Your Complete Dissertation Plan: Getting It Done on Time

Woman searches for resources for her dissertation

One of the most impactful moves you can make for your career is to earn a doctorate degree. A doctorate degree, such as a PhD, represents the highest pinnacle of academic achievement in a field, and earning one will certify your in-depth expertise and thought leadership in your field. Completing a PhD requires both coursework and a dissertation.

Writing a dissertation is a lengthy endeavor. It helps to have a complete dissertation plan that keeps you on track for a timely completion. Here, you’ll find some of the most impactful planning tips and strategies you can use to successfully finish your dissertation.

Your Dissertation Plan: Establishing Your Schedule

A complete dissertation, excluding coursework, can vary depending on your school and program, whether you’re a full-time or part-time student and whether the dissertation process is built into the coursework from the beginning. (At many schools, you’ll complete the coursework first, and then begin working on the dissertation.)

Although you’ll likely want to get your dissertation done as quickly as possible, it’s important to have reasonable expectations, particularly if you’re a part-time doctoral degree learner. Talk to your dissertation advisor about your anticipated completion date. Ask how long it takes most students in your program to complete a dissertation, and then base your own anticipated schedule on that.

Estimating the length of time you’ll need is helpful because it can allow you to build a reverse schedule. With a reverse schedule, you’ll write a list of all the major components of your dissertation. Then, you’ll assign individual tasks for these components to certain months and weeks, starting from the anticipated month of completion (e.g. June) and working backward to the present.

Building a reverse schedule can allow you to easily monitor your progress, quickly identify when you’ve fallen off track and determine what to do to pick up the pace. You may want to hang a white board on a wall and put your reverse schedule on it for easy reference. You can write your overall timeline across the top and then make individual to-do lists for each month beneath it.

Start Writing Your Dissertation Before You Think You’re Ready

It’s common for doctoral candidates to do an exhaustive amount of pre-writing work, such as background reading, a thorough literature review and methodology planning. While you’ll definitely need to conduct some research before starting to write your dissertation, it’s best to begin the writing process before you think you’re ready for it.

If you wait too long to start writing, you may be more likely to have trouble getting started with the writing process. The sheer size and significance of your dissertation can start to weigh on you. You’ll worry about making mistakes, and because of this, you’ll likely find yourself procrastinating on the writing process.

You can proactively avoid this common conundrum by beginning the writing sooner than you think you should. Remind yourself that it’s just a first draft.

Do Not Write the Introduction First

When you do begin the writing process, you might assume that you should start with the introduction. However, it’s often best to write the introduction last, and this is true not just of dissertations, but also for many other types of written works.

If you try to write the introduction first, you’re more likely to find yourself staring at a blank page on your screen. Writing the body of your paper first can help you avoid writer’s block. In addition, after you write the body, you’ll have a firmer idea of what you should write in your introduction.

Accept and Embrace the Need for Revisions

Another common cause of writer’s block that can derail your progress is the belief that the first draft must be perfect. Remind yourself that the first draft is exactly that — the first draft, not the final copy. When artists create ambitious oil paintings, they start with a simple sketch.

Amazing accomplishments start with humble roots. Do your best to accept and even embrace the fact that everything you write will be revised multiple times.

Switch to Pen and Paper Occasionally

Although saving the introduction for last can help you get over an initial bout of writer’s block, you might still find yourself staring at a blank screen from time to time. It can be helpful to shake things up. You can fire up your brain cells by switching from a laptop to pen and paper.

If you’re still having trouble making significant progress, switch from complete sentences to bullet points. Make bullet lists that capture all the important information you need to write about. You can make the bullet lists as long as you need to in order to get all of the info down on the page. Then, convert those bullet lists into sentences and paragraphs.

Keep a Dissertation Ideas Journal

Even when you’re not working on your dissertation, you’re likely to think about it a lot. Useful ideas can pop into your mind seemingly from out of nowhere. It’s helpful to always carry a small journal or notepad to jot down ideas as they occur to you. Or, perhaps you'll want to start a digital note on your smartphone to record ideas. There are several helpful apps and tools to help you document and organize your thoughts.

Read Smarter, Not Harder

As a doctoral candidate, you’ll likely find yourself doing more reading than you ever have before. It’s not unusual for doctorate degree learners to read through a few hundred resources, from books to scholarly articles to related dissertations. Fortunately, you do not necessarily have to read every single word of every single source.

Some reference materials you will want to read closely and you may also reread them a few times. Other materials can be skimmed, with perhaps a close reading of a few chapters or sections. Identify the parts of the sources that are most pertinent to your topic and focus on those, skimming through the rest for context and background.

As you read or skim, you’ll want to create your own index for each source. This allows you to more quickly find the facts you need to refer to while you’re writing the dissertation.

Identify Your Personal Obstacles

Every doctoral learner has their own personal obstacles that get in the way of the successful completion of their dissertation. Perhaps you have a sick family member who needs care, or perhaps you’re having trouble finding a good childcare center for your youngster. If various issues keep cropping up and get in the way of your progress, it’s time to sit down and brainstorm solutions.

First, write down a list of everything that’s preventing you from making significant progress on your dissertation plan. Then, write down every possible solution that comes to mind, no matter how far-fetched some might seem. Try these solutions one by one until you find something that works for you.

Take Advantage of Your School’s Doctorate Degree Resources

Your college and department should offer resources designed to support your success. At Grand Canyon University (GCU), the College of Doctoral Studies offers multiple residency opportunities. These allow online learners to connect with faculty and peers in person to discuss their work and develop their research ideas.

GCU offers additional learner resources from the Office of Research and Dissertations, as well as the Doctoral Community (DC) NetworkTM — a virtual, scholarly network that supports collaboration.

Transfer Your Credits and Complete Your Dissertation at GCU

If you have not yet completed your doctoral degree, you may be eligible to transfer credits to GCU and complete your dissertation with us! The university offers a convenient bulk transfer opportunity for the transfer of doctoral credits from the same type of degree (e.g., EdD, PhD, etc.) and the same type of content (e.g., Organizational Leadership, Business Administration, etc.). Learn more about how your credits may transfer with GCU’s Progressive Transfer Policy

When you’re ready to take the next step in your career by earning your doctoral degree, Grand Canyon University is here to support your aspirations. Our College of Doctoral Studies provides considerable learning resources to further your success. With a dissertation process that is integrated into the curriculum from day one, you can complete your doctoral degree sooner. 

Click on Request Info to learn more about earning your doctorate with our flexible, online programs.


Approved by the Dean of College of Doctoral Studies on 8/30/22.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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