clock and note book - time for PhD dissertation writing

#74: No time for dissertation writing?

Is dissertation writing high on your list of things to do, but you just have no time to write? Do you think it might be too early in your PhD to get started on writing the dissertation? Here, we present five common excuses for why dissertation writing is put-off even when it is high on your agenda. Let’s discuss the five reasons, see how you can get around them, and get your dissertation writing started! 

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In our courses for PhD candidates, we always ask students if they have started writing their dissertation already. Well, we know this is the second best question to ask a PhD candidate (apart from the omnipresent – when are you going to finish?). And needless to say that this is a touchy subject!

Usually a few PhD candidates tell us that they have started already, others not. Some share what they are writing at the moment, or how they got started. Many hesitate first, and then admit that they have not started yet. It seems as if they do not feel good about the delay because they immediately come up with various explanations as to why they haven’t gotten into the writing process yet. 

Writing the papers or chapters for the dissertation, or for that matter engaging in any writing task like submitting a working paper to a scientific meeting, or an extended abstract for a conference, seems to be a heavy burden to some. Let’s have a close look at what the problems really are, and why writing has not been started. 

We’ll summarise the most common explanations we hear in our courses, and discuss what they really mean. Are you one of those who has no time to write? If so, keep reading, as we have a closer look at the barriers that keep you away from writing, and suggest how to overcome them. 

1. I have no time right now! 

Is this you? 

Are you a very busy PhD student trying to fulfill all sorts of requirements from those around you? 

Are you diligently ploughing through the literature in your field, working on your experiments and data gathering, signing up for conferences, and giving presentations at your own institute? Are you doing your fair share of assisting interns or helping others in the lab?

In other words, your scientific life is in full swing and you make time for everything in your work, but somehow writing always pulls the short straw? 

We often come across PhD candidates who describe their busy work days full of important activities, but seriously, while they find time for everything else, they do not manage to find time to write. 

What your real problem might be

You may not have a time-issue, but an issue with prioritising. Being an active academic means undertaking research and communicating about it. The one does not go without the other. And you’ll not get a PhD without writing. Next to your research, dissertation writing (or working on your papers included in the dissertation) is the second most important activity during your PhD. 

If you feel like you don’t have time for writing, think about what you need to hand in to receive your PhD in the end, and focus on producing this. Rethink your priorities.

How to tackle this problem 

Questions to ask yourself:

1. Why don’t you have time to write? 

2. Do you have a problem prioritising your tasks? 

3. What other tasks are you working on during the day, and are these really more important? 

We suggest you:

  • make a list of the 2-3 most important activities to complete your PhD. Writing the dissertation has to be one of them
  • allocate sufficient time during the week to work on these activities
  • monitor how much time you actually spend writing over the next 2-3 weeks

Find more suggestions in our blog post #73: What’s needed to finish your PhD? 

2. I’m not ready yet! 

Is this you? 

Do you feel like you should wait longer because then it will somehow be easier to start writing papers or parts of your dissertation? Are you still in the first PhD years, and you think that ‘other things’ have to happen before you can start dissertation writing or publishing your first paper?

What your real problem might be

Not ‘being ready’ is more often anxiety than a logical thought-process that lets you come to the conclusion that you need further work or further knowledge. If you don’t feel ready yet, see for yourself if this is true or merely an excuse to avoid getting started. If the latter is the case you may never feel ready, so what are you waiting for?

How to tackle this problem 

Questions to ask yourself:

1. What exactly is it that you believe you are lacking? ? 

2. Is there an actual knowledge or skill gap? 

3. When will you know or have what you are currently lacking? 

4. What other writing tasks could you tackle meanwhile?

We suggest you:

  • make a clear plan for the main parts/elements needed for your dissertation and your papers
  • identify what you can write right now, without any further knowledge
  • decide on the (few) remaining bits that truly have to wait, and where it makes sense to do so

Find more suggestions in our blog post #61: Ten hacks to quick-start your thesis writing!

3. It’s too early for me to start writing! 

Is this you? 

Are you a PhD student in the first year? 

Have you somehow always thought that writing the dissertation has to wait until later? Is this something you heard from other PhD students, or you have PhD colleagues around you who are writing and are way further in their PhD process than you? 

