guide to Advanced Scholar Searches .

Compiling a bibliography in the required format can be a time consuming task at the end of a dissertation, especially if you haven't kept track whilst writing . Fortunately there are free tools available which help you to store your citations from the beginning of your project and retrieve them in a number of commonly use formats.

Bibdesk is an Open Source Mac app with bibliography management and search features, as well as some useful import and export capabilities.

Alternatively, you could use Zotero 's browser extension for Firefox which can automatically sync your data with multiple computers. It also features browsing for mobile devices, which means you can access your data in away from your computer.

For Windows users, BiblioExpress offers a simple reference manager that can format citations in common styles such as ACS, APA, and MLA.

Planning your time

Time management is crucial in a large project such as a dissertation. It may be useful to plan backwards from your deadline, allowing extra time where necessary for unforeseen delays and revisions.

Gantt charts are a very visual way to allocate time to your dissertation tasks and there are many free tools to help you build your own. This is especially great if you're accommodating some non-work time too . Google Docs has a Gadget in it’s spreadsheet feature which creates Gantt charts for free. Similarly, if you already own Microsoft Excel you can build Gantt charts with it too.

Tomsplanner is a dedicated web-based Gantt generator which is free for personal use, and Team Gantt 's free trial offers an alternative with a slick interface.

If you’re not keen on Gantt charts you could simply plan your project in a standard calendar.

Google Calendars is web based meaning you can access it from any computer and most mobile devices. You could also share your calendar with your supervisor if you think you're likely to miss deadlines. Microsoft Outlook’s calendar and iCalendar on Mac could also be useful planning tools.

Todo Lists

If you need to organise your dissertation workload on a shorter time scale, TeuxDeux 's well designed interface helps you to plan your tasks on a weekly basis. There’s also a paid iPhone app for task management on the go.

HabitRPG is an excellent option for those of you who need a bit of positive reinforcement alongside your planning.

If a week is still too much to think about, check out Todokyo which takes simplicity to the next level with a clean-looking daily list.


If you find yourself constantly distracted by the lures of email and social networking, you could try Freedom’s free trial . This Mac app blocks your web connection for up to 3 hours at a time, leaving you to concentrate on your dissertation. Alternatively you can block specific websites from Firefox using Leechblock , and Google Chrome users can do the same with StayFocusd .

If you'd like to know more about dissertations and research projects, check out the following articles: Planning A Good Research Project How To Write A Thesis or Dissertation Publishing Your Thesis or Dissertation Image credit: @boetter

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