New ABDs – Deadly Mistake Number 1:

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Most people contact me for coaching when they are already having difficulties. Frequently it’s possible to trace back to where they first went wrong. You will be able to avoid these mistakes by reading my new series: Ten Deadly Mistakes that New Dissertators Make. This issue gives Mistake Number One.

Not Having Your Ducks in a Row; or, Being Disorganized

From now on, you are in charge of planning and controlling your own dissertation activities. You are the captain of an ocean liner that may have to navigate choppy waters. Although you cannot control the weather or the rough seas, you *can* control how prepared you are for the voyage.

David Sternberg, in his classic book How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation, states that organization is more important to the graduate student than brilliance or intuition. The absence of organization can lead to slowed output, if not disaster, later on. Here are some recommendations of files you should be keeping, whether in a filing cabinet or in your computer. Many of these ideas are from Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or a Ph.D., by Robert Peters.

Keep a file on:

  • Thesis ideas, and later separate files for each idea as you develop it.

  • Proposal: drafts, resources, feedback.

  • Each chapter. You will have subfiles within each chapter, which you might want to cross reference– for example you could put “advisor feedback” in each chapter file, and also in a separate feedback file.

  • Records of any interactions you have with your advisor or committee members, including emails. Make sure you take notes on any meetings, and ideally send the notes to the others involved, so that there is a record. That sounds paranoid, but can come in handy later on!

  • What you WON’T put in your dissertation. A client of mine had a file called “For the Book.” She put in this file all the brilliant ideas that would have added hundreds of unnecessary pages to her dissertation. It can be published in a Nobel-prize winning book, after you graduate.

  • Dissertation group notes.

  • Conference and seminar notes. Peters suggests filing them chronolically.

  • Qualifying exam preparation materials

  • Old to-do lists (I personally love looking at those lists – it’s a great way to prove to yourself that you’ve moved along.)

  • Financial aid applications and information

  • Professional credentials, including your CV, teaching portfolio (which you will start building,) research summaries. This will come in handy for conference proposals, and will be a good way of being prepared for the job search.

David Sternberg recommends several additional organizational ideas.

  • Keep a daily log of time spent writing and reading. This will help you to assess what’s working, to face reality if you’re not working enough, and help you see patterns in the future.

  • Keep a notepad with you at all times for odd thoughts and flashes of brilliance.

  • A “Devil’s Advocate File.” Sternberg suggests saving all the most difficult questions that you are asked or that you’re afraid you might be asked.

  • Sternberg recommends an ongoing journal for ventilation of feelings (I personally believe that anger at the out-of-your-control situations that occur frequently in grad school is a big cause of sludge brain.) This journal can also be a place to do “pre-pre-writing” that is not even ready for your rough draft.

  • Create a timeline/timetable/schedule with lots of mini deadlines. Joan Bolker, the author of Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, suggests that, especially at the beginning, you make your short-term deadlines quite generous. If you miss a deadline, it doesn’t mean you have failed. It means you need to evaluate either the deadline or the way you worked towards it. More on this in later issues of this newsletter.

Here is one hint from The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career, by Goldsmith, Komlos, and Gold.

  • Find out the approved format from the dissertation office at your university, before you write one word. Then you won’t have to redo anything later.

Gordon Davis, the author of Writing the Doctoral Dissertation, a Systematic Approach suggests:

  • Keeping a draft in both paper and computer files. The paper file can be kept in a separate place in case of fire. Furthermore, he points out that it is helpful to have earlier versions of your work to refer back to, so printouts of earlier drafts may come in handy.

  • Keep a backup in a separate place, not just on your computer and not just in your house.

  • Back up frequently – put it on your calendar.

Most of these authors recommend writing up a monthly progress report. This seems to be a great idea; I’m just not sure how many would follow through on such a task. Let me suggest a few more ideas:

  • Find and use a time management system, whether it is paper, such as a DayTimer, or on the computer, such as Palm Desktop. Personally, I use both! Track daily, weekly, monthly and yearly appointments, chores, tasks, and goals.

  • If you can set up an online reminder or tickler system, make use of that. I use AOL’s “Remind Me” system, which rings a bell, shows me the reminder, and emails me.

  • You may find over time that your needs will change. For example, one of my clients has benefited recently from putting a large monthly calendar on the wall, which he looks at frequently to track looming deadlines.

Now, get those ducks lined up, and don’t hit them with your ocean liner. (That would be a real mixed metaphor.)

© Gina Hiatt, PhD.
Gina is a dissertation and tenure coach. She helps academics, from grad students wondering about their dissertation topic to faculty members who want to maintain a high level of research and writing, to reach their goals more quickly and less painfully. Get Gina’s free assessments & ezine at

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