How to Do Your Dissertation Research Productively

Four Parts:Creating a ScheduleCommunicating with Your AdvisorOrganizing Your DataPreparing to Write

Beginning the process of writing a dissertation can be daunting. Once you’ve chosen the topic of your dissertation, it’s time to begin your research. Research can take many forms. You may be conducting experiments, performing interviews, or simply reading extensively on your subject. Productive research requires good organizational skills and time management. When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the task ahead, you should try to stay productive and focused.

Part 1
Creating a Schedule

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    Decide which research methods you will use. You may need to use a variety of research methods, depending on your subject. Make a list of the types of research you will conduct. These may include interviews, surveys, field research, experiments, and reading.[1]
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    Create a timeline for each method of research. Decide which research methods you can begin immediately, and which will have to wait. You can break down your timeline by week, month, or even year, depending on the scope of your project.
    • Reading usually can and should be started immediately. That way, you have time to digest what you read, and to include new reading materials that you learn about along the way.
    • Experiments often require planning. If you need to perform an experiment, begin planning your experiments now, so that they can be successful and efficient when you perform them later. Make sure to allow enough time to implement the experiment, and even to repeat it if things don’t go as planned.[2]
    • If your research involves other people (assistants, subjects, or interviewees) you’ll need to reach out to those people early on to find out what their schedules allow for.
    • You may need to travel for research. Determine where and when you will need to travel, and if you will need to secure funding in order to do so.
    • If you don’t know how long a certain aspect of research will take, ask an advisor or one of your academic peers. Someone who has been through this process will likely have a good idea of how much time a given type of research can take.
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    Write down your timeline on a calendar. Some people prefer using online tools like Google Calendar. Others keep a date book in their purse or backpack, or hang a whiteboard or wall calendar in their office.
    • Choose a method that you’re likely to stick to.
    • Online tools can be extra useful because many calendar apps will send you a reminder of what you’d planned to do each day.
    • Large calendars like whiteboards can help you look at the big picture, and many people enjoy the tactile aspect of adding and erasing things as a way to show progress.
    • It can be helpful to create a reverse calendar, which means working backward from your final deadline to see when different steps must be done by.[3]
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    Dedicate time to your research each week. Writing a dissertation often prevents people from having as much leisure time as they’re used to. However, people are most productive when they feel a healthy balance between dedicated work time and leisure time. [4]
    • Set a number of hours each day or each week that you will spend on your research. Strive to hit that number, and stop when you do. As your deadline approaches, you may need to adjust that number, but hopefully not by much.
    • Let the people in your life know what to expect. You may need to cut back on your hours at work or spend less time with loved ones. This can be difficult, but if everyone understands your needs and your limits, making these sacrifices can be a little easier.
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    Stay focused. Limit distractions during your dedicated research time. Work in a quiet place, such as a library or lab, where you can be alone. You may also want to try using the Pomodoro method, which teaches you to set a timer for 25 minutes (a "pom") before you start working and then, take a five minute break when the timer is up. Then, if you have not finished your task at the end of the first "pom" or you want to start a new "pom," then you can set your timer for 25 minutes again. This method helps you to stay focused and the breaks are good opportunities to get up and stretch, check your Twitter, or make a cup of tea.[5]
    • Avoid distractions like radio, television, and social media while you do your research.
    • If you stay focused during your dedicated research time, you won’t need as much of it.
    • Take breaks every 45 to 60 minutes. During your breaks you can stretch, surf the web, or chat with a friend. Taking scheduled breaks actually helps us stay focused and productive when we're working.[6]
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    Stick to your schedule. Now that you have a detailed calendar and have set aside the time you need, all you need to do is stick with it. If you find yourself straying from your calendar for any reason, you may have a tendency to procrastinate. Start making efforts to stop procrastinating as soon as possible.
    • Make a "to do" list each day that you're working on research. This list can include some tasks that you can fully accomplish in one day, and some that you'll work on a little bit each day.
    • Reward yourself when you accomplish something on schedule. Take yourself out for a coffee or a nice lunch. Spend time with loved ones without the stress of unfinished research hanging over you.

