13th Oct, 2008

How to finish a dissertation

OK, I have to admit that that title is a bit overblown, but I wanted to get people’s attention. Did it work? I wasn’t going to write anything here about my work schedule, since I figured that work schedules aren’t a very sexy topic (unlike, for instance, ham). But then I realized that I know a lot of other people who are trying to finish a thesis or have recently done so, and therefore might also be thinking a lot about this topic. And might even have some advice to share. I certainly hope so.

If you’ve read my last post, you know that I’m making a big push to get my dissertation written and defended (while I still have some teeth left). A major element of that push is the work schedule on which I have put myself: Essentially, I’m putting in 60 hours a week on my thesis project. I recognize that I’m very lucky to be able to do this; I owe it to the fact that I have a wonderful wife, who is willing to support me for a few months while I’ve quit my job, and to the fact that we don’t have any kids. If we did, there’s no way I’d be able to dedicate so much time to my work. A schedule like this certainly wouldn’t be for everyone.

So let me tell you about what I think of as “the Albarracín schedule”, since it was during my experiment in being a Spanish recluse, back in May and June, that I developed it. Of course, since mealtimes in Sweden and Spain are essentially non-overlapping, the schedule has needed some adjustment. Also, there’s the fact that I want to see my wife from time to time.

The goal of my schedule is to put in 10 hours per day, six days a week, of what I call “focused work”. I’ll say something about that in a minute. The trick is to do this without getting burned out. Luckily, in my two decades of adult life, I have learned a lot about how I work (in both senses). One thing that I know is that I work best for two to three hours at a stretch. After that, my shoulders start to get stiff, my attention starts to flag, and I start slowing down. That’s when I need a break. Another thing I’ve learned is that I need a certain amount of exercise. I’m far from being an athlete, but I do like to walk (or jog or hike or ski or skate) four of five miles per day. It does a lot for my physical and emotional well-being. A third thing I know, and this applies to everyone, is that rewards are nice.

Taking all that into consideration, the schedule that turns out to be ideal for me is to work for two hours and then take a one-hour break. If you then repeat this four times, you end up putting in 10 hours of work by the end of the day. It’s a bit like the work equivalent of polyphasic sleeping, I suppose, except with less radical proportions. But it requires a similar level of discipline.

The result is a work day that extends over 14 hours and contains 4 breaks. I make sure I’m up and working by 8 am, a very civilized hour to start. Then at 10 I take a break to shower and go for a walk or something. After working from 11 to 1, I take an hour’s break for lunch. When possible, I eat with my sweetie, so we get a little time together. Then I work from 2 to 4, take a long walk, and work from 5 to 7. Then it’s dinner time, after which I put in a final stretch of 2 hours (the hardest of the day), trying to be done by 10 so that I can wind down before going to bed.

Of course, sometimes I’ll be working away at something and don’t want to stop when it’s time for a break. So the breaks are flexible; the goal is just to have put in 4 hours by lunch, 8 hours by dinner, and 10 hours by bedtime. Pretty simple, really.

Now let me say something about “focused work”. I suspect that there are many people who would say they work eight or nine hours a day but who actually do only about three or four hours of real work. The hard part of my schedule is that it aims for ten hours of “focused work”. What is that? Essentially, focused work is work on a single project without interruptions. That means no making phone calls, no checking e-mail, no surfing the Web, no chats with office-mates, no coffee breaks. Of course, that sounds pretty extreme, and it’s hard to achieve 100%. But I do my best. For years now, I’ve used a simple timer program I wrote to clock the hours I put in on every project. Having a clock ticking away while you work is really a good way to get in the mindset of staying focused. If I go to write an e-mail, get a cup of coffee, etc., I stop the timer, and then start it again when I get back. That way I know almost exactly how much work I’ve actually put in.

Luckily for me, my thesis project involves enough different activities (reading, writing text, writing code, getting things from the library, etc.) that I can vary what I do and still be working on the project. So monotony hasn’t become a problem yet. My main concern is the cumulative effect of never being more than two hours away from a work session. It gets one sort of permanently wound up. I’ve felt a bit burned out once or twice, but taking a day off usually seems to cure that. I think the most important thing is to like what you’re working on. Without that, any work schedule could become unbearable.

OK, now your turn. What have you learned about how to finish a dissertation?


Wow–looks like you’re not getting any dissertation help from this avenue. Perhaps because it really sounds like you’re doing a better job of buckling down and staying on task than anyone else I’ve ever heard of. I do wish you good luck and happy working, though.

Calin, I’m glad it sounds so impressive, but we’ll see if I can really manage it. There are several months to go before I’ll be done. Thanks for the good wishes!

It’s great to find that your extended absence from the blog was the result of getting on with your dissertation at last. I’m full of admiration for your ability to stick to such a disciplined regime. I could never have done it like that. A lot of my dissertation was written in the dead of night when I got to about 9 or 10 in the evening and realised I would have nothing to show for the day unless I cranked out a few hundred words.

That’s how it’s been for me with big writing projects: endless mucking around and fitful progress unless finally the excuses run out, abject failure beckons and I stumble into the groove. Then the magic happens, it all flows out and in the end I look back in amazement at what I’ve achieved. No easy way to get back there, though.

Don’t stop now! Push on to the end, mate!

I’m glad you’ve got the opportunity for such focus. I am more than impressed and hope it is a schedule you can keep. In my many years, I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t have the attention span for a doctorate. I stopped at a Master’s and then switched to kids! That pretty much assures that I never get to focus on one thing for any length of time.

Good luck with it, and make sure you take that 7th day of rest.

Dude. That schedule is hardcore.

I am certainly not that disciplined. And I think a structure like that would actually make me more anxious. I think I work more like John: mess around on Facebook for a long time, do some laundry, and then get down to work when I feel guilty for not having done anything all day, or a conference deadline is looming. And like Erin, I have a really short attention span.

I certainly admire what you’re doing. In the end, I’ll probably have to adopt something like this. It’s the only way to get it done.

Thanks, folks, for your support! John, the model you describe is the one I have generally relied on in the past, though decreasingly as I become an “expert” at being a graduate student. Too bad there’s no money in being an actual student; you have to finish to get those rewards.

Erin, don’t feel bad about not doing a doctorate. Kids are much more fun. Honestly, I’m not sure I would recommend that anyone get a doctoral degree unless they absolutely have to for their planned career. Does anyone else have a contrary viewpoint to share?

Jean, I hope you also find a system that works for you, which may not be the same as what works for me. In the end, we both need to finish, so whatever it takes. As for Facebook, I have made a conscious decision not to go near it. And don’t even get me started on Twitter–what I consider to be the Worst Idea Ever.

Well, back to work…

The way that I finished was by having a position lined up that required a doctorate. I had defended, but my revisions were extensive, and I had not managed to get them done in the months following the defense, until I got my job. I took 12 days over Christmas and New Year’s, sequestered myself away at a friend’s empty apartment (and subsequently at another friend’s house), and worked in big chunks until I was tired enough to sleep. I got the bulk of the revisions done that way, and finished the rest after final comments from my adviser. I deposited six days before leaving for France. I think I would probably still be “working” on those revisions if I hadn’t found a job.

Can make it all for the same as usual to keep this part here.

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