The Secret to Writing Your Dissertation

"I spent every night until four in the morning on my dissertation, until I came to the point when I could not write another word, not even the next letter. I went to bed. Eight o'clock the next morning I was up writing again." -Abraham Pais, physicist

You've been in graduate school for many years now, and you've come a long way. You've completed all of your coursework, formed your Ph.D. thesis committee, passed your preliminary/oral/qualifying examinations, and have done an awful lot of research along the way. There's a glimmer of hope in your heart that maybe -- just maybe -- this will be your last year in graduate school.

Image credit: East Tennessee State University's Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

You've probably even gotten some papers published along the way, with a handful of them (if you're lucky) with you as the lead author! But there's one more task you need to perform before you're ready to defend in front of your committee: you must write that dissertation!

While there are many guides on how to do that, many of them are either jokes...

Image credit: Flickr user chnrdu.

...or people grossly overstating the task in front of you. There are some very important things that go into a dissertation, but there are also some huge misconceptions about what a dissertation is supposed to be. What follows is my advice for anyone who's reached that stage in their careers, on how to write a dissertation. (At least, as far as theoretical astrophysics goes, although I'm sure this is applicable to many other fields.)

Image credit: Jorge Cham of PhDcomics.

First off, here is a list of what your Ph.D. dissertation is not:

  1. It is not the definitive work on whatever your primary research topic is.
  2. It is not going to settle long-standing arguments in your field.
  3. It is not the most important piece of research or writing you'll ever undertake.
  4. And finally, it is very likely not even a document that anyone outside of your committee (with the exception of a few good friends, and possibly your grandmother) will ever read.

Image credit: Peter Lubbers / Rocky Lubbers of

You must accept number 4 before you're ready to write, otherwise you run the risk of becoming a perfectionist about a document that -- seriously -- practically no one is going to read!!!

What is a Ph.D. dissertation, then? Quite simply, it's your way of proving to your committee that you are a competent scientist in your own right, capable of standing on your own two feet as a scientist, researcher, and academic. It is where you demonstrate the following:

  1. That you are capable of making original, valuable contributions in an active field of research.
  2. That you are aware of and informed about the broad landscape of your field, the background and currently competing work being done on your specific sub-field, and that your professional opinions are well-informed and backed up by your knowledge and legitimate reasoning.
  3. That the body of work you submit in your dissertation is comprehensive enough to merit a Ph.D.
  4. And, perhaps most importantly, that you are ready to go off and continue your research (if you so choose) without the guidance of your mentor(s).

The first, second, and fourth of these are things you must convince your committee of during your defense; the third, however, is something that must speak for itself within your written dissertation.

Image credit: Dalhousie University.

And that's why the most important thing you can do is to just crank it out. What you may not realize is that 75% of your dissertation is already done, you just need to take advantage of it!

What do I mean? I mean don't reinvent the wheel!

Let me explain.

Image credit: Gnarlycraig from Wikimedia Commons.

You've already written/published some papers, and you're very likely at least part-way through some more projects that may or may not be completed by time you're ready to graduate. Well, guess what?

That, right there, is most of your dissertation!

Let's say you'll have four papers completed by time you graduate, and another two projects that won't be completed by graduation. Those four papers that will be finished are chapters 2-5 of your dissertation, and those two unfinished projects are Appendix A and Appendix B.

That's your work that you created, so be proud of it and don't re-invent it!

Image credit: Plymouth State University.

