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Thesis time management

How to wrestle your dissertation to the mat


The idea of time management is drilled into most students through their undergraduate years, but the focus on this skill seems to drop off in grad school. The irony is that most students need time management skills even more when they are looking at working on a thesis or dissertation.

Writing a thesis requires both short-term and long-term time management skills, because it is a lengthy project that does without external deadlines. “You see students who are excellent but they just never finish their thesis,” said Dr. Eviatar Zerubavel, author of The Clockwork Muse: a practical guide to writing theses, dissertations and books and director of graduate programs in sociology at Rutgers University.

Seeing students fail to complete was one of the things that led Dr. Zerubavel to write his book. In it, he uses the metaphor of the tortoise and the hare. “Hares get success early in their careers, but then they die,” he says. “There are a lot of different reasons students don’t finish, but managing time better would help.” Time management is about taking control of the writing process. More than that, it’s about recognizing that not all of your time should be taken up with your work and that how you allocate your time is important for your life, as well as your thesis.

Procrastination and Perfectionism

One of the major blocks to good time management is procrastination, and one of the major contributors to procrastination is perfectionism. While the two may seem like polar opposites, they are closely related.”People struggle with their feelings of success. They feel ambivalent and the part of them that feels uneasy about it tries to sabotage it by not meeting deadlines,” explained Zerubavel about the connection.

Maryann Kope, coordinator of learning services at the University of Guelph agrees. “People who are performance perfectionists, a lot of their self esteem is wrapped up in their academic performance,” she says. “There’s a fear of failure or of not excelling. By procrastinating they give themselves an emotional out. They can say, ‘I would have done better if I’d put more time into it.'”

Perfectionism can also be crippling in that students stop themselves from writing or from continuing to write by trying to achieve the perfect first draft. “I see so many students crippled by guilt or embarrassment who don’t permit themselves to write,” says Dr. Jane Freeman, director of the office of English language and writing support in the school of graduate studies at the University of Toronto. Freeman recommends students allow themselves to write a crummy first draft. This not only gets the writing going, it also gives you something to edit later and, says Dr. Freeman, “It’s way easier to edit than to produce.”

The Writing Life

Perhaps what is most daunting about writing a thesis is realizing that if you want to be an academic, this is a good introduction to the rest of your career. Writing proposals, grant applications, journal articles and books will be a significant part of your life from here on. Gaining the skills to be a productive and prolific writer is key to success as an academic. That means making writing part of everyday life. “To maintain productivity as an academic, you need to make the writing process more mundane,” says Dr. Freeman. “You need to discover how you are the most productive. Look at your own productivity. Really note what time of day and in what environment you work best .”

Once you know when you are most productive, and for how long, set yourself a schedule that makes us of that. If you write best in the morning, don’t sleep in – get up and write. If you write best at night, then don’t go out for dinner with friends – stay home and write. This doesn’t mean depriving yourself of sleep or a social life; it means setting your schedule to maximize your productivity.

But many students are hesitant to start writing until they’ve done more research, until they’ve done more thinking about the topic. Both Drs. Freeman and Zerubavel see this not only as a form of procrastination, but also as a misunderstanding of the writing process. “There’s an artificial separation between thinking and writing. The thinking happens when you write,” says Dr. Zerubavel. Dr. Freeman agrees. “Write before you’re ‘ready’ and the writing will help you get traction.”

But first, write an outline. Creating a detailed outline of your work will help you write a first draft that doesn’t need too much re-structuring. Stephen Sims, associate dean in the faculty of graduate studies at the University of Western Ontario, requires all of his students to write three outlines of their entire thesis. “Until we get to the third outline we don’t write a single sentence, it’s all point form. By the time you get to the third one, you’ve got the thesis mapped out. Then you have to do the hard work and write the sentences.”

Write-life balance

Time management is not just about getting your thesis finished; it’s about not destroying your life in the process. While you could give up all social contacts, stop sleeping regularly and let all your other obligations drop to complete your thesis, this is hardly a recipe for success in life. Managing your time well means making thoughtful choices about how you want to allocate your days. “This is not just about work, it’s about living,” says Zerubavel “You have to ask yourself how much time you want to allocate to this as opposed to other things in your life.”

Making choices and deciding how you want to spend your time is ultimately what time management is about. “Students need to think about intelligent procrastination, so that it’s an intentional decision to set work aside,” says Ms. Kope. These intentional decisions not only keep you on track and make sure that neither your thesis nor your life go off the rails, they also help you stop those potentially crippling feelings of guilt about either area getting ignored.

Productivity Management vs. Time Management

As great as time management sounds, it can also be a bit of a misnomer.

“It evokes efficiency and time and motion studies, which I abhor,” says Dr. Zerubavel. “The common way of thinking about time management is about speed, but the irony is that you can produce more if you’re going slow.”

While many experts recommend setting time goals for working on your thesis, both Drs. Zerubavel and Freeman suggest setting goals based on productivity instead.

When she was writing her own dissertation, Dr. Freeman had a three-pages-a-day rule for herself. While this number may seem unreasonably low, if you write each day it adds up quickly.

“I could not do anything but eat or go to the bathroom until I’d written three pages, and then I could do anything else. That rhythm allowed me to do a lot of other things. At the end of the month, when I had 60 pages, it was fairly painless to look at them and edit some out. So writing three pages a day helped me to be productive, to have a goal, to get over guilt and to have a better editing process. And it helped me to blast through my writer’s block.”

Productivity goals are also more tangible and ultimately more closely related to the task.

Another way of measuring productivity is to break the thesis into publishable chunks. Setting realistic, measurable goals is key, but so is learning from the times that you don’t meet those goals. “It’s not enough to beat yourself up or feel guilty when they don’t meet a goal. We suggest students examine and assess what happened. Life happens. But what you do want is to learn,” says Ms. Kope.

Learning to not let your thesis beat you up is also something you want and one of the easiest ways to do it is to manage your time, and your productivity, effectively.

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  1. Blair @ How To Wake Up Early Tips / June 14, 2012 at 10:25

    For me perfectionism and procrastination are the hardest parts of finishing anything. I think the procrastination sort of falls in line because of trying to make everything perfect. It really doesn’t help anything but it’s also a very hard thing to overcome and even realize you’re doing. But if you can do that then it’s good to find a happy medium.

    Also great points on the productivity management vs. time management. I’ve never though of it that way but it’s true. I’ve kind of always thought of them as synonymous in my own personal definition though. But anyways, I HAVE to make a to-do list every day or else I will float around to different tasks and not get anything actually done. That’s a bit because of my ADD though. 🙂

  2. Martin Foltin / April 2, 2015 at 16:45

    Thumbs up if you came here while procrastinating 😀
    Nevertheless, I find these advice helpful and I’ll also try to use them tomorrow.

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