Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dissertating Tips

This is a very long post.

I hope it will be helpful to people writing their theses or dissertations. It's not the first blog post* on the subject but I found those helpful so I hope this helps you. PIs, you can pass this on to your trainees if you're so inclined. This is US-centric. Feel free to add comments if you're outside the US where they do things very different. *There are more of these. I'd appreciate if people remind me of them because I can't remember.
  • If you're doing it right, you will start to hate your research. You'll think of all those controls you should have done and why didn't you read this paper in your first year?? It would have changed the trajectory of this experiment. It's ok. Writing your dissertation will force you to think about why you did things the way you did, how you could have done them differently (not necessarily better), and why your results are important. All of which will be imperative to know during your defense! My dissertation is mostly non-significant results, which was so stressful and frustrating and sadface while in grad school and when I started to write but a magical thing happened as I continued rereading and reading papers and looking at things in the big picture as I wrote. My research IS valuable. It DID answer questions. It DID move the field forward**. And yours did too. **(this will come to you as you finish your Introduction)
  • It is not possible to write for 8 hrs straight. At least it isn't for me. Writing, then doing some data analysis, then reading papers, then making some figures breaks up the day and still keeps you productive. 
  • Barf. Words. On. Paper. Especially if you're having a hard time getting started, just start writing in your casual every day tone. I swear. There were swear words in some of these barf sessions. Just make sure to mark them to fix later! See point #11 below. Write in order to revise later. No one gets it right on the first draft. I know there are people that say that's how they write but I do not believe that there is anyone who writes a draft and doesn't do *any* revisions. This is a great read on How to Write A Lot, by Paul Silvia.
  • Use an outline. And sub-outlines. I wrote my outline for a chapter then wrote Methods -> Results -> Introduction > Discussion -> Abstract. Everyone is different but I highly suggest not writing the abstract until last. 
  • I was extremely lucky that I was able to write at home. Not everyone is allowed to do that. Then again, not everyone works best at home. Work where you are most productive and where you're allowed. Coffee shop? Library? Your office or another room in your building that has a door and is quiet? 
  • Pomodoros can help if you have trouble getting started in the morning or whenever you find yourself procrastinating. I did 45 min with a 5-10 min break in which I tried to do active things... like the dishes or laundry or just walking around the house. Also, Twitter and Facebook. I've never understood people who shut off Facebook when working on big projects like this. The support I received from my friends on social media at each step of the way was so helpful emotionally. 
  • Take an afternoon when you're feeling like you will never get done to type up all the preliminary pages. You know, the title page, permission page, etc. because seeing your name on that title page is very motivating. I went back and looked at it many times during my low points. 
  • Be active! If you are a runner, schedule in time to run. If you go to the gym and lift weights, go do it! Exercise helps reduce anxiety and will just make you feel better emotionally. 
  • Take time for yourself to just relax. I watched an episode or two of TV or read books in the evening to decompress. Sometimes, I just laid in bed and listened to an audiobook. 
  • Get. Enough. Sleep. Whatever your magic number of sleep hours is per night make sure you get it. 
  • Don't completely shut out your friends and it might be helpful to warn them ahead of time that you're going to be completely self-absorbed and talk about nothing other than your dissertation and how stressed out you are for the foreseeable future. Friends who will send/ deliver you a care package or force you to leave the house/ office with them for lunch or coffee once in awhile are freaking awesome. If they don't think of it, make sure you reach out to them and tell them to force you to take a break once in awhile. 
  • Keep in mind that to get preliminary approval for your dissertation it needs to be completely written but your committee just has to agree that they won't request additional experiments or major re-writing. I'm not saying to slack off. I'm just saying that when you get near your deadline there are certain things you can leave and revise later. Like using since or because, or getting rid of the "has been shown"'s. (Hint: If it has been shown you can state it in present tense, as "fact".)
  • If possible, use two computer monitors. I say this from a slightly privileged point of view because I was able to take an old monitor from the lab that no one was using and connect it to my laptop at home. It really does help* with productivity though if you can manage it. 
    • *Ok, my anecdotal evidence says it helps. The two original studies on this actually argue for increased screen space not necessarily multiple monitors... and were paid for by a monitor company. 
  • TeamViewer lets you access your work computer from home (if your university firewall and PI will allow it). Let that sink in. You can access all your data and programs on your work computer FROM HOME. If you're able to write at home, install this free program ASAP. 

Using Word to write your dissertation

1. If you have time, learn a different program. Word sucks at large documents that require very specific formatting. I've been told LaTex is great for this. YMMV

2. If you don't have the time or inclination to learn a new program, I have some tips for writing it in Word. Other people may (I hope!) have more tips in the comments. I received some advice yesterday via friends on FB but it was too late because my dissertation was due yesterday and I wasn't going to change the way I was formatting at that point!

