Designing a Workable Plan for Your Thesis or Dissertation

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 length 225
Total effective work months from topic search
to acceptance

Breakdown by work months:

- Topic search & proposal 3
- Search prior research 1
- Research & analysis 5
- Writing, editing, proofing 5
Elapsed time, allowing for delays, in full-time work  
- from topic search to acceptance 16
- from approved proposal to acceptance 12

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.