Blog Post

"Hi friends, any suggestions for books on how to survive writing a dissertation?"

Only a week ago, I finally passed my second comprehensive exams in my PhD program, and am now finally able to call myself a PhD Candidate in Theatre and Performance Studies. As anyone who has been through such a process knows, it is emotionally and intellectually both a rewarding and draining process. The next phase on the agenda, composing and getting a dissertation proposal accepted, and then writing a dissertation is the next big challenge. Facing this challenge, and knowing what an amazing and large network of smart and interesting academics I have access to, I posted in my social media outlets a prompt asking the simple question:

"Hi friends, any suggestions for books on how to (survive) write/ing a dissertation?"

I was overwhelmed by the enormous helpful and amazing response I received, and wanted to share these resources with all of you. I am also interested in hearing from you—feel free to comment below—on the following question:

Does your university/institution support PhD students writing/finishing their dissertations? How? Could this be done in a different/better way?

Here are the (anonymized) responses I received:

  • Check out the #tacitPhD hashtag for great advice about succeeding in grad school. Really good stuff being shared there.
  • Treat the dissertation like a project (and, if needed, act as though you are managing other people's time and tasks to give yourself some emotional distance from the work). Break it into smaller tasks, working backwards from the primary deadline.
  • Do not fall into the trap of thinking about inspiration and brilliance. Instead, treat it like work. Set schedules for yourself and work in small doses. Big chunks of uninterrupted time are sometimes necessary and helpful, but can also be the prime moments when you find yourself procrastinating and feeling overwhelmed.
  • If your advisor doesn't provide punctual feedback, find a writing partner (peer/faculty member/friend) who does. Even though you'll still need to wait for your advisor's feedback, you need someone who can help you continue moving forward and who expects you to meet your self-imposed deadlines.
  • Determine what you want your weekly calendar to look like. Build in all your commitments—fellowships, teaching, dissertation hours etc. Build in time for self-care and time to be off. And when you take that time for self-care or rest, don't feel bad about it, and don't spend it thinking about the work you "should" be doing. If you don't rest, you'll burn out.
  • Remove the emotion from it. Anxiety is what trips people up more than anything. Don't think about it as One Big Thing, think about the small things you need to do today, this week, this month. Creating a framework in advance with interim deadlines makes it easier to keep an eye on your progress without getting paralyzed by the final deadline.
  • One of my mentors kept saying that the best advice he could give was "Just finish the damned thing."
  • Have a friend you see every month. If you miss your writing goal, your friend has to buy you dinner. (I found the guilt made me write far more than treating a friend.)
  • I started collecting china. Every time I met a goal, I got to bid on another piece on ebay.
  • Listen to your adviser. If you don't agree with your adviser, think about whether you want to finish or not. Listen to your adviser.
  • Keep your project to something small enough that you care realistically do it. My article in a journal last summer was what I originally wanted to do my PhD on, but I didn't think I'd ever finish it—I needed something more discrete.
  • Just write on - you'll be doing it for the rest of your life.
  • Self-care, you definitely have to love yourself a lot. It’s very existential.
  • Do yoga!
  • Write for a smart undergraduate
  • Here is an idea that I stole from a tenured friend/colleague: Create an online (FB for example) writing group where you and the members pledge to write say one paragraph each day. You then report in everyday with what you have written. You don't need to give each other feedback - but that can be a nice bonus. One advice that I see repeated everywhere to junior academics is to get into the habit of writing continuously even if what you write is not your best work.
  • I enjoyed hashtagging my funnier or more thought-provoking finds. But community in every form is useful.
  • Make ample time to sit and research and write, and then stick to it, no matter what. Once you do that, the rest is cake.
  • I think peer pressure and shaming is a good antidote to procrastination. When I was a Ph.D student I spent about a week playing solitaire on my laptop. and with this I mean that I sat 6-8 hours a day doing that instead of writing. Sometimes the hardest thing is just opening the document and writing that first word. I think for me a group of peers would have kept me on track. But whatever works.

Specific books:

  • Jason R. Karp, How to Survive Your PhD: The Insider's Guide to Avoiding Mistakes, Choosing the Right Program, Working with Professors (2009)
  • Paul J. Silvia, How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing (2007)
  • Joan Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis (1998)
  • William Germano, From Dissertation to Book, Second Edition (2013)
  • Umberto Eco and Caterina Mongiat Farina, How to Write a Thesis (2015)
  • Karen Kelsky, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job (2015)
  • Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1995)
  • Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, "They Say / I Say": The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, Third Edition (2014)
  • Linda D. Bloomberg and Marie F. Volpe, Completing Your Qualitative Dissertation: A Roadmap From Beginning to End (2008)
  • Kate Williams and Emily Bethell, Completing Your PhD (2011)

Specific blogs:

Thank you for suggestions, comments, inspiration for this list: Cathy Davidson, Katina Rogers, Micki Kaufman, Amy M. Martin, Kristofer Petersen-Overton, Shane Breaux, Anna Krakus, Aya Esther Hayashi, Erika Lundell, Catherine Young, Barrie Gelles, Matt Brim, Hakim Williams, Holly Laws, Alisa C. Roost, Jan Magnusson, Joy Brooke Fairfield, Luca Greco, Aaron Slodounik, Steven L. Berg, Elizabeth L. Wollman, Christine Ekholst, Jessica Cauttero, Anna Eva Hallin, Anna Miley Åkerstedt, Anne Krook, Matthew Lockitt, Samantha Murray, Cecilia Djurberg. And for showing interest in this quick, little project: Jax Kataneksza, John Trummer, Jay Gipson-King, Gregory Donovan, Hélène Ohlsson.



I'll add one more, Kalle, to this incredibly useful post---thanks so much for sharing.


Stephen King has written a marvelously usesful book on writing.  Called On Writing.   One thing he recommends is the "crappy first draft" where, when you have an idea for the whole thing, you just write.  You don't care about facts, grammar, structure, anything, you make it up, and write as much and as fast as you can and get the whole arc.  Beginning to end.  And then you let it sit.  And then you start going back over it, bit by bit, and start structuring it into what you need and want fleshing it out.


I've never read a Stephen King novel, I confess.  But I'm writing my current book this way and it is transformative.  Especially if, like me (and most dissertation students I know), you tend to get stuck on the first page, or on the Introduction.   This lets you blurt out all your big ideas in some kind of order, see it all whole, and then begin to weed, fill in, sort, research, and on and on.  I figure it will take me a full year after I finish this "crappy first draft" to have a book out of it but it also takes away the panic of "Is it really a book?" or "is it really a dissertation?"


Please note that I've written a lot of books and I still find this incredibly useful, sensible advice.  I hope others do too.


Again, thanks for such an incredibly generous, useful post.


Thank you for sharing the names of all these resources..Actually, I personally read Destination Dissertation: A Traveler's Guide to a Done Dissertation by Sonja Foss and William Waters and tips from dissertation writer..These may also come in handy to anyone who is about to write a dissertation..But still, as long as you are researching the topic you like you will make it..