How to Start a Dissertation: New Answers to Old Problems

This article doesn’t give technical guidelines for starting your dissertation. You will not find an explanation of how to complete your research methodology selection or your dissertation structure because your college or university will have the technical aspects covered in their approved guidelines. Instead, this article offers tips, solutions and advice to help you get your dissertation off to a flying start.

Create a skeleton plan before you start

Your plan is your most important thesis-writing tool, but your first plan needs to be a skeleton plan. It should only feature a basic dissertation structure, and possible areas of research. As your project progresses and your research intensifies, you may then add meat to the bones of your plan.

Consider your research methodology

Your research methodology is another thing you should start right away, but be wary of starting and finishing it before you actually start writing your dissertation. It sounds counter-intuitive because how can you complete your research correctly if you haven’t decided upon your research methodology? However, many students complete their methodology and soon discover that it doesn’t fit with their project and have to go back and re-examine their methodology.

Do preliminary research

Doing preliminary research is a matter of common sense. The students who jump right into writing might think they have the right idea, but their work is often useless and has to be heavily edited or removed from their dissertation. Spend your time writing short notes as you do your research to get a feel for the topic you are writing about.

Complete your research methodology section

After you have completed your dissertation plan, your time plan, your preliminary research, and you are looking to start turning some notes into actual dissertation content, then you should complete and finalize your research methodology section.

Justify your research methodology

How you justify it is up to you, but the fact you have tried your methodology before finalizing it on your paper may help inspire you as to justification reasons and possible evidence. Maybe you can find other studies that did their research the same way you did when you conducted your preliminary research.

Seek lots of advice about practical exercises

Practical exercises, especially for research gathering and data collecting, are one of the few elements that determine if your dissertation passes or fails. It is imperative that you seek advice from your professor, other experts, and other literature that details tests/data/practical gathering/collecting similar to what you are doing. This is one of the few times when you are justified in running back and forth to your professor if you are not 100% sure your practical exercise will be faultless.

Create a time plan

Planning your dissertation and planning your time are two very different things. You have to pretend you are a staff member in a business and you are setting your work hours.

Set contingency plans very early

Time planning is important—especially near the beginning of your project—but what is more important is your contingency plan. Your productive time will be interrupted, changed or taken from you, so set contingencies. For example, can you substitute time with friends if your working hours were soaked up unexpectedly this week?

Do not tell your friends and family you are working on a dissertation

Graduates will advise that you never tell your family or friends that you are writing a dissertation. They will not be interested, they will try to put you off, they will try to pull your idea down, or they will pretend to be interested with dumb questions that annoy you.

Do not ask your peers about their progress

This is another tip from graduates that have completed their dissertation. There is no benefit to asking other students about their dissertations. Either their progress will make you worried, or you will make them worried.

Set goals and milestones in your time plan and thesis plan

For example, by week X you should have your research methodology justified, and by week X you should have 3000 words completed, and by week X your research should include 30 references.

Not all the research you look over needs to go into your paper

Some students try to crowbar a point in from every source they research, and it is just not feasible. There are many research avenues you will take that will lead to nowhere. If you must, you may add notes about them into your dissertation endnotes, such as, “I thought X would yield answers to X, but it didn’t.

Expect freak-outs at 1,500 words

If your dissertation is around 12,000 words, then your first freak-out will occur fairly soon when you realize there are so many directions you can take and you are not sure which is the right one.

Expect freak-outs at 7,000 words

This freak-out happens when you are over the halfway point and you start to doubt everything you have written. This is especially true if you start uncovering research that invalidates some of your earlier points.

Expect freak-outs at 9,000 words

This freak-out happens when you start running out of points to put into your dissertation and you start worrying that you will have to fluff the rest of your dissertation. Consider seeking out dissertation-writing services at this point.

Your starting work should be set in very simple notes

The notes you make at first should be very short and simple. You may be tempted to write up hundreds of notes on the juiciest research points you have found, but that is supposed to come later during the writing phase. Make simple notes because they are easier to look over later when you need them.

Personally reference rather than writing too many notes

Instead of writing large notes, write smaller reminders and give yourself a source, page number and paragraph number. That way, your notes stay small and easy to skim read, and yet they still lead you back to your juicy research material.

A few tools to help you on your way

Take the time to seek out a few tools that will make the writing process easier. For example, there are plenty of students that have spent hours diligently writing out and formatting the sources on their dissertation, when they could have easily used a tool to do it for them. Here is a short list to get you started:

Google Scholar

It is full of academic work. Most of it is useless, and much of it requires payment, but there are often a few gems in amidst the dirt.

Harvard College Writing Center

You will find numerous links to resources dedicated to helping you become a better thesis writer.

Research Guide

There are plenty of writing guides and academic guides on this website, which will help you avoid some of the most common writing errors.

Have your work checked by experts and let them take the dissertation off your hands if it becomes too much or if your deadline is looming.


Many students try to re-word the content they have researched and end up copying sections verbatim. You can check to see if you have accidentally plagiarized with Copyscape.


As you can tell by the content of this article, many of the biggest lessons come from people that have already completed their dissertations and wish they had known then what they know now. For more advice, talk to other students and graduates that have successfully completed their dissertations for a little extra advice.

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