Part 2
Communicating with Your Advisor

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    Schedule regular meetings with your advisor. When working on a dissertation, you’ll have an advisor, or supervisor, whose role is to guide you through this process. Even if you’re both very busy, set up regular meetings with this person, to discuss your research with them. [7]
    • It is important to have your advisor's support, while also maintaining your autonomy and independence. Therefore, you do not need to meet with your advisor every day or run everything by your advisor. A monthly meeting with your advisor should be plenty.
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    Make sure each meeting has a purpose. Meetings shouldn’t just be about “checking in.”
    • If you have a specific goal for each meeting, the meetings will be more productive and encourage you to stick to your schedule.
    • The purpose of a meeting may be to report on the findings of an experiment or discuss your analysis of a specific reading.
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    Establish new goals at each meeting. Some useful goals could be finishing one of the books you’re reading, conducting a certain number of interviews, or repeating an experiment. Write these goals down and share them with your advisor. That way, you’ll both know what is expected next time you meet. Be sure to accomplish these goals before your next meeting.[8]
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    Communicate about your progress. If you are unable to meet your goals before a meeting, let your advisor know. They may want to reschedule until you’ve completed your goals; or they may want to meet with you to find out what got in your way. Either way, it’s important to be honest about your progress. Academics are busy people, and it’s important that your advisor feels their time and expertise is valued.
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    Connect with other experts. Your advisor likely knows other professors or experts who would be useful to your research. Ask your advisor if they could connect you to them. This can be particularly helpful if your advisor is very busy, or doesn’t have a large amount of experience in your area of research.

Part 3
Organizing Your Data

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    Take great notes. Notes should be meaningful to you and help jog your memory later, when you’re writing. Strive to make notes long enough to be helpful, but short enough that you don't get bogged down with note-taking. [9]
    • Think about what you choose to write down, and why. Notes should help you answer questions related to your research.
    • Develop a shorthand style for taking notes during lectures or interviews, when you have to write while someone else is speaking.
    • Use color coded tabs to mark pages in books or journals that are referenced in your notes. That way, you’ll be able to easily find those places if you want to quote a source, or cite a specific section in your writing.
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    Develop a system for storing data. Some people keep everything in electronic files. Others use index cards or a dedicated journal. Whatever method you choose, stay consistent, so that data isn’t misplaced during the process.
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    Make a mind map. Mind maps are great ways to organize information before putting it into a linear order.
    • At the center of your mind map is your research question or thesis.
    • The branches of your mind map can include all of the areas of your research, as well as questions that you have yet to answer. Fill in spots on your mind map with references to your notes.
    • If you have some large holes where there aren’t notes, you may need to do more research. Ask your advisor for recommendations on where to look, or how you might conduct that research.
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    Know your limits. During your research, you’re likely to collect data that isn’t directly relevant to your thesis. You may want to refer to it later, but for now, keep it in a separate folder or notebook. The more you can streamline what you keep in front of you, the easier it will be to stay organized. If you aren’t sure, refer to your mind map. If research doesn’t naturally fit in the mind map, it’s probably extraneous-- at least for right now.[10]

Part 4
Preparing to Write

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    Stick to a deadline. Eventually, you have to stop researching and start writing. Determine how much time you’ll need to write (ask your advisor, if you’re not sure). Then, work backwards to determine when you need to conclude your research and begin writing. Without a deadline, you could continue researching forever, and never get to the writing.[11]
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    Gather all of your data and your sources in one place. As you begin to write, you’ll want to have easy access to your notes and your research. Even if you’ve taken copious notes on a book, you’ll want to also have the book on hand for quoting, citing, and possibly cross-referencing.
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    Go over your mind map. Make sure that any holes in your research have been filled in with credible sources.[12]
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    Turn your mind map into an outline. Outlines are crucial to any writing process-- particularly for something as in depth as a dissertation. Turning your mind map into an outline is the first step toward putting your research into a linear order.
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    Make sure that your outline answers the question of your dissertation. Your outline should include all of the necessary research to prove your thesis, and exclude extraneous research. Your outline should also allow space for your own analysis of the data, which leads to proving your thesis. [13]
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    Present your outline to your advisor. Before you begin writing, your advisor should be able to look at your outline and tell you if you’re ready to begin the writing process. Take their feedback seriously, and complete any final research or reorganization before you begin writing.


  • Take time away when you need to. Sometimes you might need to get up and go for a brisk walk after reading for a long period. Or you may need to take weekends off from research to let your mind relax a bit.
  • Ask a librarian! Librarians are experts at research. That’s what their jobs are all about. If you’re struggling to find information, ask a librarian at your university or public library for assistance.
  • Save your work. There’s nothing more frustrating than losing important notes. Whether you’re working with pen and paper or online documents, make sure you have copies of your research, so you don’t lose them at a crucial point.
  • Remember that research is an important aspect of writing your dissertation. Think about it the same way you would think about going to work-- not optional.

Article Info

Categories: Research and Review