Writing a dissertation can seem like an insurmountable task, but doctoral candidates can stay afloat by breaking down the project into doable sections. The best way to complete a dissertation is to start at the beginning and create a realistic timetable for every step of the way.

Find a Topic

Finding your dissertation focus can be the hardest part of the initial process, but you can make it a little easier by beginning your doctoral program with the end result in mind. As you embark on each graduate class, note topics in which you are interested. Save research papers that have growth potential and make a mental note when you particularly enjoy the content in a class. These are all stepping stones that will help you to determine your dissertation focus. One word of caution: Once you start your research, you may find that you are compelled to explore topics of which you were previously unaware. Choosing a topic might take months, so make sure to make room in your timetable for flexible and thoughtful topic selection.

Choose Your Committee

After you have identified your topic, it is time to choose your committee. Throughout your studies, you will undoubtedly have professors with whom you share similar ideals. Make sure to foster relationships with these scholars because they will be the ones you should ask to serve on your committee. Your committee members should be experts in the field in which you will do your research, but they should also share different points of view. This variance will ensure that you get quality feedback on each chapter of your dissertation. On your calendar, block out a few weeks to allow professors adequate time to respond to your request.

Write the Prospectus

Before you can start your dissertation, you have to justify to your committee the need for research on your topic. This means that you have to prove to them that there is a hole in existing research that your dissertation will fill. In order to defend your topic, you must write a prospectus and "defend" it to your committee. These papers consist of extensive literature reviews and are often composed of the first two to three chapters of the dissertation. For some programs, however, the prospectus is a shorter paper that argues the need for research on the topic. Make sure you know what kind of prospectus your committee expects. In order to create a realistic timetable in which to complete your prospectus, you must consider what your department requires, how much you have already researched and written on your topic and how much time you can devote each day toward writing it. As always, leave wiggle room in your timetable -- you never know when life is going to get in the way of your dissertation.

Defend the Prospectus

Once you have your prospectus written, it is time to defend it to your committee. This stage of the dissertation often gets overlooked in the initial timetable; however, you must get through it in order to proceed. The timetable for the defense will be determined by your ability to organize your thoughts and create a presentation. One way to save time is to make sure that you are clear about expectations before you begin working on your defense. Make time to rehearse answers to questions that your committee may ask you about your plan. Write a brief outline of talking points for your presentation so you won't lose your focus during the defense.

Create Your Writing Schedule

The time required for your dissertation will be determined by several factors: the type of research being conducted (library or empirical), your department's requirements and your own work schedule. Different disciplines require different kinds of research: The time it might take to complete a scientific dissertation may vary depending on experimental results, whereas conducting library-based research is usually a bit easier to schedule since there are no unknown experimental factors. This is a time when you should make use of your committee's feedback. Collaborate with its members to create your writing schedule and be sure to make plenty of time for research, writing, editing and professor feedback. Having a calendar in plain view will not only help make you accountable to yourself, but also serve as a reminder for everyday goals.


Now that you have created your writing schedule, you must stick to it. Writing a dissertation can be a full-time job, and one of the most difficult aspects of sticking to a timetable is having the perseverance necessary to finish. Remember that writing takes time. Take it one step at a time and believe that you can finish. Try to think of your dissertation as a series of research papers and not as one gigantic book. This will make it easier to add daily goals to your timetable.