Get your University's unique template, learn how to format your work properly within it, and marvel at how close you are! Here's what you have to actually write, now, in order to graduate:

  1. Your title. This is important, and it needs to tie together all of the (likely) very different papers and topics you wrote on into one unified idea. "Topics in Physics" won't cut it here, but "Cosmological Perturbations and Their Effects on the Universe: From Inflation to Acceleration" will do just fine.
  2. Your abstract. This is just two or three sentences introducing your field, followed by one sentence about each of your papers, and concluded with one or two sentences about future work.
  3. Your introductory chapter. This was -- for me, at least -- the hardest part. You need to put all of your original work in the context of your broad and specific fields of research. This means giving a broad (and well-referenced) overview of your sub-field, how it fits into the broad context of your field and why it's important, and how your specific research has addressed some of these particular issues. It should be seamless to transition from the end of this chapter into your (only slightly tweaked) "middle chapters" of your dissertation.
  4. Your final chapter. This is a summary of what you've accomplished as well as a detailed discussion of what challenges remain in your field, with some detailed plans for future directions that your work is going to take you. This is where you include references to current, active work being done in your particular sub-fields of interest, and where you set up the motivation for your appendices.

The rest -- acknowledgments, dedication, references, etc. -- take practically no time or effort. But you must remember that the goal of your dissertation is not to change the world; it's to finish it and to do a good enough job to graduate!

Image credit: NYU's Leonard N. Stern School of Business.

Once your written dissertation has been okayed by your committee, you'll still have to defend, but unless your advisor is no good, you won't be allowed to defend unless everyone knows you're prepared and ready to pass. You'll make your dissertation revisions, graduate, and it's up to you whether you want to participate in the graduation ceremony or not; either way you get your diploma in the mail a few months later.

This isn't the only way to write a dissertation, for what it's worth. It's just the smartest way to do it, and so that's why it's my advice. (It's also advice that -- for some reason -- is rarely given by others.) Now you know the secret to writing a Ph.D. dissertation, so finish that thing up and graduate already!

More like this

The other day, it occurred to me that I have a goodly number of friends who have been in Ph.D. programs (and may still be "in" the program in some more or less official way), and who have more or less finished their graduate research, but who haven't managed to get their dissertations written. (I'…
New blogger Mrs. Comet Hunter is in the latter stages of her Ph.D., and she's at the stage of trying to figure out how to break her work out into discrete publishable chunks. She recently wrote a post about the topic, and she sent me an email to ask some related questions. With her permission, here…
"An investment in knowledge pays the best interest." -Benjamin Franklin Recently, a number of people -- of widely different ages and levels of education -- have contacted me for advice on whether or not pursuing a PhD in astrophysics/physics/science-in-general is right for them. Of course, I can't…
Where we left off in part 1: In my fifth (and last) year of funding in my philosophy Ph.D. program, staring down 30, trying to finish a dissertation, and bracing myself for the rigors of the academic job market, I said to myself, "How could having a baby make things noticably more difficult?" Then…

In Sweden this technique is taken to an extreme. You are expected to write a substantial introduction, but the remainder of the thesis consists of your five-ish papers literally appended, without even re-formatting, to the introduction. (I have a couple of examples on my office bookshelf.) In most places you will have to do a bit of editing, but as you point out, not all that much, as well as write a conclusions chapter.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 20 Oct 2012 #permalink

Eric, this was described to me, tongue-in-cheek, as "they put your papers on a scale and when it weighs enough, you can graduate." The rest came naturally after that!

You make some great points here, but for applied sciences a dissertation might actually be read by people outside your committee. However, I agree it doesn't need to be perfect. If your best work is your dissertation, regardless of the field, your post graduate career has been a disappointment. It's the document that proves you're capable of making contributions to your field. Get it done and start making your significant contributions.

Thanks Ethan. The second to last image? Plymouth State? They're looking at what really is the most important thing I will ever write. One of my grad school applications. I'm still hoping for the chance to suffer through this. How sad is that?

Still, nowhere I'd rather be than continuing my education.

A mate of mine doing his Chemistry dissertation almost slipped up in my opinion when they used a model to produce the energy potential of the product he was looking at in 3D as opposed to the 2D he did earlier. It SHOULD have shown a change in axial symmetry but didn't.

He was going to leave it out but I insisted that this was damn useful stuff, if he couldn't get this widely used program to run correctly in 3D, as long as it wasn't some obvious mistake on his part, should be known to any others so they won't try using this program or the programmers to either fix the problem or describe how to reconfigure it correctly.

