Writing a doctoral dissertation is a large task, but not the only large task to face during the PhD. A few examples include:
- writing an article,
- preparing a research report,
- the literature review itself,
- developing a method,
One way to get started is to take a blank page of paper, stare at it, and then get started hoping you'll end up with your required result. This used to be my approach, but I've gradually moved to a more structured approach. Here's a description of my typical workflow.
1. Break it down
Every large task consists of a series of smaller and more tangible tasks.
In a first brainstorm session, I always sketch the roadmap which I plan to follow for completion of the task ahead. Sometimes I make a mindmap, sometimes I sketch the smaller tasks. Once I have an idea of what needs to be done, I write a list of the steps I plan to go through from start to end.
2. Estimate the time needed
It's easier to estimate how much time a smaller task needs than to estimate to time needed for the entire task. This helps to plan the time needed for completion and to add these required blocks of time to your planning.
For example, it's easy to estimate that you need:
- 2 hours to read a paper,
- 15 minutes to archive it and add it to your references managing system, and
- 45 minutes to type out the important information into the literature review.
If you have a certain amount of papers which need to be read for a background study, you can guess how long it takes to process the papers. Continuing with this example, you could estimate that after processing the papers, you need 1 day to proofread and mark up your notes with important information and 2 days to rewrite the document.
3. Sharpen your pencil
I like having all the necessary tools and documents within my reach before I get started. Having to go after a missing document can really disturb my train of thought, so I like to have all my armor ready and shining before I enter the battlefield.
4. Keep track of your questions and assumptions
I recently started using a few extra sheets/documents while working on a larger task. In one document, I jot down all questions I need to ask my supervisor for verification. In another document, I list all the assumptions I have made. This makes it easier to talk through a large task with others (for example, my advisor).
5. Document the process
I keep all my draft document with their date in the title and I keep notes and to do lists in binders. It's like keeping a research journal or a lab book, but then for a different task. The longer I'm in doctoral school, the more it appears to me of the utmost importance to document all the steps I make.
This method might seem more time consuming than simply getting started and work towards the end, but I've noticed that a little extra effort at the start brings me faster and more reliably to the finish.