3. Write all of your chapters in separate documents and don't merge into one document until all you have left is formatting. Word takes forever (~30 seconds for mine) to save or autosave your document and you do *not* want to turn off autosave when you're writing your dissertation. This is also helpful if you're a compulsive CTRL-S saver like I am.

4. Your formatting guidelines are likely different than mine below. Check your university's Style Guide *before* you start! Things like chapter titles in all caps and how to do subheadings are easier to do while writing than fixing later.

2. 2" margins at the top page of every new chapter but 1" margins on each subsequent page in that chapter. First off, really? That looks stupid. To do this, learn how to do Section Breaks. In fact, learn that first. They're different from Page Breaks and make formatting WAY easier (except for page numbers but I'll get to that.

3. When inserting your figures, if they have to be on their own page, go to the top of the following page and insert a section break, then immediately insert another one. Insert the figure into the space between those section breaks then write the figure legend between them too.

4. Any time you insert section breaks around something (like that stupid first page of each chapter with a 2" margin), you just click on the Page Layout tab, click the little arrow in the bottom right hand corner (*under* Hyphenation) and make sure your changes are only being applied to This Section. It's a drop down box near the bottom of the window that opens.

5. Section breaks are also useful if you have a table that needs to be in Landscape mode. Or for pages where the text needs to be centered on the page vertically. Just click the Layout tab in the window described in the last bullet point and choose Center from the drop down menu in the middle.

6. All pages are printed on only one side... except for figure captions that don't fit on the page with the figure. They're printed on the facing page... which means they're on the back of the PREceding page. Yeah, that's freaking annoying and a bitch to print out. Advice? Just print the whole thing and go back and print those last. That may seem obvious. Also, printing goes by the page numbers you assigned at the bottom of the pages, not the page numbers according to the page number counter in the bottom left corner of Word.

7. Oh, and those preceding page figure captions? Yeah, they have to have mirrored margins because your margins are likely Top 1", Bottom 1", Left 1.25", and Right 1" because the left side will be taken up a little by binding. How to do that? Section breaks.

8. It's funny but not surprising that the answer to most formatting issues is Section Breaks. So here's the bad thing about them. They screw up your page numbers. At the start of each Section Break the page number defaults back to 1. I had to go back at the very end, click on each of these messed up page numbers, and format them to Continue from Previous section (Under the Insert tab, Header & Footer, and Page Number). I hope someone has another tip for this or that you can do this early on and not have it get screwed up. If not, do it at the very end.

9. Table of Contents. Ever wondered how you get those cool dots that go from the section name to the page number? It's easy. Type up your Table of Contents according to your formatting guidelines and hit Tab at the end of each line. At the end highlight everything, put in a right side tab, go to the Home tab, click the little arrow at the bottom right of the Paragraph box, Click the Tabs button on the bottom left of the window that opens, and choose the little dots. Ta da! It's like magic.

10. Don't number your figures until near the end. I was told by @Geeka that if you use the Insert - Figure Caption they will get numbered automatically and this won't be an issue but inserting them that way caused major issues with some of my figures so I manually numbered them at the end. Thing is, if you write all your chapters in different documents and number your figures starting with 1, 2, 3, they're going to be wrong after the first chapter in your dissertation because the figure numbers go all the way through instead of restarted each chapter. This makes sense because it's one big document, of course, but you might decide to remove one, add one, or rearrange them and you only want to have to number them once.

11. Use Track Changes, Comments, and highlighting to remind yourself of things you need to change or fix or add to later! This way you don't have to reread everything a million times to make sure you've addressed everything. Once that last comment and highlighting disappears, you're golden.

12. YMMV but I used Mendeley for my references and it was AMAZING. It integrates with Word and at the click of a couple buttons you can change the entire citation style based on pretty much any journal out there. I used Cell because I like it and the Style Guide didn't specify one (but suggested APA. Yuck.) Except for the duplicates issue but that may be my fault because I keep my PDFs in OneDrive and apparently that doesn't play well with Mendeley. Changes in OneDrive, I assume like when I notate a PDF in Foxit Reader, make Mendeley think it's a new document and it spawns a new entry.

I'm sure I would have had more tips and advice had I written little notes to myself as I went along as I had originally intended to do but let's be honest, I had enough on my plate at the time. ;-)

Good luck dissertating!! You can do this!!!


  1. Great post, Katie! Thanks for taking the time to list all these pointers!

    1. No problem! I'm glad it's helpful!