Eventually he included that bit of failure in.

Still got his Doctorate, which he thought he'd risk by putting "I didn't get an answer" in.

Although I am no where near writing a dissertation, this is still applicable for my thesis. Thanks a lot! Really!

You might want to take a look at "Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day"--I like it because I wrote it, but I've also had some
lovely responses from Ph.D. students saying the book was very
useful for them.
May you have some pleasure during this arduous time--and best wishes for a completed dissertation you're proud of!
Joan Bolker

By Joan Bolker (not verified) on 24 Oct 2012 #permalink

Seriously? Thank you because I am considering taking the plunge and doing a phd and the thought of it is freaking me out! I really needed this post!

I found your criticism and your whole idea about the dissertation rather refreshing. You have been able to twist everything and not make it sound like it is the end of the world. Well, at least I can say that by reading this I have put myself into a more concentrating zone because I have just started my dissertation and after I read that the approximate time to finish it, research, etc. is 300 hours I really panicked and as you mentioned the introduction is really the hardest part but that is what my tutor wants me to finish till the end of the summer. If you have any advise where to begin I would really appreciate it. I have collected all the books I need to read and don't know from where to start reading as they are actually really thick lol.

By Francesca (not verified) on 15 Jul 2013 #permalink

Hey guys,

All this sounds so familiar... I'm at the point where I have to write my introductory chapter and I can't find a proper sentence to start that damned thing #@(:$@ Everything is ready, just those few pages of introduction; seems they are going to take an eternity...

Thanks Ethan! I was perplexed on how to get started pounding out my thesis this month... and googling "how to write a thesis" actually worked! Best yet, I know the source is extremely credible. Hope you're well :)

By Leah Vanden Busch (not verified) on 30 Nov 2013 #permalink

It's great material. I begin to gather the whole info about dissertation writing and will add this one to my collection. Maybe it would be useful for smb, I found amazing guide for dissertation structure

By John Unger (not verified) on 05 Aug 2015 #permalink

I'm on my final year, and have finished one paper, drafted another, and then am collecting my final data for the final two papers. I'm planning on using the papers-as-chapters approach, which means outside of working on my current papers, I have the introduction and the conclusion to do. My advisor says I should be dissertation writing all the time (but agrees I should use my papers as chapters), but I'm wondering if I should be starting on the intro/discussion/conclusion yet or just push forward with the current papers? It seems like I should know where the last projects fit in before tying everything together ....

By Danielle F (not verified) on 18 Oct 2015 #permalink

Write a summary, such as you would give on the back of the book (or inner sleeve).

That becomes your dissertation introduction, and its abstract.

About the only difference would be you can and should put spoilers in the introduction and abstract, but take them out for the book form.

Wish I have read it before start writing my thesis, spent almost a year writing and faced cycles of panic, procrastination etc (as you mentioned) and conclusion yet to be done!

By Abdul Mateen (not verified) on 26 Jan 2016 #permalink

It is believed that oral defense of work is more important but it is definitely not true. Each university has the same standards for this part of the work that you want to do, that's all. The oral defense will adjust the estimate for the worse or for the better, but not much. I case you have not prepared the assessment deteriorates. If your speech was emotional and exciting it is to play your hand. You can always find a lot of tips how to improve your oral defense (…). But do not tell the dry theory. Tell how your research can help in practice or good experience and latest technologies that relate to your topic. Also, I can argue with the statement that your thesis no one will read. First of all depends on your topic and the committee members. It is possible that there will be someone who is deeply interested in your topic. It also depends on your reputation. If you are known as a talented student that commissioner will expect a lot from your thesis and want to read it. Otherwise, committee members will read some parts of your dissertation but since you do not know exactly what you can not treat it with indifference. In general, you just need to prepare thoroughly and come up with itIn general, you just need to prepare thoroughly and come up with it. Think of your plan or use already existing….

By Lisa Wimberley (not verified) on 19 May 2016 #permalink