What your real problem might be?

It’s a common myth that one can’t write in the early phase or first year of a PhD. Rest assured, there’s a wide variety of tasks you can do early in your PhD which will pave the way for writing the dissertation, and make it a great deal easier. 

How to tackle this problem 

Questions to ask yourself: 

  1. What are you waiting for? 
  2. What are preliminary writing tasks that are suitable for you to tackle right now? 
  3. How can you train your writing skills?

We suggest you:

  • Get a clear idea of how a dissertation in your subject area and at your university should look
  • Make a decision to write a monograph or papers (see our post #6 for help)
  • Identify potential papers you could publish 
  • Draw up a shortlist of suitable journals to publish in

In our new online course, we teach PhD students at every stage what specific writing tasks they should tackle so they get into the writing process more easily. For more information have a look at the PhD Success Lab.  

We further suggest you study our blog post #63: Train your writing muscle: Achieve better results.

4. I don’t know enough yet! 

Is this you? 

Are you the one who always thinks that you don’t know enough yet? Are you convinced that all other authors you’ve come across know more than you do, and you must dive deeper into the scientific literature, or read-up on the methods and approaches other scientists have been using? 

Maybe you’ve even analysed your own data already, or at least parts of it, but you still think you don’t know enough in order to get going with the writing process?

What your real problem might be

Well, keep reading, but seriously, do you think you’ll feel any different after you’ve skimmed through another 50 papers in your field? Perpetually thinking that you don’t know enough is often the expression that you are doubting yourself, your abilities, and your results. Maybe you’ve a bit of an issue with imposter syndrome?

How to tackle this problem 

Questions to ask yourself: 

  1. What or who makes you think that you don’t know enough? 
  2. Do you doubt yourself, or have feelings of inadequacy in other professional situations? 

We suggest you: 

  • focus on what you know already, instead of identifying what you might not know
  • take what you have up to now and see how you can use this for your dissertation already – are there any data or results you’re proud of which would make a wonderful first paper, or a beefy chapter in your dissertation?

Find more suggestions our blog post #56: Breaking these 5 habits will speed up your thesis writing!

5. I don’t like writing! 

Is this you? 

You love being a PhD student with all the exciting work that you have to perform! You enjoy being among your colleagues and the buzz of the scientific community. Hard work and stress is no problem for you. So in short: You like pretty much anything in your job, and you can deal with all the challenges in your PhD project, but there’s one exception, the one thing you don’t like – and that is writing! 

What your real problem might be

We hear this pretty often! And it sounds so simple–it’s such an obvious reason to avoid dissertation writing. However, if that’s the case for you, you might have bigger problems ahead. 

A PhD does not come without writing–in fact, in most scientific disciplines, it does not come without quite a lot of writing! It’s a little bit like a diver who does not like water, an archaeologist who does not like excavating, a geologist who does not like drilling – you get it! The problem is of course that no PhD is ever finished without writing. 

How to tackle this problem 

Questions to ask yourself: 

  1. What’s the reason you don’t like writing? 
  2. Any previous experiences that made you dislike it? 
  3. Were you told in the past that you’re not good at it? 
  4. Do you have a lack of writing skills? 
  5. Does it take you a long time to produce a text? 

We suggest you:

  • get started searching the real reason behind your dislike
  • once you have identified the underlying issues – or at least you have an idea, start actively working on your writing problem
  • take a good writing course or get a writing coach
  • open up about your writing problems, and talk to other scientists to see how they organise the writing process, how long it takes them, or how they have managed to become a better academic writer 

Find more suggestions on our blog post #58: Why you should not leave dissertation writing until the end! 

Conclusion

In our experience the statement ‘no time for writing’ – like the others we mentioned above – often is a sign that you do not feel comfortable with dissertation writing, and are thus trying to find excuses to put it off. 

We acknowledge that dissertation writing is a massive task all in all, and everyone who’s completed a PhD will agree that a lot of hard work goes into it. But postponing is never the solution. You’d better grab that bull by the horns and get started. Starting the writing process does very often untie the Gordian knot and – who knows – maybe you’ll start to like it! 

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